A thermal power plant is seen Nov. 21 near residential buildings in Beijing. As government delegations from across the globe prepare for a Dec. 2-14 U.N. conference on climate change, Catholic organizations are urging radical steps and pledging to make the church's voice heard. CNS photo/Jason Lee, Reuters

Doctors urged to reverse climate change

  • December 18, 2018

Medical ethics can’t be limited to patient choice, or even the health problems patients face, according to the president of the World Medical Association.

“They (doctors) need to take an active role in defending their patients from the adverse effects of climate change,” Dr. Leonid Eidelman wrote in an article for Fortune magazine Dec. 8. 

Eidelman is urging the medical profession and the health sector worldwide to commit to improving the environment and stopping climate change.

“Reversing climate change could be the greatest health accomplishment of the 21st century,” he said.

That’s a position any Catholic doctor can get behind, said Dr. Tim Lau, president of the Canadian Federation of Catholic Physicians and Societies

“Taking care of trash, water and pollution now is love,” Lau told The Catholic Register in an e-mail. “If not for current weather systems and changes which affect many people now, but clearly for future generations.”

Basic to Catholic social teaching is the idea that human beings are social. The Hippocratic Oath has a clear focus on human beings, but that means the physician has a commitment to humanity as well as responsibility for individual patients, said Lau.

“Proper stewardship of our environment for the sake of people — ourselves and future generations — are noble aspirations which should resonate with Catholics and all people of good will,” he said.

Along with Eidelman, Lau argues that care for the environment lines up with basic principles of the Hippocratic Oath and its modern equivalent, the Declaration of Geneva.

“The Hippocratic Oath, which includes the main tenet to ‘first do no harm,’ strictly prohibited the practice of euthanasia 2,600 years ago, even though patients wanted it. Even though patients want to destroy themselves, it doesn’t mean doctors should go along with it,” Lau said. “If we adopt a similar view of the world — first do no harm, even if people want to harm it — there’s an analogy.”

The Declaration of Geneva was the first project of the World Medical Association, formed in the wake of the Holocaust after the Second World War. The modern Hippocratic Oath was adopted by the WMA just three months before the United Nations proclaimed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. It has been revised several times, most recently in 2017.

Lau and the Canadian Federation of Catholic Physicians and Societies have clashed with the Canadian Medical Association on the ethics of voluntary euthanasia. But the Catholic doctors and the CMA are actually on the same page when it comes to the environment. The CMA dumped its own investments in fossil fuels back in 2015 and directed its wealth management company MD Management Inc. to offer fossil-free investment options to CMA members.

Lau sees a natural connection between the Declaration of Geneva pledge that demands “utmost respect for human life” and respect for the environment.

“Respect for human life in all its forms and focussing on saving the planet for the lives of the people on it to me is consistent,” Lau said.

Nor does a commitment to reverse climate change subtract from a doctor’s primary commitment to the patient, he said.

“It’s not the planet versus humanity. It should be, ‘Save the planet for the sake of humanity,’ ” he said.

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