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Health warnings can ignite climate action, say experts

Speakers including Professor Sir Chris Whitty addressed healthcare professionals following COP27 

Focusing on the grave risks to health could cause a tipping point in public and political momentum about climate change, experts have said. 

Speaking at the Royal Society of Medicine (RSM), at a conference organised with the Faculty of Public Health (FPH), top doctors, academics, and public-health experts united in urging for health to be placed at the centre of the conversation around climate change, following the COP27 summit in Egypt last month. 

Dr Diarmid Campbell-Lendrum, Unit Head at the World Health Organisation, told the ‘Climate and Health – post COP27’ conference on 16 December 2022 that healthcare is about 10 per cent of the global economy and accounts for about four-to-five per cent of global emissions. He said the sector had “neglected its role so far as an important player in the climate mitigation debate.” 

A unifying force

As well as finding ways to reduce the healthcare sector’s contribution to the problem, speakers were keen to highlight health’s potential as a unifying force. “Health is an important lever,” said Nicky Philpott, Head of Sustainability and Net Zero at South West Greener NHS. She continued: “We know it cuts across socioeconomic divides, it cuts across political opinion. Generally, if you use health in the right way in a climate-change conversation, it doesn’t make people shut down, it makes people open up.” 

Dr Campbell-Lendrum agreed: “When you see health professionals speaking up on climate change, that should certainly be trusted by the general public … we know that what politicians say about the issue is not trusted.” He referenced research that identifies doctors as the most trusted professionals globally. 

“We have the public’s backing,” concluded Dr Anya Gopfert, Public Health Registrar at South West Deanery. 

The scale of the challenge

The health impacts of climate change are well established but they were laid bare during the conference. 

Participants heard about the health impacts of increased heat exposure, melting permafrost, air pollution, flood and drought, as well as secondary health impacts caused by issues such as loss of crops and habitats.  

Dr Malik Amin Aslam, former advisor to the Prime Minister of Pakistan on climate change, updated participants on the situation in Pakistan, where devastating floods have left a third of the country underwater. He said: “We have huge health impacts because of these floods. There have been water-borne diseases which have come up in the area where the floods are.  

“The only way to fight or survive this climate crisis is to rebalance our relationship with nature. 

“In Pakistan, the knowledge and understanding of climate change has exponentially risen.” 

Cleaner air

Air pollution was another key theme for the day and participants heard from Professor Sir Chris Whitty, Chief Medical Officer for England. He said that officials are increasingly turning their attention to indoor air quality. He said: “As outdoor air pollution has decreased over time, it has become increasingly important that we think about the relative importance of indoor air pollution, remembering most people in the UK will spend more than 80 per cent of their day indoors. So, even if it is a relatively low amount, it’s got a long period of exposure.” 

It is an issue, Professor Whitty said, that creates some tension between the aims of carbon reduction and improving air quality. One of the best defences against indoor air pollution is better ventilation but it is difficult to do this without increased heat loss (and therefore an increased need for energy-hungry heat generation). Difficult but not insurmountable, he added: “We should acknowledge that and find a way to resolve it through technical processes.” 

Air pollution is another example of a catalyst for political action on climate change, said Dr Campbell-Lendrum. He said: “That would be our assessment of what has happened with China moving on towards clean energy over the last decade or so. It’s not so much for climate reasons but because of social unrest because of the very high levels of air pollution they were suffering.” 

‘Greatest threat’

Professor Kevin Fenton, FPH President, summed up the mood of the day when he described climate change as the “greatest threat to human health”.  

This was developed further by his predecessor, and co-host on the day, Professor Maggie Rae, RSM Council Trustee and President of the RSM Epidemiology and Public Health Section. Professor Rae said: “We had Covid and that continues to be devastating. Now, we’re dealing with recession, not just in this country but worldwide, and this horrendous cost-of-living crisis – another tsunami. But the biggest one of all, the biggest threat to human health and planetary health, is climate change.” 

Everybody was keen to turn talk into action. Dr Andy Haines, Professor of Environmental Change and Public Health at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, said: “The real challenge now is to act on the knowledge we have. Of course, there are uncertainties and imperfections in that knowledge – there always will be – but we know a lot about what to do and the imperative of action.” 

That action must be targeted, others insisted, so that it protects the most vulnerable, who are often the least responsible. Public Health Registrar, Dr Abi Deivanyagam, said: “It’s time for us to unite in international solidarity with those who are most affected by this, both across the borders but also within the UK. We must do that grounded in climate justice.” 

Importance of hope

Amid a seemingly endless sea of terrifying statistics and missed opportunities, it is important to remain hopeful and to all play our part, participants were told. Dr Advaith Gummaraju, Council Member of the RSM Epidemiology and Public Health Section covered what, practically, clinicians can do about climate change. This includes things like improving access to clean air and green spaces, promoting a healthy and sustainable diet, championing active transport, saving costs through focusing on prevention and improving healthcare processes through sustainable practice. He said: “We can do something about it and we’re not powerless in this.” 

Nicky Philpott said: “When I think of hope, I think of the incredible colleagues I have in the South West. The clinicians who are self organising to use less nitrous oxide in their gastro department in Taunton, the GP who’s cycling around Fowey because the traffic is so bad and he can’t get to his patients; it’s good for his health, it’s good for the patients’ health and it’s good for the planet. Those are the things that we must hold onto.” 

Dr Nicola Stingelin, Council Member of the RSM Epidemiology and Public Health Section, said: “We need to build an alliance of the brilliant. With the RSM, we can build a really good alliance of people who’ve got power. We can use it positively and with creativity to move the agenda forward.” 

The RSM is a member of the UK Health Alliance on Climate Change, which brings together Britain’s leading health institutions, representing over 900,000 health professionals, to advocate for responses to climate change that protect and promote health. 

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