Climate Change (Part 1)

Posted by Jeremy Windsor on Oct 10, 2019

Earlier this year we published a post that took a look at the effect of climate change on the Mt Blanc Massif. Thanks to everyone who got in touch! In the next couple of months we plan to focus upon the effect climate change has upon those who practise mountain medicine and importantly, what we can to do to about it. We're going to start off with a series of interviews with two climate change campaigners who are both heavily involved in mountain medicine. Here's Jim Duff to get us started!

Many of you will know Jim but for those of you who don't here's a quick introduction. Jim was born in the north of England and started rock climbing as a teenager. He studied medicine at Liverpool University and during that time climbed extensively in Norway and the Alps. This eventually lead to expeditions to the Himalayas and a lifelong interest in wilderness medicine. It also brought him into contact with local porters and guides, leading in 1997 to Jim founding the International Porter Protection Group (IPPG) The organisation prides itself in being a grassroots network - totally voluntary and with a minimum of organization and bureaucracy. IPPG's aim is for all in country staff to have access to adequate equipment, shelter, food, medical care and insurance. Jim is also the author of a bestselling guide - Pocket First Aid And Wilderness Medicine. He now lives in Australia and is a passionate sailor.

A flavour of Jim's climbing background can be found here.

Thanks Jim for speaking to us. Can we begin by asking you when you first became aware of climate change?

In the 1970s there was talk of overpopulation and resource depletion. At that time an ice age was thought to be a possibility and CO2 was seen as a potential saviour! All this changed for me when the climate scientist James Hansen gave his address to Congress in 1988. The science became more convincing in the 90s.

In 1988, Dr James E Hansen, director of NASA's Institute of Space Studies,  testified before the US Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources stating, "global warming has reached a level such that we can ascribe with a high degree of confidence a cause and effect relationship between the greenhouse effect and observed warming". Many believe that his testimony was the starting point for a wider public awareness of climate change.

As a doctor have you seen the direct impact of climate change upon your patients?

Mainly psychological effects, anger, grief and despair. I'd noticed an increase in tic bites in New South Wales (NSW) over the last 30 years which may have been climate induced. For more information on the impact of climate change on health take a look at the Guardian's "Like A Sunburn On Your Lungs".

If warming isn't curbed how do you think this will impact upon patients in the future?

Effects are already apparent but will worsen, especially in poor/tropical countries. Here is a brief list: Increased mental problems and heat stress. Changing distribution, such as tick to mosquito borne diseases (when I first led a trip up Kilimanjaro the first overnight stay was malaria free, this is not the case now). There is a direct link to drought, population movement and conflict, Syria being a case study. Hunger and starvation are increasing now and will become more severe due to crop failures. There is potential for economic/financial disruption on a global scale which could mean less cash and resources for medical systems posing a challenge to doctors. How then will they continue to provide best practice medicine in a chaotic situation?

The Austrian Alpine Club (OAV) has been systematically documenting the state of Austrian glaciers since 1891. Following the 2018-19 winter, 89 of the 93 monitored glaciers had receded. The mean loss of length was 17.2m. The greatest reduction (128m) was seen on the Viltragenkees glacier (above) in the Central Eastern Alps.

Few of us dispute the existence of climate change and the impact our behaviour has had upon it. However, the degree to which we as individuals act varies enormously. Many feel that their individual actions will make little or no difference. How would you respond?

Personal actions are worthwhile as an investment in curbing our profligate lifestyles. But they should not be an excuse to avoid the immediate drastic changes to the 'western' lifestyle on a national and global scale. If we don't adapt willingly the planet will force us to do so, the physics are implacable.

Since countries in the 'western bubble' have produced most of the green house gases (GHG) in the atmosphere equity demands we should make deeper and faster transitions to a carbon pollution free society.

What changes have you made to your own life to address climate change?

In 1990 we (partner and I) settled in an experimental cooperative community of 90 homes in NSW. This was off grid running on solar with composting toilets etc. We planted a food forest and turned half the 500 hectares over to voluntary conservation. Now we only fly out of necessity and after forty years of vegetarianism became vegan three years ago (we prefer 'whole food plant based diet' to vegan, which is a loaded term). We recently joined Extinction Rebellion and I formed a climbers affinity (action) group. We are now climate refugees, the climate has changed in NSW and will become even hotter and drier, so we have moved to a small community in Tasmania. The house is on the grid (which is mainly hydro) but solarised with batteries. We sell more to the grid than we buy. To be blunt we are 'prepping', not for me so much as for my partner and offspring. 

An estimated 250,000 cubic metres of ice are currently believed to be in danger of breaking away from the Planpincieux glacier that lies beneath the Grandes Jorasses (4208m). Homes and mountain refuges have been evacuated and roads closed in Val Ferret. According to Courmayeur's mayor Stefano Miserocchi, "This phenomenon once again testifies that the mountain is in a phase of strong change due to climatic factors...".

Do you feel that you're doing enough? What further steps could you take?

No! I need to get into politics, blow up Parliament or set fire to myself!  But I'll probably just change to an all electric car or, best of all, go car less.

You've encouraged others to travel else in order to reduce carbon emissions. However you've travelled widely. Do you think it's fair to ask new generations of mountain medicine practitioners to limit their travels?

No it's definitely not fair! Unfortunately fairness goes out the window when faced with the need for urgent change. We are all complicit in atmospheric pollution with GHG and need to act now for even a minimally reasonable future for generations to come. Suggestions to cut flying and driving and find more local outlets for the urge to climb are part of a whole suite of behavioural changes that are needed.

Once I really understood the threat to civilisation due to the potential for runaway global heating due to unstoppable feedback loops I started to cycle through grief, anger, despair, denial and continue to do so. The only effective antidote to this has been de-briefing to my partner and friends, especially those in our climbers affinity group, and action through Extinction Rebellion.

A logical consequence of understanding the immediacy of climate change is to start prepping, not just as insurance but because it embodies how we should be living; in decentralised, more independent, smaller communities.

We have a decade in which to avoid catastrophic global heating. The changes require immediate drastic action from governments. The usual channels of protest are not working so non-violent direction action is called for. 

In August 2019 Iceland marked the loss of its first glacier with a ceremony and the installation of a plaque. According to Oddur Sigurðsson, a glaciologist with the Icelandic Meteorological Office, "we made the decision that this was no longer a living glacier, it was only dead ice, it was not moving".

Thanks Jim for speaking to us!

Jim has flagged up a fascinating article on climate change that was recently published in the New Yorker. We highly recommend it!

The interview with Robin Baraclough in Part 2 can be found here.

The British Mountain Medicine Society (BMMS) are organising a Science Day in the Peak District on the 13th November 2019. Why not come along? Details can be found here.

If you'd like to write for us please get in touch!

1 thought on “Climate Change (Part 1)

Ross Hofmeyr commented 1 year, 11 months ago
Thanks for the great post - and a topical theme. Having just come back from the second trip to Mt Kenya in as many years (and both in the same "season"), it is amazing to see what the mountain "really" looks like in a normal year, compared to last year's exceptional ice conditions. Reading (and following) the 1940-1970's climbing route descriptions is a lesson in climate change - where one used to walk directly across the Lewis Glacier from Top Hut to the standard route on Nelion, for instance, is low a long schlep around on scree and loose earth, with the ice gone....possibly for good.

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