Doctors must lead by example on climate change by reducing the carbon footprint of medical conferences, says an editorial in this week's BMJ.
The threat to human health from climate change - through malnutrition, disease, and flooding - is substantial, and in some parts of the world, immediate. It is therefore ironic that doctors, for whom protecting is a primary responsibility, contribute to global warming through unnecessary attendances at international conferences, argue Professor Ian Roberts and Dr Fiona Godlee.
For example, delegates attending the American Thoracic Society meeting in San Diego earlier this month generated an estimated 10,779 tonnes of carbon dioxide from air travel. This is equivalent to that produced by 550 US citizens in one year, 11,000 people in India or 110,000 people in Chad.
Fortunately opinions on conferences are changing. The Cochrane Collaboration is an example of an international medical organisation taking action to reduce the carbon footprint of its conferences. Its annual conference in Dublin last year piloted electronic ways of enabling people to "attend" on the internet, and a plenary session used video conferencing to "bring" keynote speakers from Papua New Guinea, Tunisia, and Uganda.
The BMJ is taking similar measures at the International Forum on Quality and Safety in Health Care in Barcelona in April.
The educational benefits of conference attendance must also be considered, but evidence that attending conference lectures improves practice is scant, and other methods are more effective.
But even if conferences were effective, who should decide if the benefits are worth the costs - a doctor from Colorado or a fisherman from Chad, ask the authors?
Air travel is not the biggest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions, but it is one of the fastest growing, they write. Scope exists for ingenuity and experimentation, as well as investment in new technologies to overcome distance.
Climate change is a major threat to global public health and doctors must lead by example, they conclude.