Nordic Congress of General Practice 2017 Reykjavik
Workshop on Doctors as Social Activists – 16 June 2017
Climate Change : the biggest Issue
(My presentation, the fourth of five on different subjects by our team )
Ladies and gentlemen, colleagues. As the only member of this team whose native language is English (laughter at the expense of the three Scots – one of whom, Chris, was actually born in England…) I would like to start by saying what a wonderful privilege it is, and how humbling, that this conference of Nordic General Practitioners is entirely conducted in the most beautiful English; better English, indeed, than many of us speak at home. Thank you!
My role in this workshop is to argue that doctors, and GPs in particular, have a responsibility to speak out about the greatest threat to health that humanity has ever faced – Climate Change
I start by saying that am not a climate scientist and I have no special expertise in the field. For my whole career I was a full time National Health Service GP who thought he had the best job in the world. Towards the end of my career I became reasonably well known in the world of general practice through writing a couple of books and numerous articles in medical journals. I did not mention climate change in either of my books and in only one of more than a hundred journal articles.
Since retirement I have obtained a bachelor degree in Humanities with Literature from the Open University. I sing, and I act in amateur theatricals. Most importantly for this talk, perhaps, I am a grandfather.
My practice was in a town of 16,000 inhabitants in the South of England, and I and my wife of 51 years, who was a biology teacher, continue to live there in our retirement. That is important for what I am going to say – because although I have been retired 15 years, many people here still regard me as a doctor, and many of them were my patients.
Ladies and gentlemen, colleagues, I hope I don’t need to tell you that
Global temperature records keep being broken – 2014 beat 2013, 2015 beat 2014, 2016 beat 2015
When you look at the graphs, you do not need to be an expert to see that something is happening.
In March 2015 the world was shocked by the news that global carbon dioxide levels had passed a significant milestone of 400 parts per million. In April this year they passed 410 parts per million.
Every official agency of mainstream climate science in the world is telling us how urgent the problem is, yet still people deny the need for action.
The first warning that something terrible really was happening in America under the Trump administration, was at the end of April when the Environmental Protection Agency was forced to remove climate change information from its website.
At the same time, a right-wing organisation in America called the Heartland Institute was distributing literature to 20,000 teachers urging them to tell children that scientists disagree about global warming:
The Climate Communique issued prior to the 2015 Paris Climate Conference by the British Royal Society and 24 scientific bodies, including the British Academy of Medical Sciences, stated
The truth is that the same organisations, including the Heartland Institute, and often the same individuals, have a long record of manufacturing doubt on:
The truth is that almost 40 years ago, oil giant Exxon spent £1 million equipping one of its redundant tankers to do climate research, producing forecasts which have turned out to have been very accurate, and which indicated the urgent need to act to reduce carbon emissions. Exxon subsequently spent far larger sums funding climate change denial and undermining any such action.
Another recent revelation is that the oil company, Shell, produced an educational film in 1991 which shows they had a clear grasp of global warming 26 years ago. It too has failed to act accordingly.
Question – What a GP do?
Answer – Use our special position
I have long argued that general practice occupies a unique position in our society. With one foot in Humanity, one foot in Science and enjoying almost unequalled popular Trust we have the opportunity to use this extraordinary authority to set an example.
I am going to use the rest of my time to tell you what I have tried to do myself:
I have told you that of my numerous journal articles I only ever wrote one on this subject. It was this one –
in the Summer 2005 edition of what was then the Royal College of GPs Members’ Magazine The New Generalist. My article began
‘Haven’t they got grandchildren too?’
By ‘they’ I meant climate change deniers. And I went on to say exactly what I am saying to you today:
‘If we showed our patients and our communities that we are serious about this, we could make a crucial difference. We are scientists, and we are highly trained in recognising reliable knowledge. And part of the reliable knowledge in this case is that we still have time to save the worst scenario.’
As a direct result of somebody reading that article, I was asked to give the opening keynote address, no less, at the following year’s:
I told the assembled travel experts that to deliberately undermine action to mitigate global warming, knowing the implications of what you were doing, was a crime for which we have no name, (unless there is one in Icelandic) because it is a crime unprecedented in human history.
By a strange chance my youngest grandchild was born that morning in Oxford. So my involvement in challenging climate change denial more or less corresponds with his lifetime. My train home passed through Oxford so I ended my journey there to go and meet him. And take a photograph:
Seven years later
things were no better. Climate change denial was, if anything, even more entrenched, amongst both public and politicians.
Frustrated by the lack of progress I hired a hall in our home town and invited members of the public to hear me repeat, word for word, ‘Once more with feeling‘ the talk I had given in Edinburgh seven years earlier. A large number of people came that cold, wet January evening and expressed their support.
My wife and I continued to try to do our bit, with our wonderful little electric VW e-up! solar panels on our roof, and with shares in a solar farm.
In September 2014 three generations of our family took part in that year’s London Climate March. This is me marching with a granddaughter
(The beard you can see is because I was preparing to play a part in a small local production of Henrik Ibsen’s Enemy of the People. This is strangely apt to mention here because, as you will know better than me, Ibsen’s play is about a doctor who was a social activist. I didn’t play the doctor, I playing his wicked brother, the Mayor. Boo…)
…and here is her little brother, again, now eight, with us on the same march.
He is carrying one of the placards on which marchers named something that they loved and wanted to preserve. When his mother told him, ‘you can’t say ‘Minecraft” he immediately added ‘and chickens‘. (laughter)
The next year, 2015, was the year of the Paris Climate talks, and my wife and I had the idea that Alton should stage a rally to show popular support for a positive outcome.
We formed an action group and held a preliminary public meeting, addressed by a 105 year old (who is now 109 and the oldest man in England) and a 15 year old school girl. We wrote to mayors of towns called Alton in the USA and Alton’s twin towns in France and Italy to ask for their support. We had a website, Facebook and Twitter accounts. We had a slogan and a logo.
The Alton Climate Rally took place, as planned, two months later, two days before the Paris talks opened. It culminated in an aerial, drone photograph which appeared on local television.
Not 16,000 people – as you can see. I did at first think we would get most of the town. But we did get a good number.
During the rally people made cut-outs of their hands on coloured paper and wrote messages on them. We mounted these on placards and took them up to London the next day – for the great London March – one of hundreds of marches which happened all over the world on that day before the Paris talks opened. We made a splendid show
Next day the talks opened, and the rest is history.
Our grandson had his birthday one week ago…
…so it is almost exactly eleven years since the day I gave that Edinburgh talk and he was born. In spite of all the problems, not least a man called Donald Trump; increasingly we see reasons for optimism. Here are a few:
- China, which has no denialist lobby, is taking a role as global leader on climate
- this May we learned that India added twice as much renewables capacity as Coal Capacity in 2016-17
- this April Britain had its first coal-free day since the Industrial revolution
- All over the world, the public are mobilising to demand action to curtail CO2 emissions.
- And so on… almost every day there is good news if you look for it.
For the first time in history the whole of humanity has a common cause.
I would like to finish by telling you about my cousin, Roger Chisholm.
Ten years younger than me, he is a consultant radiologist and he has been living with Multiple Sclerosis for 40 years. Somehow he managed to keep at work until a few weeks ago, cycling to the hospital because he was unable to drive. And he continued to sail. Last year a wonderful film was made of him sailing heroically off the West Coast of Scotland. Revisiting the Dubhs Ridge And now, even as I prepared for this talk, he has been diagnosed with an inoperable malignant brain tumour. At my request he has sent this message to this conference:
I dedicate this talk to him, and to my grandson Luca. We who are well and active owe them, and we must not fail them.
The Royal College of GPs, the British Medical Association, WONCA Europe and WONCA World, this very Nordic Congress – all are silent on this most urgent problem facing the world.
The denial of climate change is part of the denial of Science and the denial of Rationality itself which disgraces our advanced civilisation and our age.
Doctors have a unique voice.
We must use it.