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Doctors For The Environment

Gary JohnsJune 17, 2024

Irksome is how to describe Doctors for the Environment Australia best. Hundreds of their members recently signed a full-page advertisement in the press, which announced that ‘coal, oil and gas are hazardous to our health and well being ... we must put the health of people ahead of the interests of the fossil fuel industry.’ And the killer line, ‘We, the undersigned health professionals, call on our government to ban all new coal, oil and gas projects.’

I noticed that the doctor’s website is powered by do gooder ‘software to lobby policymakers and build progressive movements’. Doctors subscribe to the code of first, do no harm. Banning coal, gas, and oil would harm their patients by denying them medicines and medical devices that relieve suffering. In the absence of an enormous infrastructure to firm renewables, intermittent electricity is the likely scenario under the doctor’s prescription, which is unsuitable for running hospitals.

If climate change is such an acute medical issue, how about the medical research grants to fund medical science, supported by the taxation of coal, oil and gas, switch to industrial science, say the production of ammonia, to produce the same level of medical care with fewer emissions? I bet our green medical researchers are not so keen on that proposition. And yet, that is an answer to their claim that climate change is a medical problem.

Without ammonia, there would be no inorganic fertilisers, and nearly half the world would go hungry. Ammonia also helps make pharmaceuticals. The production of ammonia has a large carbon footprint because it is energy intensive. Industrial ammonia production emits more CO2 than any other chemical-making reaction. How about monies devoted to medicine be applied to industrial chemistry to make less CO2 ammonia?

Should they appeal to renewables as energy sources for medical products, they should know that wind turbines and solar panels can only be built on a large scale with fossil fuels, whether in mining or industrial production phases. Perhaps they are lobbying for nuclear energy, but I cannot find evidence that they are doing so.

For example, they should know that steel is an essential product when building hospitals. Energy is consumed indirectly for the mining, preparation, and transportation of raw materials for steel. Energy comes from burning coal in either a blast furnace or an electric arc furnace. About 89 per cent of blast furnace energy input comes from coal, seven per cent from electricity (much of which is coal), and three per cent from natural gas. In the case of the arc furnace, the energy input from coal accounts for 11 per cent, from electricity 50 per cent, and natural gas 38 per cent.

Much of the medical equipment used today is made from oil. Oil products are widely used in health care as transport fuel and feedstock for pharmaceuticals, plastics, and medical supplies. Heart valves and artificial limbs are made from petroleum, as are many of the cleaning and safety products medical personnel use. Aspirins and other pharmaceuticals also contain petroleum. Few substitutes are available. Nearly 99 per cent of pharmaceutical feedstocks and reagents are derived from petrochemicals.

The Minerals Council of Australia has produced a compendium of mining-derived materials. They are somewhat coy about the energy source required to mine, transport, and use in the industrial processes to turn raw minerals into sophisticated products that doctors use daily to save lives, extend them, or provide healthier living. Still, coal, oil and gas are essential.

Viable energy substitutes for present industrial processes must be found before they are banned. The consequences for medicine are enormous. Each of these products has very high melting points—they need a great deal of industrial-intensity energy to create. Boron is used in eye drops, cobalt is used in medical tracers, lithium is used in mental health and pacemakers, niobium is used in MRI scanners, platinum is used in surgical tools and dentistry, tantalum is used in surgical implants, and titanium is used for medical implants. The massive energy required to make titanium should be compulsory viewing for our irksome virtue-signalling doctors.

How about waiting until a sure means of creating these vital energy-intensive products is found before banning the very source of their creation—hydrocarbons? Rather than cutting off the source of much that is good and very powerful in saving lives, our green doctors might like to step back and consider the harm in what they wish for.

Gary Johns is chair of Close the Gap Research

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