Climate Change Protest 'Restored Faith in Humanity': UK Doctor

Peter Russell

May 02, 2019

Fear of irreversible climate change has worried Dr Hayley Pinto since a colleague first showed her a report in a medical journal about its likely repercussions for the planet.

The Norfolk addiction psychiatrist says her principle motivation was concern about how her three children and their generation could be affected by global warming.

   

Dr Hayley Pinto

Dr Pinto is a founder member and chair of Climate Hope Action in Norfolk (CHAIN) and gives talks on the human health implications of climate change to lay, medical, and healthcare audiences.

While taking part in protests by Extinction Rebellion in London last month, she was arrested by police and charged under the Public Order Act.

She says she must now account for her actions to the General Medical Council (GMC) but is confident these were in line with her duty as a doctor to protect public health.

Medscape News UK asked Dr Pinto to explain how climate change could harm our health, what made her decide to protest publicly for change, and whether she is concerned that her actions could damage her career as a health professional.

Q&A

Could you explain what it was like taking part in the Extinction Rebellion climate change protest in London?

For me, having had a few years of quite a lot of despair about the climate crisis, being with those people who 'got it' – which is such a relief when you spend a lot of time with people who probably don't get how serious it is – was quite regenerative but was also a lot of fun.

They're a very joyous bunch of people, very creative, very lovely, lots of really interesting ideas being bounced around.

And also being in Parliament Square with no traffic was a lovely experience. There were kids playing on the roads, cyclists absolutely loved it, there were lots of people sat around chatting and getting involved in the talks and the music that was going on. So it restored my faith in humanity a bit.

A lot of the conversations I had with people passing in the street that we were leafleting were almost universally very positive. There was obviously the odd grumpy person but most people were really supportive of what we were doing.

Why did you get involved in campaigning for action on climate change?

A friend of mine who was a paediatrician grabbed me one day and said 'have you read this'? There was something in The BMJ , but then she'd gone on to read The Lancet report on climate change and human health .

We read that, and we read the IPCC [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change] report, which at that time was the 2014 report.

With The Lancet report, it was the first time I had seen the word 'catastrophic' in a medical journal.

Reading some of this stuff, I remember sitting down with her and just crying.

We both have children, and you see the future for your children and you think, I don't know how to prepare them for that.

This is not something we can adapt to. If we get to the point of a vicious cycle of warming, there will be nothing our children can do about it other than to try to survive. That's a terrible thing to think you're handing on to the next generation.

For me, it felt like the only thing I could do was to try and make sure it didn't happen.

Why is climate change an issue about health in particular?

Firstly, you're looking at heat. For people who watched the David Attenborough documentary a week or so ago there was a bit of it where they were looking at Flying foxes in Australia that had just collapsed and died as a result of the heat.

We're mammals as well, and there's a limit to how much heat we can physically cope with.

So, you look at some of the temperatures that are happening, particularly around North Africa, the Middle East, and generally across the sub-tropical regions, and we may get to the point where more people die.

Then there are extreme weather events. In the last year, about 62 million people were, according to the World Health Organisation, impacted by the extreme weather – mostly in the global south; but not exclusively so – a lot in the US, some even in the UK.

You look at the other impacts on exacerbation of chronic diseases, be it respiratory, cardiac disease, the spread of infections through contaminated water supplies, [and] exposure to toxins. And, post the event, significant impacts in terms of mental health.

And obviously, at the time of the event, you often get breakdown in services, so transport, electricity supplies, water supplies, and health systems very quickly become overwhelmed.

We had this in Norfolk with the 'Beast from the East' [a period of severe cold weather in the UK in late February to early March 2018] and the difficulties in getting staff in to hospitals, and pharmacies not being open, and people not being able to get their medicines for chronic conditions.

But the biggest thing I think is the threat to food and water security. There are lots of reports looking at water security being a major issue, and we've had two major cities already – São Paulo, and Cape Town in South Africa – which have come to the point of nearly running out of water.

Then there's food. In the UK we import 52% of our food, and we already have 4 million people accessing food banks. The heatwave in the UK last year reduced our vegetable crop by about 20%, and [there are] predictions in terms of potential crop failures worldwide, particularly the big bread baskets in the plains of America and also Asia.

The last time we were one degree warmer, the plains of America were deserts, and we've already started to see these very long-term droughts. So, we're likely to see reductions in crop yields. Some of the predictions around that, looking towards the end of the century, are really terrifying – 80% plus reduction in crop yields – and we've got a growing world population. So, that raises the spectre of widespread famine and people displaced because they can't eat where they live.

Are you concerned that being arrested by the police for taking part in the climate change protest could harm your career in the medical profession?

That was a concern before I was arrested but in fact the response from the organisation I work for has been really positive.

I was first arrested on Lambeth Bridge when we blocked the five bridges in November last year and I thought I was going to be in a lot of trouble at work – but the response, certainly from the regional director, was 'not a problem, very proud to be working with you'. And they, as a result of that, allowed me to do a presentation on climate change and human health for the mandatory doctors' training at the regional meeting.

And again, this time, I've had a lot of support from the management level of the organisation, and also from the multidisciplinary team, and from my patients. Although it wasn't something I advertised to my patients, it has been in the papers. A small number of patients have actually said 'that's fantastic', and one of them wrote me a card, which was very lovely.

I have, because I've been charged this time, had to inform the GMC. I haven't heard back from them yet but I think it would be difficult for them to take a very draconian view of it when you look at the GMC guidance in terms of the duties of a doctor – protecting and promoting health of patients and the public. 

And for me, one of the big issues here is informed consent. I feel that the public is not being adequately informed [about climate change], and the World Health Organisation has identified this as the biggest risk factor for public health.

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