Tony Waterston on climate change, Colombia, and the G20

Tony Waterston As the G20 visitors flew in to their meeting on 1 April, paediatricians were gathering in York for a similar reason – to find a way of tackling the health effects of climate change. But we went one better by having a minimal carbon footprint for our meeting, despite hosting 10 countries and 20 organisations. We did it by using video conferencing, with one speaker from the US and three from the UK, and audiences from South America, the US, Canada, South Africa, and Turkey.

The meeting was a first in two ways – the first climate conference specifically focusing on child health, and the biggest ever conducted by a group of people completely devoid of technological knowledge (as my colleague Jeff Goldhagen, the US colleague who managed the “bridge,” put it dryly).

Did it work? I’ll come to that. The event was a trial organised by the Alliance for Child Health Equity, a group of paediatricians and child health professionals initiated by members of the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health and now steadily expanding across the globe. The alliance works to promote children’s rights and related issues through training and advocacy and wished to demonstrate in practice that flying is not necessary to run a good medical meeting. The York meeting was part of the annual scientific meeting of the RCPCH, which itself has a target for becoming carbon neutral as an organisation within ten years.

We chose the topic of global warming because we think that paediatricians have a special part to play in highlighting the risks to children and the need for us all to take a personal responsibility for change.

Our keynote speaker from the US covered the climate science in a very graphic way – and we could see all his slides! We took questions first in York and then handed over to the international audience – dominated by questions from Argentina, Colombia and the US. Three more speakers followed on the effects of global warming on the health of the vulnerable, the medical benefits to a population of reducing carbon overuse (eg fewer road accidents and less obesity) and the legal issues of the generational impact of climate change on children as yet unborn. Finally, we had an extended discussion on action we could take.

So, did it work? The impact of questioners from so many far away countries was huge, and we began to get to know some of them individually after the three hour session. We did lose vision and some sounds for short periods. There were rather too many countries, and the question sessions needed some regulation. But overall, it was amazing, enthralling, and emotionally stimulating. We’ll definitely do it again, using the experience, and for me, it means I never again need to fly to a medical meeting!

Tony Waterston is a paediatrician in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, working mainly mainly in the community with long term conditions, disability, child abuse and social and mental health concerns. His interests are in child public health, children’s rights and global child health and he leads the RCPCH teaching programme in the occupied Palestinian territories.