Tony Waterston on a health movement at the Wave

Tony Waterston At the weekend we attended the most profound and moving event for health progress that we can remember.

This took place at the Royal College of Nursing – founded in 1916 in the middle of the most awful war of the last century, and now at the heart of change  in which nurses are in the front line of health care.

The event was not about nursing but about the  “Biggest global health threat of the twenty-first century” – climate  change.  Chaired by Fiona Godlee  the BMJ editor and introduced by Tom Sandford England director of the RCN, the short meeting was  a feeder event  to the massive  march to Parliament Square  on climate change. The Wave was set up to influence the negotiators heading this week to Copenhagen for the crucial UN talks – and certainly they did, as our Climate Minister was on the march and our health delegation spent 15 minutes  questioning him at the roadside.

The RCN meeting was short and punchy . Two weighty speakers, Hugh Montgomery  of the UCL/Lancet commission on climate change and David Pencheon of the NHS sustainable development unit, presented the facts, figures and dynamic  which make climate change the great threat to health that it is (for the facts, see reference below), but also the huge benefits to health which would result from a low carbon society.  The third speaker was a young doctor from Leeds, Sarah Walpole, who spoke out for a new  generation  of doctors – who will be  at the peak of their careers in 2050, when the full effects of climate change will be out there – and when the impact  of mitigation measures now  will be felt.

And this new generation were indeed in the audience which packed the  large hall – dressed in blue scrubs donated by the Organic Medical Clothing Company, and ready to take on waste in the NHS and activism with their managers, using all the modern techniques of communication. Their sense of urgency was indeed an inspiration.

Pushing a hospital bed carrying a globe and a host of children, the health brigade progressed slowly  with the huge crowd of blue painted activists to Parliament square,  handing out prescriptions for a healthy planet  to the public on the way. The group of us slated to meet  Ed Miliband tried to reach the front of the march to be at the designated site but progress was too slow….and then we saw him, in the middle of the crowd, chatting with the public in a relaxed way. Our blue coated figures surrounded him to test his understanding of the health crisis, his knowledge of the health co-benefits  of low carbon living, and his views  on carbon allowances and contraction and convergence – the  key means to introduce equity into the carbon debate. He was very open to listening, and seemed aware of the health  issues, though admitted he has more to learn and accepted our offer of follow up information.. He is in favour of carbon allowances,  but said this is a politically difficult concept.  Contraction and convergence gained a qualified yes – but we must find a short hand to put this over to the public  in simple terms.

Now there is huge momentum for the health professionals’ campaign lead by the Climate and Health Council, Medact, the Campaign for Greener Healthcare and Medsin.  Those readers who feel the same sense of urgency, join the discussion at And take action: sign the pledge at  – the greater the number, the more influence we will have in Copenhagen.

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.

Frances Mortimer is Director of the Campaign for Greener Healthcare.


Health Practitioners guide to climate change

Campaign for Greener Health care 


Maisie & George and the future of the planet

The BMJ has commissioned a video about the impact of climate change on babies born today, and how the NHS can reduce its carbon footprint.