Q&A on responding to the challenge of climate change
BMA head of science and public health policy George Roycroft answers commonly asked questions by doctors.
Why does climate change matter to doctors?
Fundamentally, it is a health issue. Action to tackle climate change is about protecting and promoting health and wellbeing.
We know that more frequent and severe extreme weather events – such as floods, droughts, extreme storms and heatwaves – can have adverse physical and mental health impacts.
There is also an increased likelihood of the spread of vector-borne diseases to new locations; worsening nutrition resulting from decreased agricultural productivity and higher global food prices; rising sea levels and associated population displacement; and an exacerbation of poverty.
Doctors therefore have a vested interest in supporting measures to prevent and mitigate climate change to help protect the health of their patients and wider populations.
Is it really an issue in the UK?
Yes, it is core business for the UK.
Some of the worst effects of climate change may occur in other parts of the world, but the impact of flooding in the UK is a clear reminder that we are susceptible.
Not only does this cause harm to those households directly affected by flooding, but it can put a strain on health services, such as the impact on A&E departments when severe weather hits. Higher sea levels with larger storm waves are also putting a strain on the UK’s coastal defences.
If climate change continues unmanaged, the UK would be increasingly at risk of the spread of vector-borne diseases, population displacement and other impacts.
It is also important to recognise that climate change is a global issue that needs a global response – the UK needs to play its part just as much as any other country in reducing greenhouse gas emissions and increasing its sustainability profile.
What role can doctors play?
Action to prevent and mitigate climate change requires a comprehensive policy response at every level and in all sectors. So it is understandable when a doctor cannot immediately see what they can do to help. But there are some clear ways they can take action.
As trusted members of society, doctors can be powerful and effective lobbyists in advocating for continued action international, nationally and regionally. By getting involved with professional associations and bodies or health-based networks, they can make clear health-based arguments for action.
At a local level, they can work to ensure their NHS workplace is as sustainable as possible, and they can directly encourage patients to reduce the carbon footprint.
The latter has a health co-benefit – for example, encouraging a patient to increase their physical activity by cycling or walking will improve their health outcomes and reduce their impact on climate change.
Find more ideas for action
What is the BMA doing on climate change?
Through the UK Health Alliance on Climate Change we are working with other leading health organisations nationally to:
- Lobby the UK Governments to ensure that national energy, health, transport, agriculture and local community policy unlocks health benefits
- Develop communications tools and opportunities for individual UK health professionals to better inform themselves and advocate on behalf of their patients
- Help strengthen the NHS's resilience to, and impact on climate change, and in doing so reduce the financial burden on health services.
We took a lead role in developing the 2009 World Medical Association declaration on health and climate change and have repeatedly called for the United Nations to prioritise health in its negotiations for global action on climate change.
In directly supporting our members, we have developed a guide on climate change which includes details of how doctors can get involved in taking action.
We are always looking at ways to reduce the BMA's own carbon footprint. We have a ‘Sustainability and Health Group’ working across the BMA and BMJ to improve our policies and practices.
This includes zero-to-landfill status with all waste either recycled or recovered; efficient procurement; low-energy motion-sensitive light fittings and 100% renewable energy power supply; and investment in video conferencing and webcam facilities, reducing the need for staff and members to travel.