This blog is written by Canadian journalist Donna Laframboise. Posts appear Monday & Wednesday.
The past three editions of the United Nations’ climate bible have each included a chapter on the effect global warming is expected to have on human health. A new edition (known as Assessment Report 5 or AR5) is currently underway, with the health chapter being led by two people.
Rita Colwell, a prominent American microbiologist, is a newcomer to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) process. Alistair Woodward, on the other hand, is a veteran of all three previous versions of the health chapter. It seems fair to infer, therefore, that he will set the tone.
Woodward is a New Zealand professor who began his professional life as a medical doctor with training in public health. He holds a PhD in epidemiology (the study of disease in populations as a whole) and currently heads the University of Auckland’s School of Population Health.
For the 1995 version of the climate bible, Woodward was a contributing author. For the 2001 edition, he served as a review editor. By the 2007 edition he’d become a lead author.
Although the climate bible is supposed to provide the world with a dispassionate account of what the scientific literature contains, its authors often seem to be activists first and scholars second.
Woodward is a prime example. His online academic bio page lists ten 2009 publications of which he is the author or co-author. Fully half of these deal with climate change, and the three published in The New Zealand Medical Journal are especially revealing.
The first, about carbon pricing, appeared in February 2009. Its final three paragraphs amount to a political rallying cry. Health professionals, it says, should advocate “action on climate change.” They should share their views with a committee examining New Zealand’s proposed emissions trading scheme. And they should “join in action with other health professionals globally in preparation for the next United Nations climate change conference in Copenhagen.” (Regarding this last point, readers are advised to contact the authors for further information.)
Eight months later Woodward’s name was second on a paper written by 26 individuals – most of whom work in the field of public health (aka the activist wing of the medical establishment). That paper says New Zealand “should at least halve its greenhouse gas emissions by 2020” and warns that this target “may be too lenient” since “reducing the risk of catastrophic climate change may require deeper cuts” [bold added].
Here it’s worth mentioning the views of a prominent UK climate scientist published by the BBC back in 2006. As director of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, Mike Hulme had become concerned about the way activists were framing these issues. In his words:
The language of catastrophe is not the language of science…To state that climate change will be “catastrophic” hides a cascade of value-laden assumptions which do not emerge from empirical or theoretical science.
Hulme says the tendency to resort to “the language of fear, terror and disaster” has “been seen in other areas of public health risk.” He says such language is inaccurate, counter-productive, and “a political and rhetorical device.”
When people talk about catastrophic climate change they’ve abandoned the firm ground of science and have stepped into the quicksand of politics. Yet Woodward’s paper contains no shortage of this kind of language. It talks about “runaway climate collapse,” “tipping points,” and “potentially unstoppable” climate change. It says there is a need for “concerted action…before it is too late” and that the situation is “extremely urgent.” It cites four Greenpeace reports and two World Wildlife Fund documents.
Doctors are told they must “mobilise society” and that they “cannot be inactive observers” because they have a “responsibility to lead.” Inaction, they are advised, would amount to “negligence and malpractice on a global scale.” This is followed by a list of 13 things they should do – sorted into three categories.
The majority of these suggestions (seven) fall into the political category, two more are in the personal category, while another four are categorized as professional. The evidence could not be clearer. This is not a paper about medicine. By the authors’ own admission, nine of their 13 suggested measures are unrelated to doctors’ professional lives.
(One of those suggestions is that they “educate and encourage” their patients “in climate change action.” The day my doctor starts talking about climate change is the day I find myself a professional who understands that the purpose of a medical consultation is to discuss my issues – not theirs.)
So what does the third article authored by Woodward (and eight others) say? Its overtly political tenor is revealed by its title: “Climate science, denial and the Declaration of Delhi.” As “a profession and as global citizens, we need to move beyond dissent and denial,” it declares [italics added].
In the world inhabited by these authors there is “true” or “appropriate” skepticism – and then there is “counterproductive ‘denialism'”. In their world, there is “legitimate argument” – and then there are ideas that are “dangerous.”
During 2009, therefore, The New Zealand Medical Journal published three papers by Alistair Woodward. Each of these demonstrates a propensity for full-blown climate change activism. This is a man who derides dissent and who thinks doctors should be discussing politics with their patients. Nevertheless, in June of this year, the IPCC put him in charge of its health chapter.
If the IPCC had sincerely looked for an above-the-fray individual to oversee an impartial literature review, would it really have chosen someone like Woodward? This organization says it provides “rigorous and balanced scientific information to decision makers.” But when it makes selections such as this one, everyone can see it isn’t serious.