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'We need to take action on climate change'

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On 1 May, MPs approved a motion to declare an environment and climate change emergency, which follows in the footsteps of the Scottish and Welsh governments who had already declared their own climate emergencies.

This declaration was heavily prompted by Extinction Rebellion’s (XR) “campaign of peaceful mass civil disobedience”, which took place over a week at the end of April and saw over 1,100 people take to the streets of London. The group have been backed by high-profile academics, scientists and politicians.

I have recently joined a collective of nurses: Nurses for XR. We aim to support the three demands of XR, which are that: “The government must tell the truth by declaring a climate and ecological emergency, working with other institutions to communicate the urgency for change”; “The government must act now to halt biodiversity loss and reduce greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2025”; and that “The government must create and be led by the decisions of a citizen’s assembly on climate and ecological justice.”

Climate change is the biggest threat facing humanity. Evidence suggests that the 250,000 deaths per year directly related to climate change are a ‘conservative estimate’. 

As ozone pollution increases and we experience more extreme weather events, this will lead to direct mortalities. However, scientists predict the main effect will be through the exacerbation of long-term conditions.

Overall, air pollution has been linked to an estimated 40,000 premature deaths in the UK alone, and the World Health Organization states it is known to be a significant risk factor for childhood asthma.

There have also been increased incidences across the globe of healthcare facilities treating those with heatstroke, skin cancer, malaria and Lyme disease, all diseases associated with climate change.

“We have a direct and significant impact on the climate crisis”

But we are not without guilt in healthcare; we have a direct and significant impact on the climate crisis. The Royal College of Physicians highlight that NHS-related traffic equates to travelling around the world 1000 times a day.

Whereas sterile procedural items were once autoclaved, we now use thousands of single-use disposable plastic items a day, with many clinical environments not even providing recycling facilities.

The climate crisis will affect the most vulnerable in society. I believe, as nurses, it is our duty to act in their best interests. We are consistently voted as the most-trusted profession. I believe we should be at the vanguard, leading as agents of social change. 

In her keynote speech at the Royal College of Nursing’s (RCN) annual congress last week, RCN president Professor Anne-Marie Rafferty stated that she, “Can see nursing staff defining the care challenge and designing the solutions to enable, empower and influence others. We can make change happen and we can make change stick”.

RCN chief executive and general secretary, Dame Donna Kinnair’s similarly rousing speech added, “Wherever in the UK they are watching us this week, politicians will be in no doubt at the strong voice of nursing in the UK. It is not for nothing that we are the most trusted profession. Those at the bottom of that list can’t speak down to us”, “the College is changing and we are rediscovering our voice. That voice is the member voice – leading the campaigns and lobbying. There is a genuine commitment to change. It has never been more important to stand together.”

Both these inspirational women, nurses and leaders reaffirmed to me that we can be the ones who can make a difference. We can lead the transformative change we so require in order to address the climate crisis if we stand together.

At congress, an emergency motion on the climate emergency and achieving a low-carbon economy in healthcare was brought forward as a matter of discussion by Gwen Vardigans from the RCN North Yorkshire.

I was first to speak at the lectern after Ms Vardigans and raised the point that while I was grateful that congress has agreed to discuss this item, I was disappointed it was a matter for discussion, as the time for discussion was over. It is time for action.

My fellow Nurses for XR and I had wanted this to be a resolution to be voted on so that the college had to take direct action going forward. I referenced the inspiring speeches we had heard from Professor Rafferty and Dame Donna and asked that the college acknowledge the climate emergency declared by the government.

I encouraged them to work with all healthcare providers to improve their sustainability. In closing, I reminded congress that all week we had been asking to #FundOurFuture but that without addressing climate change, there would be no future to fund.

We heard many impassioned pleas from the lectern. Alice Duncan, RCN Students’ Committee member for Wales said she was, “Fed up of hearing about climate change” and called on congress to, “Do something about it”. She reminded us that she was here for, “The children begging for our protection and help” and played the room a moving video of her two young children who said, “I’ve planted these plants to help the world, but if you don’t help, I don’t think I’ll grow up to be a nurse.”

Amy Fancourt, the student member of the RCN Council, added, “This is an emergency. People are already dying every day because of the direct impact of climate change.” She acknowledged that while she understood the fatigue people may have on the subject that the RCN with its size and influence had, “a moral obligation to lobby, educate to work with the government and healthcare providers to find solutions”.

Harriet Dean-Orange, a nurse from the RCN Perioperative Forum, highlighted that we have a large variety of specialist nurses but questioned where the “sustainability nurses” were; nurses who wished, “to provide care but care for the planet at the same time”. She asked, “Where is our care for future generations? Why is there a disparity between caring today and caring for the future?” She closed by saying that she had been forced to look to XR to help her look after the planet but now looked to the college to help her.

In a statement read out for student nurse Tommy Tierney Cassells, congress was reminded that, “We do not inherit the Earth from our ancestors; we borrow it from our children” and asked that as evidence-based practitioners we pay heed to the evidence on climate change set down before us.

“We will need to live with the direct impact of the climate emergency both personally and as a profession”

Sam Turner, North West RCN Students’ Committee member stated, “The Earth is on fire” quoting Bill Nighy. He added, “We are adrift, with no real leadership both nationally and internationally” and that, “Ignoring climate change brought us to this cliff edge with a failing safety harness.”

I was so proud that much of the debate was led by the student’ voice of the RCN, as it is our future we are fighting for. We will need to live with the direct impact of the climate emergency both personally and as a profession.

I am incredibly grateful to congress that through a point of order I raised, the matter for discussion was successfully changed by vote to a resolution with the wording: “That this meeting of congress calls on RCN Council to acknowledge the climate emergency declared by the UK government and lobby healthcare providers to develop policies and strategies that are environmentally sustainable.”

The resolution was successfully passed. Now starts a period where we will need to hold Council to account to implement the decision that was voted through.

In the meantime, you can get involved by getting in touch with your local NHS trusts or health boards and asking them to acknowledge the climate emergency and work towards improving sustainability.

There are also ways you can be more sustainable in your own lives and I would actively encourage you to do so; because we do need to take action and we need to take it now before it’s too late.

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