European Doctors Risking Careers for Climate Change Action

Stéphanie Lavaud

January 06, 2020

Whether as part of the collective Docs for Climate in Belgium or the extreme (but non-violent) actions of the ecological movement Extinction Rebellion in the UK, European doctors are strongly committed to action on climate change and are making their voices heard.

In France, there is no lack of individual initiatives but when will healthcare professionals come together en masse to form a movement?

Call From More Than 1000 Belgian Doctors

Last October in Belgium, the collective Docs for Climate published an open letter co-signed by approximately 1000 doctors (read the letter in French) with the aim of highlighting to the Belgian population and the political world the urgent threat to public health from climate change.

The signatories call on readers to listen to the “repeated advice from scientists on the consequences of climate dysregulation and environment” emanating from internationally renowned organisations. They refer to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which established that "each tenth of a degree counts: the more global temperatures increase, the greater the risk to health". For the quality of the scientific information and the opinion of healthcare professionals, they relied on The Lancet. Highly engaged on the topic of climate change under the leadership of their editor-in-chief Richard Horton (see below), the journal wrote in 2018 that climate change is "the greatest menace to world health in the 21st century". In addition, it publishes an annual report auditing the impact on world health due to climate change, which has shocked a number of doctors.

Encouraging Patients to Make Individual Changes

In this context, the Belgian doctors underline: "We cannot accept the inability of our governments to respect the commitments undertaken as a consequence of ratifying the Paris Accord in 2015…We think that this failure, notably linked to the fear of thinking differently and yet positively evolving our societies over the long term, puts the population in danger over the short term and generates a profound uneasiness among a growing number of our citizens."

Moreover, they're setting out a number of requirements for their leaders, such as adopting and implementing "a National Climate Energy Plan that will allow carbon neutrality to be achieved well ahead of 2050" or even to "disinvest public funds from activities that contribute to climate dysregulation and environmental degradation". The Belgian doctors urge engagement on their side "to develop and share knowledge on the consequences and the risks induced on health by climatic and environmental dysregulation"; "to support [their] patients and the population facing the stress generated by the uncertainties linked to the changes now and to come"; "to encourage them to make individual changes"; and "participate in reducing the environmental footprint of the health sector".


In their letter, the signatories declared solidarity with sister organisations that are working for the climate through "drastic action and concrete results to put us on the path to a world that is viable for humans and other living creatures" and whose claims they understand and support. Three movements were cited: Youth for Climate, inspired by Greta Thunberg and established in several countries, Coalition Climat, an NGO that represents 70 Belgian civic organisations, and the British Extinction Rebellion (XR).

Can You Be a Doctor and Rebel?

In the UK, doctors have not been left behind on the issue of ecology and several of them are involved, in their role as healthcare professionals, in the fight for the climate and demonstrate their engagement (as in the video Doctors in Rebellion). Their investment is both personal (less meat, fewer flights, etc.) and collective. They don’t hesitate, for example, to take part in the non-violent action organised by XR – a socioecological movement started in the UK in May 2018 that demands civil disobedience (in the manner described by the philosopher Henry David Thoreau). It is an engagement that sometimes results in being arrested by the police on public order offences, as recounted by Dr Hayley Pinto, an addiction psychiatrist in Norfolk, to Medscape UK. Arrested several times for having taken part in blocking five bridges in London, as part of an operation organised by XR, she had to explain herself to the medical authorities.

Struck Off if Arrested?

She is not the only healthcare professional in this situation. The question of support from the professional bodies when their members are arrested by the police is not a trivial one. Witness the recent congress of the Royal College of General Practitioners, held in Liverpool in October. One delegation of doctors demanded that representatives of the body reassure them that they would not be struck off in case of arrest for having taken part in non-violent actions, reported Medscape UK.

The argument was developed further at the congress by Dr Aarti Bansal, a GP in Sheffield and president of Greener Practice, who noted that the college had already agreed to declare a climate emergency and supported the aim of fighting climate change.

She said: "What XR and all the civil disobedience is saying is: This is about life. And I think the college can support that. We're about health. You can support the purpose of it."

These doctors refer to the intervention of Dr Richard Horton, who declared in a video published on Twitter that it is the duty of doctors to be involved in non-violent protests such as those led by XR, and that the General Medical Council should therefore give its total support.

No conflicts of interest or funding declared.

Docs for Climate Belgium, collectif de médecins engagés ( Letter in French )

Translated and adapted from Medscape French Edition .


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