FAILURE by world leaders to reach a strong treaty to cut greenhouse gas emissions this year could be catastrophic for world health, doctors from six continents have warned.
In a letter published in two leading British journals, the Royal Australasian College of Physicians and 17 sister associations described climate change as the ''biggest global health threat of the 21st century'' and called on doctors to pressure politicians to adopt more aggressive policies.
''There is a real danger that politicians will be indecisive, especially in such turbulent economic times,'' the letter, published in The Lancet and British Medical Journal, said.
''As leaders of physicians across many countries, we call on doctors to demand that their politicians listen to the clear facts … and act now to implement strategies that will benefit the health of communities worldwide.''
Australasian college spokeswoman Robyn McDermott said south-eastern Australia was already feeling health effects linked to climate change. ''In Adelaide last summer, for the second summer in a row, we had a heatwave with two weeks above 35 degrees,'' she said. ''By the second week we started having daily health toll updates on the radio.''
The Victorian Government has estimated that 374 Victorians may have died due to extreme heat in the final week of January this year.
Dr McDermott said doctors had successfully campaigned against nuclear weapons and landmines, and that could be turned to climate change. ''The college is worried that everything is proceeding too slowly. Without being too dramatic, it's about human survival.''
An accompanying Lancet editorial says the health threat is greatest in the poorest countries, which face widespread malnutrition and spread of water-borne diseases.
''The conflict in Darfur is as much about pressure on resources, as the desert encroaches, as about the internal politics of Sudan,'' it says.
The doctors' call coincided with Climate Change Minister Penny Wong heading to the US for talks with other major economies, ahead of the Copenhagen UN climate summit.