For doctors like me, joining Extinction Rebellion is a moral duty
Boris Johnson is wrong to call us ‘uncooperative crusties’ – Extinction Rebellion is a movement of doctors, teachers, lawyers, families, farmers and scientists, all of whom know just what will happen if climate disaster isn’t averted
Originally featured in The Independent 8 October 2019
As a doctor, I’m bound by good clinical practice to hold human life with the utmost respect, to practice from a scientific evidence base, and to act promptly when patient safety may be compromised. And I’m supporting Extinction Rebellion – not as a “nose-ringed crusty”, but out of duty to this ethical code, and out of respect to the evidence that the climate crisis is, as the Lancet called it, “the greatest threat to human health of the 21st century”.
I work as a GP in Tower Hamlets, a borough in east London with some of the highest rates of air pollution. Children in my community have a lung capacity on average 10 per cent lower than their peers.
Before working as a GP, I was a humanitarian doctor working in refugee camps, where I saw first-hand how quickly health deteriorates and society collapses when natural disasters and resource conflicts force people out of their homes. It is heartbreaking holding a baby in your arms who dies because of a lack of safe drinking water, or being with someone who has just lost their home and loved ones to a cyclone.
As well as being a GP, I’m also an academic. Over the years, I have examined how different future climate scenarios will impact on health outcomes, and how people are forced to migrate in response to climate breakdown. But late last year, when a landmark UN report stated that we have 12 years to halve global emissions – itself a generous estimate – I knew I needed to step up my game.
In April 2019, I co-founded Doctors for Extinction Rebellion, a network of more than 500 health professionals who, having looked at the science, realise we need drastic action to limit the worst possible outcomes of climate breakdown.
Those of us who’ve worked internationally have witnessed the effects of climate breakdown that are already underway: heatwaves, flash flooding and desertification, all leading to crop failures, the spread of infectious diseases and the cardiovascular effects of heat stress.
As a doctor, I’m always working with risk. My prescribing you a statin, for example, is based on a 10 per cent risk of a cardiovascular incident such as a heart attack or stroke in the next 10 years. I would be negligent in my duty of care as a doctor if I didn’t identify and act on threats to my patient’s health.
I also know as a doctor that it’s better to intervene early. It’s cheaper for the health service and the patient, and better for overall health, to stop smoking rather than endure the trauma of a cancer diagnosis and treatment down the line.
When it comes to the climate crisis, we are in a similar position: we know the risks, are beginning to see the signs, and have a window of opportunity to intervene. Even though it may be uncomfortable – as anyone giving up smoking will tell you – action that tackles climate change comes with added benefits, such as improvements in air quality.
Extinction Rebellion’s values can be summarised as telling the truth, acting with the urgency the truth requires and acting democratically. We all need the government to take the evidence base seriously and act with the concerted effort that’s required to prevent tragic outcomes down the line. And as the government has buried its head in the sand on the evidence, we are compelled to resort to nonviolent action to be heard.
I wouldn’t use my annual leave and risk my liberty and license to practice in a profession I love if it weren’t for the seriousness of this diagnosis.
Since Doctors for Extinction Rebellion was founded, other professional groups have emerged, including teachers, lawyers, nurses, farmers, carpenters and scientists. In this time of division we need to pull together across all sections of society, because it’s only by working together that we can respond to this collective threat. Being involved in Extinction Rebellion is a wonderful opportunity, and there’s space for everyone. If you’re concerned about the climate crisis, believe the science not the spin, and want to be on the right side of history, I invite you to join us.
Doctors for XR (@DoctorsXR) is a network of doctors and other health professionals concerned about the climate crisis. We are hosting the ‘Planetary Health Hub’ during the October Rebellion and are currently based in St James’s Park, with talks and workshops exploring issues around health in the context of climate breakdown