Does the planet needs us to travel less?
Kiwis are a well-travelled people. The OE and the obligatory mid-winter Fiji or skiing family holiday have become part of our lives. And Kiwi doctors are particularly well-travelled. This is partly by necessity to remain up to date in our knowledge, skills, and practice. We are very distant from almost every major centre of medical innovation, and access to specialised education and training often involves leaving New Zealand.
At the same time, New Zealand doctors love to travel for the sake of travel. Often CME with annual leave is the only way to get a decent holiday. For many doctors, the opportunity to travel is part of what makes medicine an attractive career. And with many of us being immigrants, air travel is a way to reconnect with our families back in distant lands.
But there is a problem with all this travel.
Aeroplane trips are responsible for 2.4% of the world’s CO2 production1. Most people understand that global warming is damaging our environment, our country, and threatening the living world. Climate change is a slowly unfurling public health disaster for humans, a creeping catastrophe for animals and plants, and it is the inexorably gradual nature of the problem that makes it so difficult to tackle.
Many DHBs are CEMARS2 registered meaning they measure and report their carbon footprint. For ADHB during the 2018/19 year, CME air travel contributed around 10,000 tonnes of CO2, or one third of the total carbon foot print which includes energy and heating, land travel, waste and even anaesthetic gases. CME long-haul business class travel was the second largest single contributor, behind natural gas. This fraction of the total is consistent across most DHBs.
The medical colleges of Australasia have made it very clear that we and our professional colleagues understand the science of climate change, and the implications. The profession knows the impacts of a changing climate will be felt first and most strongly by those least able to cope: the poor, the indigenous, and those at the extremes of age. These are our patients, and our families, and eventually they are us.
The ASMS is currently negotiating a new MECA, on our behalf. No doubt we are asking for the usual things: more pay and rations, better conditions, a bit more input into running healthcare, and probably some more CME money.
While these are all valuable in themselves, for ourselves, perhaps we should remember our leadership role in society: leadership with respect to public health issues and the responsibilities of medicine, leadership with respect to science, and leadership in how we behave.
Perhaps the time has come to relook at how the CME part of our contract is constructed. CME related air travel raises some serious questions.
Is it sensible to be asking for more money to spend on air travel, when the planet needs us to travel less?
Is it honest to think that we should all be jetting off to conferences and holidays, when the science is clear: humans need to rapidly draw away from fossil fuel consumption?
Are we leading our communities by taking ever more flights?
Can we encourage virtual attendance at meetings using high fidelity virtual reality suites?
Can we create the wording for a MECA that would enable learning and valuable education, but not encourage profligate use of jet travel?
Should there be financial incentives to achieve a high state of medical knowledge, without unnecessary plane flights?
Could SMO’s live with a carbon budget, as part of a CME budget?
ASMS has a long history of great leaders, and taking leadership in the public health domain. Our hospitals and our population are better for those years of leadership.
It is now time for the ASMS and its members to lead on the greatest challenge of our time.
We could start with how we spend our money.