An alliance for action on climate change

In 1988 the United Nations formed the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, charged with documenting the impacts of climate change and formulating realistic strategies for action. Its first report led to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in 1992.

Since then, unfortunately, neither humanity nor the planet have fared well. We have crossed five of the nine planetary boundaries identified by the Stockholm resilience centre researching social-ecological systems, which define the limits in which humanity can flourish: extinction rates, greenhouse gas emissions, change in land use, phosphorous and nitrogen cycles and ocean acidification. We are pushing the limits of three more boundaries: fresh water supply, air pollution, and novel pollutants.

The evidence of adverse impacts is indisputable, as is the need for urgent action. More frequent and severe natural disasters, instability in food and water supply, the spread of infectious disease, and forced migration are already affecting human health. These provide us with a glimpse of a stark future. Dr Margaret Chan, the director general of the World Health Organization, has declared that climate change will ‘rattle the foundations of public health’.

Political action has failed to respond to the challenge that the science presents. But the UNFCCC’s governing body, which is due to convene for the 21st time in Paris next week, has a crucial opportunity to agree a comprehensive strategy for rapid transition to a low-carbon world.

There are grounds for optimism. Substantial commitments to reduce carbon emissions from the US, Europe, China and a host of high- income countries form the basis of the negotiations. Ten cities representing 58 million people have drawn up ambitious plans to tackle climate change. A poll of 200 large companies found that 130 have climate change as a significant priority.

The UK has been reversing many policies and programmes on climate change without offering credible alternatives. We welcome the announcement that the UK will close all coal-fired power plants by 2025. The impacts of coal on cardiovascular and respiratory health is clear, and air pollution in our cities is exhausting the best efforts of the NHS. By phasing out coal the government will improve air quality, protect the health of the population, and reclaim the UK’s leadership position in tackling climate change.

The UK Health Professional Alliance to Combat Climate Change has been formed to advocate for stronger measures to tackle climate change. The 12 founder members, which include the RCN, are to be congratulated on their commitment.

The hope is that other UK-based representative health bodies will join and that similar alliances will emerge in other countries. The alliance has identified four areas for immediate action: improving air quality; increasing active transport; ensuring healthier and more sustainable nutrition; and working to reduce the environmental footprint of healthcare in the UK.

Mindful of these issues, Frontline Care: Report of The Prime Minister’s Commission on the Future of Nursing and Midwifery (under Gordon Brown’s government) advocated a focus on eco-nursing as part of the solution to some of these broader challenges (Frontline Care 2010).

Climate change is happening on our watch, and our collective response will determine the fate of our immediate descendants. The trust that is vested in health professionals gives us the opportunity and responsibility to act.

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