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Why we have to involve health professionals in the climate debate

This post is by Francesco Tamilia, of policy analyst at Public Policy Projects.

More people are recognising the climate crisis for what it is: a health crisis. This progress is only thanks to the effort of health professionals across the world and the World Health Organization (WHO).

Ahead of COP26 in Glasgow, the international health community mobilised and made clear their position on climate change. Forty six million health workers across the world signed an open letter to world leaders calling for urgent climate action to protect people’s health. More than 200 health journals worldwide have also urged world leaders to take action to keep global temperature increases below 1.5oC and protect health. Because of this  engagement of the global health community, for the first time at a UN COP meeting, health was officially part of the discussions, with the establishment of the ‘COP26 Health Pavilion’.

Medics will have to deal with new climate related challenges
As this crisis continues to unfold across the world, the medical workforce must be better prepared to deal with the multitude of health challenges that climate change will bring. Some regions of the world will be increasingly exposed to deadly infectious diseases. Changes in the climate mean that mosquitoes, and their associated diseases (like malaria, dengue, zika), could spread to and survive at higher latitudes and altitudes. As first responders, health professionals must be able to promptly identify and treat symptoms they might never have encountered before.

Several studies have also shed a light on a growing number of people, particularly young adults, who suffer from climate anxiety. Governments must investigate whether health professionals, in particular psychologists and psychotherapists, have the expertise and the means to deal with something on the scale of the climate crisis. Training and professional development needs to be reimagined to prepare staff for climate-related exacerbation of mental health conditions.

There are growing calls from the global health community for medical schools to include climate change and its corresponding health impacts in the medical curricula. They argue that health professionals should, as part of their studies, undertake modules that explain the various links between climate change and health.

Health systems have been part of the problem
International health systems have also begun recognising how they are part of the problem.  The healthcare sector is responsible for around four to five per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions, predominantly those in developed countries. Driven by the desire to enhance patient care, staff satisfaction and cost savings, the NHS has pledged to become the world’s first net zero health service by 2045. During COP26 in Glasgow, more than 50 countries, including Germany, Spain and the United States, committed to “building climate resilient health systems” and “developing low carbon sustainable health systems”.

Earlier this month, WHO and the NHS announced a formal partnership to support accelerated decarbonisation of the global healthcare systems and support those countries that have made net zero pledges in the healthcare sector. A glimpse of what future net zero health systems would look like was given by the NHS, announcing the UK’s first baby to be born with the aid of climate-friendly gas and air at the Newcastle NHS Trust, and just a few months later, at COP26, the world’s first zero emission ambulance.

Health professionals are trusted in the community
Doctors, nurses and other health professionals have a vital role to play in the wider climate debate as trusted community leaders, commanding respect and influence amongst patients and families. They can better engage people who would otherwise not engage with the media, government campaigns or activists.

Health professionals should build on the positive recognition they rightly received during the Covid-19 pandemic, to help drive the discourse on climate change, by talking to their patients and being involved in climate change discussions at a local level, in the heart of the community.

During the opening ceremony at COP26, world leaders took to the stage to tell us how bad climate change is for our health. But how much more powerful would that be coming from your local GP? This is not meant to add another burden onto the already heavy responsibilities of health workers. However, the benefits of involving everyone in discussions around climate change will overshadow the difficulties and, with the right support from health organisations, it can be done.

It’s essential health professionals are not only treating symptoms but also using their unique position of authority to help create healthier and safer environments for their patients.

Written by

Green Alliance is a charity and independent think tank focused on ambitious leadership and increased political support for environmental solutions in the UK. This blog provides space for commentary and analysis around environmental politics and policy issues as they affect the UK. The views of external contributors do not necessarily represent those of Green Alliance.

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