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GPs must talk about climate breakdown

Margaret Jackson, GP, GP Trainer and active Medact member

Lesley Morrison, retired GP, medical educator and active Medact member

It is generally understood within the health community that the climate crisis is a health crisis, and that GPs and other health professionals are central to tackling it. Whether it be extreme weather events, disrupted food systems, altered disease distribution, air pollution, or rising sea levels, people’s health and health systems, especially in the Global South, are already being impacted. And we, as GPs, must talk about it.

…people’s health and health systems, especially in the Global South, are already being impacted. And we, as GPs, must talk about it.

Leading up to the UN Climate Change Conference in Glasgow (COP26) more than 450 organisations representing over 45 million health workers, and more than 3,400 individuals from 102 different countries, wrote an open letter (under the banner #HealthyClimatePrescription) calling on governments: “.. to avert the impending health catastrophe by limiting global warming to 1.5°C, and to make human health and equity central to all climate change mitigation and adaptation actions”.1 At the conference 50 countries committed to climate-resilient and low-carbon health systems.2 UK Minister, Gillian Keegan, spoke of climate change as “a global health emergency” in terms of “the air we breathe, the water we drink and how safe and secure we feel in our communities.”

But COP26 did not achieve commitments sufficient to limit global heating to 1.5oC, a level widely agreed to be vital in avoiding a cascade of disastrous effects. Some progress was made, but, as in previous COPs, ambition was lacking. The #HealthyClimatePrescription specifically called for the cessation of fossil fuel subsidies. This did not happen. OECD figures show that the UK continues to subsidise fossil fuels to the tune of £10 billion annually3.
#HealthyClimatePrescription also supported the Loss and Damage Fund. Global South countries are calling for this to help them achieve necessary mitigation and adaptation measures in recognition of the disproportionate impact that the climate crisis is having on these countries who have contributed least to its causes. But this also was not agreed.
So how can we as individual GPs make any sort of a difference when the world’s governments are not doing nearly enough?

As GP members of Medact, we were observers at COP26 and got a real sense of the monumental task involved in the leaders of 197 countries coming together to reach an agreement. Many of us in primary care are overwhelmed with workload and feel powerless in the face of such vast challenges. But when the people appear passive there is no incentive for politicians to act with the necessary seriousness and urgency. The climate crisis will never be adequately addressed by us all relinquishing our 4x4s, flying less, and eating less meat; though these actions are important and are the most impactful individual changes that we can take. More important is that we talk about this issue- at home, at work, in the pub, through letters to the press and meetings with our MPs- as if it mattered.

Should we be talking about this in consultations too? We think that we should; for example, in discussions about inhalers.

Should we be talking about this in consultations too? We think that we should; for example, in discussions about inhalers.

Doctors and nurses are the most trusted professionals in Britain.4 In this sense we have a voice. The climate crisis is the greatest public health threat that we face; and addressing it offers huge health benefits both globally and to individuals. Governments and large organisations must step up to the plate with the vision and ambition that is needed. Journals and organisations like the RCGP, other Royal Colleges, the BMJ, the Lancet, Medact and The UK Health Alliance on Climate Change have already committed to this work. By talking about and engaging with the climate crisis as a profession we can make a significant contribution.

The COP was trailed as the last chance to prevent catastrophic climate change, and it was, indeed an important landmark. But, rather than an endpoint, it served as a catalyst for action. We all have a part to play. Health professionals have a voice that is listened to, and we must use it. Urgently.

1. https://healthyclimateletter.net/ (accessed 12/2/22)
2. https://www.who.int/news/item/09-11-2021-countries-commit-to-develop-climate-smart-health-care-at-cop26-un-climate-conference (accessed 12/2/22)
3. https://stats.oecd.org/Index.aspx?DataSetCode=FFS_GBR (accessed 12/2/22)
4. https://www.ipsos.com/ipsos-mori/en-uk/ipsos-mori-veracity-index-2020-trust-in-professions (accessed 12/2/22)

Featured image by Li-An Lim on Unsplash

Planetary Primary Care is a regular column on BJGP Life bringing you essential updates for general practice around the climate emergency and sustainable healthcare.

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