Tony Waterston on climate change talks at the Commons

Tony WaterstonA meeting in the House of Commons to discuss the health impact of climate change? Surely that would be worth 32kg of CO2 to travel from Newcastle for – since there appears to be a severely lacking awareness of this subject among our MPs, who are not well known for their low carbon lifestyles. And to have talks by the editors of both the BMJ and Lancet, together with a new Lancet report on the topic, made it seem well worth the trip.

The meeting was billed as an All Party Parliamentary Climate change group meeting with the climate and health council (CHC, which was initiated by the BMJ and prominently features in its pages. The first problem was storing a bike at Westminster – for how else could one travel to this meeting? The large numbers of police circling Parliament do not look kindly on cycles locked to the railings, but surely there must be an MPs’ bike rack?

On entering the committee room, I noticed it was full of greying men in suits – that must be a good sign, surely they are all MPs rather than campaigners? But Colin Challen could not be seen – the MP who chairs the all party committee and was a key organiser – he was said to be in a key vote in the House.

Hugh Montgomery on the Lancet commission report – embargoed until today so his talk was general. However the content was absolutely riveting on the urgency of the problem and the inadequacy of the political response.

I did not know that 202,948kg of coal are used up every second; that half of humanity’s CO2 emissions have happened in the last 40yrs; that 20 football pitches of rainforest (the vital sink to absorb the emitted CO2) are razed every minute; that at the present rate of warming, 58% of species will be extinct by 2050; that we have perhaps 50 months to put measures in place to avoid runaway damage, Eleven varieties of health damage were described from direct deaths to mass migration and resource wars. Seemingly India is currently building a “great wall” to keep out the predicted refugees from climate change in Bangladesh.

Andy Haines of the LSHTM spoke of the health co-benefits of low carbon lifestyles including less pollution, fewer road accidents, more exercise and reduction of meat-based diets; Fiona Godlee (BMJ Editor) spoke strongly of the work of the BMJ on educating health professionals, and the sometime abuse of this work for being “political”.

But political it is, and the aim of the meeting was to raise the political profile of the health issues and key players on climate change. So what of the suits in the room? Not a single MP made him or herself known – apart from Colin Challen who came in after his vote. But there were high level representatives from the RCGP, RC Anaesthetists, RCOG, Faculty of Public Health and RCPCH. Plus two bright and perceptive medical students, who put the politician present on the spot very confidently.

The urgency of the problem is without doubt. The torpidness of the political response is also evident. Those at the meeting went away convinced of the need to educate health professionals, and to impel health knowledge into the political arena. You can start by signing the CHC pledge (see website above) and persuading ten colleagues to do the same.

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.