Healthcare professionals and disruptive climate protest – unjustified, or a professional responsibility?

By Ellen Tullo.

The coordinated actions of Extinction Rebellion (XR) in 2019 and 2021 raised public consciousness about global failures to act on the climate emergency. Some of the methods employed by XR – road obstruction, non-permanent marking of private property and the breaking of windows – prompted a divergence of opinion on what degree of disruption is justified in order to prompt beneficial change. The recent sustained actions of Insulate Britain (IB) to obstruct major roads have now brought this debate to the attention of major UK newspapers, largely due the reactions of members of the public who have been delayed.

The majority of the population are deeply concerned about global warming and want the authorities to do more. This is most notable amongst younger generations who suffer significant eco-anxiety in relation to the climate emergency. Whilst the majority of the population do not participate in disruptive protest, fervent opinions for and against the actions of XR and IB abound across internet forums and social media. Those who believe protesters to be irresponsible troublemakers risking the lives and livelihoods of delayed motorists are pitted against others who back their actions as legitimate in the face of government inaction.

So, is disruptive action justified? To ask whether or not protesters’ aims justify the means risks over-simplification. If the actions of the protesters were guaranteed to lead to the changes needed to avert the worst of climate change, then most people would likely support them. The protests have certainly raised awareness of the climate emergency, but the likely impact on climate change policy remains unclear. Meanwhile, the inconvenience and potential risks to delayed motorists is clearly of great concern to many of those discussing the actions of IB. Unverified accounts of ambulances being delayed by protesters has caused enough outrage for members of the public to call for protesters to be criminalised, punished or even physically assaulted.

Doctors and other healthcare professionals have taken part in disruptive protests with XR and IB. On the one hand, professional obligations to do no harm could be invoked to suggest that healthcare workers should not be involved in disruption – indeed, a number of NHS staff have been arrested, charged, and now hold a criminal record. On the other, thus far, those involved have sufficiently justified their actions through application of the duty of a doctor to “protect and promote the health of patients and the public” to avoid professional sanctions from the General Medical Council (GMC). They argue that their actions are not only justified, but a professional responsibility, an opinion shared by Richard Horton, editor of the Lancet.

As a healthcare professional wrestling with my own conscience as to how much disruption is appropriate to expedite a response to the climate emergency, I appeal to those with a greater knowledge of medical ethics to examine this dilemma in more detail.


Author: Ellen Tullo

Affiliation: NHS geriatrician

Competing Interests: I am a member of Extinction Rebellion and Doctors for Extinction Rebellion

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