Earlier this year we published a post that looked at the effect of climate change upon the Mt Blanc Massif. Thanks to everyone who got in touch! In the next couple of months we'll focus more upon the effect climate change has had upon those who practise mountain medicine and importantly, what we can do about it. We're starting off with a series of interviews with 2 climate change campaigners - Jim Duff and Robin Barraclough - both of whom are well known to the mountain medicine community. Jim's interview can be found here. Here's our interview with Robin...
Robin is a GP and rural hospital medicine practitioner in the 'Land Of The Long White Cloud', Aotearoa, New Zealand. He enjoys being a generalist and says that, "I'm able to put my hand to almost anything that walks, or gets carried through the door!" He came to medicine late in life, doing a graduate entry course in his 30's at Nottingham University. Before that, he worked as as an instructor for Outward Bound Scotland and as a science teacher in various schools around Lancashire.
Can we begin by asking when did you first became aware of climate change?
I think I was aware of the interconnectedness of living things from an early age. My Dad worked for the Forestry Commission, and the job came with a house in the woods so I had a idyllic childhood surrounded by nature.
Later, I had a 'Road to Damascus' moment in 2015 working as a rural GP on the West Coast of New Zealand. Tourists could no longer access the glaciers at Franz Josef and Fox glacier on foot, because the pace of retreat was making them increasingly unstable. Since then all groups have been choppered up to the middle of the glaciers, where they get out and walk for 30mins before being flown back down. Franz Josef is the busiest heliport in the Southern Hemisphere, (without a control tower) with around 100 flights a day. It is a bizarre spectacle to see vast amounts of hydrocarbons being burned up to chase a glacier receding up its own valley due to global warming. It says much about the world we currently live in!
The Franz Josef Glacier has retreated 1.4kms in little more than a decade. This is the fastest rate of retreat ever recorded on the glacier. More on the impact of climate upon NZ's glaciers can be found here.
As doctors have you seen the direct impact of climate change upon your patients?
Have you seen the recent fires tearing through Brazil and Australia?
Here in New Zealand in March 2019 a storm dumped approximately 500mm of rain on the West coast in a matter of hours, spectacularly washing out the Waiho bridge at Franz Josef Glacier, severing the main road connecting these remote communities. The same storm also washed out an old rubbish dump at Fox Glacier spoiling the pristine coast down stream. These regions are heavily dependent on tourist dollars and diary farming. Hence, major disruptions to livelihoods cause spikes in stress and mental health issues.
New Zealand is both culturally and geographically part of the South Pacific, with Auckland being the largest Polynesian city in the World. So the plight of many of the low lying island nations - Kirabati and Tuvalu - that are under existential threat from rising seas are implicitly understood.
If warming isn't curbed how do you think this will impact upon your patients in the future?
Extreme weather events. Food and water insecurity. Changing patterns of disease. These issues are already at play but once warming pushes past 2 degrees, feedback loops will accelerate things dramatically and start to make things really ugly - causing massive humanitarian issues. Perhaps only 12 months ago I once thought this was hyperbole, but unfortunately I think this is now going to be a reality.
Lancet Countdown produce an annual report that tracks 41 indicators across 5 key domains in health and climate change. The 2018 report can be found here.
Few of us dispute the existence of climate change and the impact human behaviour has had upon it. However, the degree to which we act varies enormously. Many feel that their individual actions will make little or no difference. How would you respond?
I think that feeling that you are too small to matter is common place. Nevertheless, history is littered with examples of individuals who stood up and made a difference. Who would have predicted where the lone protest of a Swedish school girl would have gone? Sitting around feeling hopeless definitely won't change anything, but doing SOMETHING is a positive act and just might make a difference. The difficulty is that our economy and way of life is so bound up with consuming petrochemicals that untangling it essentially means reinventing the entire way we live. No one wants to be told that there are limits to what you can do. Language is key. The use of metaphors like 'war' with climate change are tricky. While we need the transformative qualities that a 'war' might bring in terms of the speed of change. Who are we at 'war' with? Ourselves ...?! Hence, this issue is unlike any we have faced before, we almost need a new language for it. A better question is how do we manage the disruption in changing the way we live that causes the least harm, suffering and inconvenience for people as possible?
Media outlets are beginning to appreciate that their choice of language has a real impact. Recently, The Guardian now encourages contributors to replace terms such as "climate change" and "global warming" with "climate emergency, crisis or breakdown" and "global heating".
What changes have you made to your own lives to address climate change?
Living in New Zealand I am vary aware of air travel and now really feel I have to 'justify' any trips I take. Its is particularly difficult when you have family back in the UK. However, I feel the most important change is that I have started to become an advocate. If you put on a suit and tie and request a meeting with the President of the College or local council it's hard for them not to take you and what you are saying seriously. I would encourage others to do the same.
Here's a copy of Robin's recent email to the British Mountaineering Council. He's yet to receive a reply...
I call myself a climber of 30 years and have never done anything like this before. I write to you to request that the British Mountaineering Council considers offering more leadership in the developing climate emergency.
As you will be aware in October 2018 the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released its now seminal and stark report. In it the time frames involved in warming scenarios were clearly linked to carbon reduction targets - targets that also required carbon capture and storage via methods yet to be tested - just to stay at the 'business as usual' 1.5 Celsius above pre-industrial levels.
Around the same time in 2018 a school girl began her lone protest outside the Swedish Parliament regarding the environmental future she is going to inherit. Her protest has now spread to schools in every part of globe by children who implicitly understand her concerns. These events have galvanised activists around the world since then. The phrase, "Climate Emergency" has entered the popular lexicon from nowhere.
Most respected current estimates have the earth on tract to hit warming anywhere between 3 to 5 degrees above pre-industrial levels by the end of the century - well above the, 'business as usual' mark and well into the territory that will profoundly affect the way we live and go about our lives.
As a medical doctor, I now believe I have an ethical and moral obligation to begin to act to try to prevent harm. For me this is as much a health emergency as it is an environmental one. The biggest threats are now from - (a) directly from weather phenomena/events, (b) changing patterns of insect born disease and (c) increasingly insecure supplies of food and water.
Till now it's been hard for many to comprehend the pace and magnitude of events that are unfolding around the planet. However, the facts are now clear. We have little time left to mitigate warming reaching levels of unnecessary harm and suffering. I have attached a link to the Hindu Kush Assessment - a project that was published earlier this year which suggests that we are potentially looking at the loss of 2/3 of all of the glaciers in this region. I have also attached a paper from only a few weeks ago, which suggests that positive feedback loops with regard to runaway warming are already beginning to happen in the high arctic, which correlates with a Representative Concentration Pathway (RCP) of 4.5 degrees celsius of global warming.
I now believe we have to change the way we climb and fast. I believe that much of the 'Adventure Tourism' industry is hugely damaging to the environment and, 'we', the outdoor community should be more actively pushing for more sustainable forms of our sport with low or zero carbon footprints.
To my mind it appears that many in the outdoor community, including the UIAA have what I would term a 'cognitive dissonance' - holding stated core values in sustainability and mountain protection, while at the same time creating promoting and lending legitimacy to the 'Adventure Tourism' industry, hastening man made global warming.
I know that the BMC have been pushing a sustainable agenda and are linked in with the Climate Coalition. For that you should be applauded. However, I now feel the urgency of this matter is such that I, we and you have to do more. My request is that the BMC leads the way and starts an active discussion of what climbing and mountaineering looks like when done in a low or zero carbon way. I believe you should put together a paper on what climbing and mountaineering in 20 years will look like and publish it your your members. People need to see tangibly how this is going to affect them or their children. I also believe that you should be more actively lobbying the UIAA to address this issue. Lastly, to kick these activities off I believe you should consider organising an 'outdoor' sustainability festival to bring together like minded climbers and walkers.
The pace of events in the environment is so concerning that the distractions of how we do in the Olympics next year is very soon going to seem pretty insignificant.
Do you feel you're doing enough? What further steps could you take?
I think this is very much like medicine. You do your best for the patient in front of you, at that time. But as time goes on you realise that the biggest health gains are in public health and preventative medicine. Thus, becoming more involved in policy making on a local, regional and national level is where I have to push harder. Pushing toward zero carbon healthcare and making health bodies and societies more resilient to face the challenges ahead. I think a big symbolic change would be to see hospitals and GP practices stop using single use surgical instruments - please help! I'll get an electric car once the range reliably goes over 300 miles as the infrastructure here in NZ doesn't make longer journeys feasible yet. I ask myself can I look my niece and nephews in the eye in 20-30 years from now and give them a good answer, as to why I/we let this happen ...?
Planting trees ("afforestation") is essential if we are to remove more carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. However, in isolation it's not enough and a much wider approach is needed. A future strategy should also include restoration of wetlands, changes in soil management and wider use of innovative solutions such as bioenergy carbon capture and storage (BECCS).
You've encouraged others to travel less in order to reduce carbon emissions. However you and Jim have both travelled widely in the past. Do you think it is fair to ask new generations of mountain doctors and other health care professionals to limit their travels?
I have though about this a lot. This is a problem the like of which the world and humanity has never had to deal with before and the physics involved in planetary warming are completely amoral. The facts are that things are probably much worse than forecast. Like it or not it will be impossible for children growing up today to accrue the carbon debts that I have done.
The future is rapidly going to get pretty bad, the only thing we can influence is how fast and to what extent that occurs. For moral, social and economic reasons air travel will have to be less common place and will rapidly become the front line for ensuing climate apartheid.
I should add though that this isn't the end of climbing or having adventures, far from it. There are loads of adventures to be had using public transport, and those who know their climbing history will be well aware of the self propelled antics of Mr Colin Kirkus and H. W. Tillman. I wouldn't be surprised if climbing clubs and club huts make a come back....
Do you use off setting when travelling?
I believe at present, offsetting and emissions trading schemes are fraught with issues. Carbon is emitted the moment you take off. However, the offsetting for this may not begin to kick in for years to come by which time the damage has been done. Offsetting produces a dissonance and complacency. We have to leave the carbon in the ground and fly less, or like Greta Thunberg consider other modes of travel.
According to Jonathan Safran Foer, author of "Saving the Planet Begins at Breakfast", "Animal agriculture produces more greenhouse gas emissions than the entire transportation sector (all planes, cars and trains) and is the primary source of methane and nitrous oxide emissions (which are 86 and 310 times more powerful than carbon dioxide, respectively). Moving to a plant based diet is perhaps one of the most important steps towards reducing one's own carbon footprint.
Is your diet influenced by climate change?
I'm eating less meat than I used to and that is a conscious decision. Fortunately, because NZ is so far from everywhere most produce is local or regional. I can be nibbling on olives, cheese, salami and dipping bread in oil chased with a glass of Pinot Noir all from a 10 mile radius. Mustn't grumble!
In an earlier post, Jim mentioned the importance of solarising homes. Has your choice of home been affected by your climate change campaigning?
Fortunately for NZ about 80% of its electricity is already renewable (geothermal and hydro). The bigger issues are the carbon emissions created by the dairy and tourism sectors (especially if you include the long haul travel to get here). These are the country's biggest earners and correcting these probably means a realignment of the economy.
Much of the housing stock in NZ is poorly insulated and single glazed still. Things like regulations for thermal properties of housing in NZ were literally only improved a few years ago.
Sadly, there are massive social disparities between the baby boomers (who own much of the housing stock) and the 20 to 30 somethings with massive debts struggling to get on the 'ladder'. The reality for many is complicated. Again, this is where politics, sensible policies and subsidies comes in.
Jim has mentioned joining Extinction Rebellion. Where should people go for more information?
Without getting too philosophical, I think we do live in extraordinary times. To a large extend ordinary folk are being failed by their politicians and political systems. The 'social contract' between the state and the individual has been massively eroded. Hence, direct action organisations like XR and Schools Strike 4 Climate are filling the void and are not going to disappear anytime soon
As previously articulated I think the climate emergency is a healthcare emergency too and we (as healthcare professionals) have a moral and ethical imperative to reduce the harm and suffering that will ensue. Doing nothing is no longer an option!
If you want to comment on Jim and Robin's interviews please get in touch.
We'd particularly like to hear about the impact climate change has had upon your travel plans. Do you fly? If so, do you offset or take steps to reduce your carbon footprint?
Thanks to Robin and Jim for contributing!
Would you like to take a look at something from the archive? Why not try this?