BMJ chief wants health at heart of Cop26 and for climate threats to shape medical advice

Arm medical profession with competence and confidence to talk about climate's impact, Fiona Godlee says

At the centre of the pavilions area at the Glasgow Cop26 summit is the World Health Organisation stand, filled with graphics and displays showing the intersection between climate and disease.

After about two years of the coronavirus pandemic, it is not a surprise that the WHO is so prominent at the conference but, as Fiona Godlee, editorial director of The British Medical Journal, points out, this is the first formal platform for health at the summit aiming to limit global warming to 1.5°C.

Dr Godlee believes that health is integral to the efforts being made to address the climate threat and that the effects on humans caused by the changing planet should shape doctors' advice to patients from now on.

She heartily concurs when a warning flashes up on a nearby presentation: “The disasters are collaborating better than we are.”

“The pandemic has brought health much more into the conversation as we're suddenly realising how vulnerable we are as a species to one small virus; it's an incredible thing,” she told The National.

“Certainly, there will be others. We were not very prepared and we will have to invest in better public health and better health resilience.”

Climate change and risks to health from new diseases, excessive heat and noxious air are a core part of the challenges facing the medical profession, she said.

How doctors respond is a critical component of the worldwide response to the climate crisis and to changing behaviours that might limit pressures on the planet — something that the Cop26 parties have gathered to address.

“It's not something that a few people do as a sideline. [Climate] is actually a core part of the doctor's responsibility,” she said.

“Climate change is the thing that is the backdrop for what health is going to be in the future.

“We need to arm the medical profession with the competence and the confidence to talk about this issue to their patients, peers and manager colleagues.

“There's a real sense of trying to 'arm up' the medical profession so that we can become a more trusted voice, so that we can be heard. ”

Dr Godlee cites the trend of reducing meat consumption, noting how governments are perhaps slow on the uptake, given the strength of counter views presented by the farming lobby.

She thinks that there is an onus on the medical profession to assume a communication role when it comes to the issue of diet and consumption.

“I think these are equally important messages for health and the environment.”

As parts of the planet are becoming increasingly uninhabitable for humans, Dr Godlee says that these changes must inform policies across governments.

“The conditions in many places are not liveable and certainly not workable,” she said.

“The world is actually getting too hot for people to work outside during the day.

“Humans and the natural world are absolutely interdependent. If a specific statement were to be made at Cop about health care, I think it would centre on the cost-benefit of a sustainable environment.”

Establishing an accurate picture of the health cost that stems from climate change, burning fossil fuels and carbon-intensive diets would expose the folly of the argument that it is too expensive to reverse the toll on the environment.

“The cost-benefits must be much greater because so far, they haven't taken into account the health benefits of a shift,” she said.

Britain's National Health Service is one of the country's biggest employers and has recently undertaken an assessment of its own carbon footprint as managers set a goal of net zero for operations and supply chains by 2045.

As much as 5 per cent of greenhouse gases come from the healthcare industry and those in the profession are keen to reduce their own emissions.

It a process that could result in far-reaching implications for medicine as a whole.

“It's not just a matter of being greener with how we currently work but saying we should be doing less and focusing on prevention, which is about housing and education and green spaces and good diet to reduce the number of people who require health care,” Dr Godlee said.

“Within that, every act of healthcare itself can be more friendly, too.”

Updated: November 5th 2021, 3:15 AM