Climate change – the doctor asks the specialist

Rebecca – the doctor

I would hesitate to say that climate change is the new kid on the block, because it isn’t. Our troubles have been brewing since we started burning fossil fuels in the Industrial Revolution, back in the eighteenth century, although it’s fair to say that we probably didn’t know what we were doing until more recently.

But climate change affects us all. It isn’t the provenance of the young, or the environmentally aware, it matters to all of us, and those that will come after us. The problem is that for many of us, we don’t quite know what’s best, and we are living rapidly moving, technologically dependent lives that we can’t easily change. It probably is good to recycle, but it’s not going to save the planet.

I’m a doctor, and I know that many doctors and healthcare workers are passionate supporters of preventing climate change – the problem is that many of us are not best informed how best to do it. I think there is enormous pressure to be seen to do something, to have champions and sustainability endeavours, but how much difference will this make? As a doctor, I need to ensure the best medical care for my patients – hopefully that will also be the most sustainable care, because there might be some dissonance if not.

As a psychiatrist, I know there is a lot of anxiety about climate change, perhaps especially amongst the young. But there has always been anxiety about the state of life – nuclear weapons caused huge worry to many, and I shudder to think what it must have been like in more uncertain times in the past, when existence was dominated by the probability of an early death for many.  Is this normal, and should we pathologize it? On the other hand, maybe it is anxiety that drives us to actually change things?

Maybe as humans we are born to be passionate. I think for many people there is a great desire, even need, to be passionate about a worthy cause. Climate change may well be that, but if we were less aware of its increasing threat, then perhaps we would find another.

I am mostly asking questions here, because I don’t know the answers. And perhaps one of my most pressing questions is whether this is an emergency. It has happened insidiously, so can we turn that tide back, or is this really a situation where large and rapid changes are required to prevent disaster? These are questions that I have been asking for a while, largely of my husband, who happens to be a senior adviser in climate change. I have lived with this – and him – for nearly three decades, and I have asked him again, if he can give me, or anyone else, some answers.


Richard – the climate change expert

Having worked on climate change for about the same length of time as living with a doctor, I have come to appreciate several parallels between medical and climate worlds.

Let me start with the question of passion. There are people working on different aspects of climate change, from the science of climate processes, through to green technologies and environmental finance. Many of the specialists would admit to being passionate about their work and the goal of averting environmental catastrophe, however, I suspect like those in the medical professions, they would also note that passion is not enough; both the patient, the climate solution requires qualities such as diligence, professionalism, communication and analytical skills.

Climate change, along with other environmental causes, attracts the interest of many non-specialists and interest groups. This, too, is similar in medicine, where a whole range of interest groups have strong views on certain treatments, including whether funding should be allocated to different areas, or whether targets are meaningful and whether they can be met with the available resources.

Medics (along with accountants, bus drivers, teachers, and others) have a legitimate voice at the climate debate, just as environmentalists have on key medical issues. There will always be a question of whether someone’s contribution represents a specific stakeholder view, or an expert input in a technical sense. There are definite areas where climate science and medicine overlap – such as the impact of climate on certain diseases, nutrition and other conditions. In those areas the medics have an important role to play as professionals and experts. But when it comes to campaigning for action or policies on a broad scale, it seems to me that medics are part of the general chorus of society.

An area of potential difference between these two fields is the extent to which environmental causes can spark adversarial relationships between those who are economically invested in, or financially dependent upon, the fossil fuelled economy that has been built-up over 200 years, and those who are threatened by its emissions. In general, the interests of the patient are not so much in conflict or at odds with those of society at large or particular interest groups.

However, medics will be familiar with the idea that medicine can have serious side effects, or that advice on changing lifestyle is often hard to swallow. They can perhaps appreciate that convincing a population to adopt more healthy consumption habits for personal health reasons is challenging enough, but perhaps even more so to make changes for the benefit of future generations.

Both fields have something to learn from the other beyond campaigning, and I hope that the use of evidence and data that guides medical decisions can translate into climate policy.

One thought on “Climate change – the doctor asks the specialist

  1. Well, I enjoyed this topical diversion! One of the big determinants of my mood from day to day, is climate change. (Along with other wrongs like anything the Tories/Johnson are doing). Bipolar allows one to rant about it all!

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