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“I have learnt about the ‘catastrophic risks’ Climate Change has to our health”

Posted on: 28 July 2022

Climate Change is the defining issue of our time, which is why Aberfeldy Practice GP and Co-founder of the Climate Emergency Group, Emma Radcliffe has shared a personal and inspiring message about why she is passionate about the NHS and campaigning for Climate Change. You can read her perspective on this issue by clicking the link below.

As we’ve just experienced frightening and record-breaking temperatures, never has the need to take action on the climate emergency felt more relevant or urgent. Tower Hamlets is in the top five UK boroughs which are most at risk from severe heat. These are among the many facts that both disturb me and drive me to action.

Tower Hamlets GPs rallied to protest during COP26

Having been concerned about global warming for many years, it hadn’t really crossed my mind that it was my professional duty to act. I have now learnt about the ‘catastrophic risks’ to health which have been highlighted by numerous scientists and medical journals and now I feel it is my duty as a doctor to raise awareness about this. As the NHS accounts for 4% of the UK’s carbon footprint, we are also part of the problem and so need to be part of the solution The NHS became the world’s first health service to produce a ‘net zero plan’ in 2020 setting out some ambitious targets.

One of the most amazing things about working on environmental sustainability in healthcare is that it links in with so many other aspects of good health care. We need to prescribe less as this is where General Practice’s largest carbon footprint is. We need to promote exercise and active transport (walking, cycling). We need healthier diets (more plant based and less meat and dairy). We need more green spaces (which are good for both physical and mental health). ‘It’s good for the planet and good for you’ is one of my mantras.

Vulnerable and marginalised communities are most at risk from climate emergency. These communities are also less responsible for contributing to it and least able to take action. As reducing health inequities is a priority for all of us, working on the climate emergency is synergistic with this agenda.

In the last couple of years, I have had the pleasure of working informally with Tower Hamlets GP Care Group who declared a ‘Climate Emergency’. We have produced short videos, highlighted key resources, shared information, made ‘climate pledges’, promoted reusable face masks, championed clean air day events, put on protected learning time events and produced a weekly ‘fact and tip’ for their internal newsletters.

In recent months I have become one of the Primary Care Net Zero Leads for NHS North East London and Clinical Lead for the London Sustainability Network. It is reassuring that these formal roles and opportunities are appearing as acting on the climate emergency becomes core business for the NHS. 

However, this is a team effort and the only way we are going to get the NHS to net zero is if every single person within the NHS is acting and making environmentally responsible decisions every single day. Tower Hamlets is an inspirational place to work and there are many, many professionals who are taking action. These actions are both large and small. These ‘heroes’ choose to mention the climate emergency at most meetings they go to, they are turning off their computers and their lights, they are promoting cycling, they may have a ‘Meat Free Monday’, they are choosing to buy recycled paper, they are printing less, and they are prescribing inhalers that have a smaller carbon footprint. Some have even turned a dead-end road outside a health centre into a green space for a day!

I have made several personal changes over recent years, but I am far from perfect. I have become vegetarian, but I am still eating dairy products. I cycle to work but I still use a car. I haven’t flown for three years but have taken plenty of flights in my life. To be taking climate action, you don’t need to be doing everything, what is important is that everyone is doing something. 

‘If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together’ is a quote often used in climate activism and doing things together is what we excel at in Tower Hamlets.