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'We have a responsibility to act on climate change'

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The second half of the 20th century brought understanding of the links between human wellbeing and environmental systems.

King's College London

Anne Marie Rafferty

Anne Marie Rafferty

In 1988, the UN formed the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which led to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in 1992. Since then, neither humanity nor the planet have fared well. Of the nine planetary boundaries under which humanity can thrive, we have crossed five – extinction rates, greenhouse gas emissions, change in land use, phosphorous and nitrogen cycles, and ocean acidification – and are pushing the limits of three more. The evidence of adverse impacts is incontrovertible: more frequent and severe natural disasters, instability in food and water supply, the spread of infectious disease, and forced migration are already affecting human health.

Political action has failed to respond to the challenge that the science presents. But the UNFCCC’s governing body now has an opportunity to design a strategy for rapid transition to a low-carbon world. There are reasonable grounds for optimism.

Commitments to reduce carbon emissions from the US and China, Europe and a host of high-income countries form the basis of negotiations. Ten global cities have drawn up plans to tackle climate change. A poll of 200 large companies found that 130 have climate change as a key priority, and the Bank of England’s Mark Carney has warned of the catastrophic economic consequences from climate change. Religious leaders, notably the Pope and the Dalai Lama, have called for action and the divestment movement has pledges from 400 organisations to move $2.6trn from fossil fuels to low-carbon investment.

The UK is bucking these positive trends, reversing many of its policies without offering credible alternatives. However, even here, there are opportunities. Having committed to phase out unabated use of coal, the government should now establish a plan for doing so by 2023. The impacts of coal on cardiovascular and respiratory health is clear, and air pollution in our cities is exhausting the NHS. By phasing out coal, the government will protect the population’s health and reclaim the UK’s lead position in tackling climate change.

Meanwhile, and independently of governments, health professionals around the world are recognising that tackling climate change is essential to promoting public health. The formation of the Climate and Health Council in 2007 and the NHS sustainable development unit in 2008, as well as the BMA’s commitment to divest from fossil fuels in 2014 all demonstrate UK health professionals’ response.

The UK has now taken further action, forming an alliance of doctors, nurses and health professionals to advocate for stronger measures to tackle climate change. The UK alliance has identified four areas for action: improving air quality; increasing active transport; ensuring healthier and more sustainable nutrition; and working to reduce the environmental footprint of healthcare in the UK.

Climate change is happening, and our collective response will determine the fate of our descendants. The trust vested in health professionals gives us the opportunity and the responsibility to act. We hope this new alliance, and other allied groups, will help to place health firmly at the centre of the climate change negotiations.

Anne Marie Rafferty is professor of nursing policy & director of academic outreach at the Florence Nightingale School of Nursing and Midwifery, King’s College London

Nick Watts is director of the UK Health ProfessionalsAlliance to Combat Climate Change

Robin Stott is co-chair of the Climate and Health Council

This is an editorial being jointly published by Nursing Times, The BMA and Nursing Standard.


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