Rajen Nithiseelan Naidoo, Associate Professor in Occupational Medicine/Head of Discipline of Occupational and Environmental Health, School of Nursing and Public Health, University of KwaZulu-Natal. Areas of research interest: occupational and environmental respiratory diseases. This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.


The Lancet has declared that the changing climate and its impact on health is the most serious health threat of the 21st century (1).  When an institution such as The Lancet makes such a declaration, it is incumbent on us as health professionals to take notice. By placing health on the climate change agenda, we, as public health professionals, have the opportunity of focusing the

climate challenge on human impacts as compared to the other broader environmental impact that have dominated the agenda to date. According to the best available science, the impact of climate on the global population is likely to develop to castastrophic proportions over the next 4-5 decades. Addressing risks that our children and their children will face can no longer be left to the politicians or international agencies – the outcomes of COP17 were nowhere near the drastic and urgent solutions that are needed to resolve the crisis. If we are to address global population health, it must become the task of health professionals to provide the lead.

There continues to be a grouping of denialists who question the phenomenon of the changing climate, supported by prominent scientists, and arguing questionable science. The former US National Academy of Sciences president Dr. Frederick Seitz, stated in the 1980s that "Global warming is far more a matter of politics than of climate" (2). In 1998, Seitz endorsed the  “Oregon Petition” (3), a document drafted in opposition to the Kyoto protocol, boasting the signatures of over 9000 scientists with doctoral qualifications! The petition and its accompanying scientific documentation claimed: “The proposed limits on greenhouse gases would harm the environment, hinder the advance of science and technology, and damage the health and welfare of mankind. There is no convincing scientific evidence that human release of carbon dioxide, methane, or other greenhouse gases is causing or will, in the foreseeable future, cause  catastrophic heating of the Earth's atmosphere and disruption of the Earth's climate." (3) It went on to say: We are living in an increasingly lush environment of plants and animals as a result of the carbon dioxide increase. Our children will enjoy an Earth with far more plant and animal life than that with which we now are blessed.” (3)

While the denialists are in retreat, particularly at the substantial scientific burden of proof, they are no less deterred. As recently as last year, the Heartland Institute, a conservative think-tank organisation, supported by industry and the conservative elite in the US has promoted a 2011 publication called “Climate Change Reconsidered” (4). According to this report “natural causes are very likely to be (the) dominant cause of climate change that took place in the twentieth and at the start of the twenty-first centuries”. The authors of the latest report go on to say “the net effect of continued warming and rising carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere is most likely to be beneficial to humans, plants, and wildlife.” (4)

The determination with which these denialists approach their mission, the seemingly rational arguments that they present to the politicians and broader public and the funding that they have access to, to achieve their goals, implies that we cannot be simply dismissive of them.