Care about people’s health? Then start caring about climate change

elliot thumbnailElliot Clissold

Comment Editor


In the era known as the ‘Anthropocene’, people’s health is now decided beyond the hospital walls. That means our responsibility must extend beyond them, too  

‘The fact remains; a life saved in a coronary bypass is no less significant than the life lost in a climate change induced flood’. Photograph: Wikimedia Commons

Being a doctor is hard. There aren’t many careers where as much stress and responsibility is thrust upon those who venture into it than medicine. Neither though, upon reflection, are there many careers that can provide such a deep sense of fulfilment at the good one has done; the people helped, the countless lives made better.

That is what makes it so dangerous.

Returning home from work after a gruelling twelve hour shift, it is understandable to feel that you have done your bit. You have contributed your share of good to the world for the day, and you can feel the same for most of your working days to come. As a result, you are released from the moral duties that possess the rest of the human population. No longer do you need to think about how ethical the life you are living is. You are a doctor, and that is enough.

This is a well-known phenomenon, known as ‘moral licensing’. Your career has given you a psychological ‘hall pass’ to act, or not act, as you wish outside of your working life. In a crude example, this could manifest as the self-perceived freedom to jump the queue at the coffee shop because you just completed a coronary bypass. However, in a more significant sense, it can also manifest as the complete dismissal one’s civil and professional responsibility to protect the public’s health.

Last week, Hurricane Harvey made landfall in Houston, Texas, with its path of destruction stretching over 300 miles and devastating the lives of over 40,000 people in the process. Its damage is expected to cost over $180bn – three times as much as Hurricane Sandy. Meanwhile, as the world focusses on Houston, over 1200 people have died with 1 million homes lost and 40 million people displaced in what are the worst floods to hit South Asia for forty years. These events have come soon after what was the worst drought in living memory in East Africa, leaving over 11 million hungry.

It is no coincidence that these catastrophes have become so frequent and so severe. The International Panel for Climate Change warned us about it. The number of extreme weather events worldwide has increased five-fold since the 1970s and, although we cannot say climate change caused these events any more than we can say a history of smoking in a patient caused lung cancer, we know that climate change made them more likely to happen, and likely made them worse. On current estimates, extreme weather events will kill up to 150,000 people a year in Europe alone by the end of the century. This is before we imagine the untold consequences of its effects on food production, water security and spread of infectious disease. We have entered the ‘Anthropocene’, a geological epoch in which humans are now the dominant influence on the earth’s climate and environment, to disastrous effect

The stumbling block to action on climate change is that it’s boring. Give someone an illegally parked car outside their drive, and the emotions fly. Give someone climate change and they respond with a look that melds a combination of sadness, helplessness and ‘I wonder what’s for tea?’. It struggles to evoke emotion in the same way other issues do and, consequently, our response does not match the magnitude of the problem at hand. Take, for example, 9/11. In the wake of that catastrophe, an intense period of grief was followed by (rightly or wrongly) heartfelt vows to begin the ‘war on terror’. In the wake of Houston, there will be no mention of a ‘war on climate change’. The frightening truth is that, if one were to design the perfect issue to pose an existential threat to humanity, it would be climate change – complex, abstract and gradual. Our short-sighted, impulsive way of thinking that served us so well when we needed to run away from lions is now awfully ill-equipped to deal with problems such as climate change.

This dullness is a double-edged sword. If coverage were proportionate to amount of harm caused, there would not be a day when climate change was not headline news. Even when it is, media outlets tend to confuse balance of opinion with balance of scientific fact, despite 97% of published papers confirming that climate change is happening and that it is human-made. Its lack of newsworthiness creates a vicious cycle in which it begins to lack any political worth. Carbon taxes don’t win votes.

This is where the medical profession comes in. The world is warming, it is caused by us, and it is the greatest challenge that humankind has ever faced. With the sheer scale of the problem, it is hard not to feel helpless. However, it is not only a civil duty, but a professional duty to fight climate change.

Doctors are some of the most hard-working and caring people on the planet, saving and improving lives every single day in some of the most difficult circumstances. There is reason to feel that an element of ‘moral licensing’ is deserved. However, the fact remains that the life saved in a coronary bypass is no less significant than the life lost in a climate change induced flood.

When doctors fought ‘Big Tobacco’ in the 1990s, they saved the lives of millions. The fight against ‘Big Oil’, the fossil fuel companies that continue to do business in full awareness of the harm they cause is more important by orders of magnitude. With the ability to see the data as well as the people at the end of it, to convert science into meaning, to think holistically about problems and not only treat the symptoms but address the cause, doctors are the people this crisis needs. It needs the medical profession to act – to campaign, to lobby, to speak out.  If not us, then who? And how much can we really say we care?

For healthcare students, Healthy Planet UK (www.healthyplanetuk.org/) are a charity dedicated to advocating for action on climate change. For healthcare professionals, Medact (www.medact.org) do fantastic work on climate change and health alongside other related issues.

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