Using art to highlight the climate and ecological emergency and its relationship with health

The Healthcare Arts Collective is a group of doctors brought together by a shared desire to see urgent action to tackle the climate and ecological emergency. We recognise its intimate and intricate connections to our health and to how we provide healthcare. We wish to engage people, including healthcare workers, in understanding and acting on the climate emergency and its threat to health, through the practice and sharing of the arts. The exhibition is taking place online from 25 August to 20 October 2021. The art will also be shown in University College London Hospital’s (UCLH) Street Gallery for hospital patients and staff.

Our way of life, including the provision of healthcare, is harming the planetary life support systems that we rely on. Rising sea-levels, extreme weather events (including storms, floods, heatwaves, and droughts), altered infectious disease epidemiology, food shortages, forced migration, and air pollution are all impacting on our health already. Healthcare systems themselves have huge carbon and environmental footprints, including waste, and will struggle to function as conditions worsen. We will increasingly need to adapt to managing physical and mental illnesses caused by ecological degradation, while also reducing our environmental footprint and trying to prevent any further damage. Radical change is needed.

The challenges that the climate emergency creates also provides opportunities, for example, to tackle inequalities and build healthier, more resilient communities; to address intergenerational and global injustices associated with the emergency; to change current levels of consumerism and excessive use of resources. We need to decide what vision of the future we hold. Can we find ways of living which protect both the planet and our health? Our individual responses to this crisis will vary: from measured expressions of hope through to feelings of despair which confound positive action. Art is one way of articulating and processing these feelings and of sharing envisaged solutions. Artist Olafur Eliasson writes: 

“I believe that one of the major responsibilities of artists—and the idea that artists have responsibilities may come as a surprise to some—is to help people not only get to know and understand something with their minds, but also to feel it emotionally and physically. By doing this, art can mitigate the numbing effect created by the glut of information we are faced with today, and motivate people to turn thinking into doing.”

We were fortunate to find that UCLH Arts and Heritage were willing to co-curate our exhibition online and in their gallery space. By chance the start of the exhibition happened to coincide with their own Trust declaring a climate and health emergency. The gallery space allows us to reach an audience of healthcare workers and hospital patients and visitors who otherwise might not visit conventional art galleries. Following our call for submissions we received around 150 works in a wide range of media, including painting, photography, print, sculpture, performance, and video. We hope that some of the art will feature in medical journals to help engage readers with planned editorials on the climate emergency in the weeks leading up to climate change talks at COP26.

In the weeks prior to the exhibition, wildfires and flooding have been making headlines, as has the recent IPCC report. Although alarming, the report does emphasise that with rapid and large-scale change, we can slow and potentially reverse global warming. It is critical that people remain engaged and are able to process the range of emotions that the crisis evokes. Our ability to respond depends upon our view of reality, and this can be shaped by art. We are thankful to UCLH      Arts and Heritage and to all the artists who took the time to consider this theme and submit their work. 

“The path that the world chooses today will irreversibly mark our children’s futures,” says co-author of The Lancet Countdown, Stella Hartinger from Cayetano Heredia University, Peru, “We must listen to the millions of young people who have led the wave of school strikes for urgent action. It will take the work of 7.5 billion people currently alive to ensure that the health of a child born today isn’t defined by a changing climate.”

This IPCC report finds that “limiting global warming to 1.5°C would require rapid, far-reaching, and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society.” This will require a combination of individual action and system change. We all hold responsibility to reduce our carbon emissions by making changes to our lifestyle as described here. But achieving meaningful change will require system change including transitions in land, energy, industry, buildings, transport, and cities. Strong national and international political leadership is needed to achieve this.

The exhibition is best viewed by first visiting the UCLH link which gives details about the exhibition:

The smartify website is more informative in providing descriptions about the individual art works:

Angela Wilson, GP, Oxfordshire.

Amelia Cussans, Psychiatry Trainee,

Elmer van der Hoek, GP, ENT Specialist, Essex.

Terence Matthews, retired Consultant in Public Health, London.

Competing interests: Terence Matthews has two pieces of artwork for sale within the exhibition.