Prof. Lothar Wieler: It is unbelievable, how narrow-minded we are!

The session was built on a key question: What is the scientific consensus on climate change developments and their impact on health? And what responsibility do physicians have?

Climate change and health: what responsibility do physicians have?

The session was built on a key question: What is the scientific consensus on climate change developments and their impact on health? And what responsibility do physicians have? Dr. Eckart von Hirschhausen, was session moderator.

Prof. Dr. Lothar Wieler, President of the Robert Koch Institute, summarized the basic climate change facts and their health effects. The session began with the question: What is the scientific consensus on climate change developments and their impact on health? To this end, Prof. Wieler detailed the current scientific consensus. He gave an overview of environmental stresses that can become health hazards in Germany in very concrete terms.

First, the speaker drew a parallel to the COVID-19 pandemic. He said that in both climate problems and the pandemic, it is astonishing "with what narrow-mindedness people keep looking at other countries" and that people still think "that everything is completely different here in Germany."

These are the facts

The responsibility of the medical profession

"As scientists, we have to be open, solution-oriented, fact-based and communicate transparently," the speaker passionately explained. Here, Prof. Wieler again draws a parallel to the COVID-19 pandemic, which is also one of his main topics of concern at the moment. "We need to take the findings to society - in a sober, factual style. We want to renew the state of the art reporting on climate change and health." He reminded the audience that there is already a mandate from the German Federal Health Ministry to do this. "We need to prepare ourselves and not bury our heads in the sand. Hoping that something will pass, and somehow it would just get better is unbearable” he said. The death toll from the COVID-19 pandemic unfortunately confirmed the repercussions of inaction. Prof. Wieler explained: “we could have reduced gatherings much more earlier, and then we would have saved many lives."

And this problem of action applies also to dealing with what is already happening with climate change. "We have to act and take responsibility on a global scale."

Following Prof. Wieler’s talk, Eckart von Hirschhausen asked about the role of wildlife trade in the COVID-19 pandemic. Prof. Wieler commented: “We don't know exactly how the pandemic came about. The highest probability is that the virus came from a bat. There are interactions that we humans can limit easily”. Arguing further on the anthrozoological dimension of the problem, he added: "Why do you have to go into bat caves without going into quarantine for two weeks afterwards? After all, we know these animals have the highest reservoir of viruses." He pondered further on the issue: “did it come to us from an intermediate host? Then it's clear we can change the way we keep animals and what we consume for animals. Of course we are capable of eating a different diet. COVID is a purely man-made pandemic."

Ethical and political dimensions

Dr. Verina Wild, a physician and medical ethicist, explained the ethical dimensions of the issue. Climate change has an impact on health, which means the medical profession should address the issue and put it on the agenda for education and training. This is directly derived from the fact that the primary concern of physicians is the well-being and health of people.

Prof. Dr. Klaus Reinhardt, president of the German Medical Association (in German: Bundesärztekammer), emphasized the enormous development of medicine in recent decades. And reminded participants of the social aspect of public health, which the medical profession has recently neglected. He argued in favor of physicians playing a role in maintaining the foundations that guarantee health in a population. Personally, he considered that “there is a lot of catching up to do” and shared his personal commitment for tackling this. For example, there are a number of training curricula in environmental medicine but in addition, there should be a module in each subject that deals with the effects of environmental pollution on health.

The DGIM congress president, Prof. Dr. Sebastian Schellong, emphasized the role of the medical profession in bringing about a change for the better: "We have good access to knowledge about what health problems climate change is causing." Physicians can motivate their patients to live healthy lives that also benefit the climate. Building on the congress’ theme "Less is more" - he addressed an inner attitude from practitioners: "in our everyday life we don't waste things anymore, like unnecessary diagnostics. We have a great responsibility there. Less waste means directing limited resources where they are more wisely spent." He concluded with an unusually clear statement tackling politics and policy: "So we ask the politicians we want to elect soon about these issues that are ethically important: Emissions, energy, transportation policy, climate policy. If it's true that physicians have high credibility, then they can get involved politically now."

DGIM Congress 2021; Session "Climate change and health - what responsibility do physicians have?" / Original session title: "Klimawandel und Gesundheit - welche Verantwortung haben Ärztinnen und Ärzte?"

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