I first came across climate change as a public policy issue in the early 90s, which feels like a lifetime ago. I was working as an environment correspondent for a national newspaper and I was sent to cover the Rio Earth Summit in 1992. At that point, there were clear warnings from scientists about the dangers of rising temperatures, but it was still early days for climate reporting and there were few takers, politically, for the vision of the future that is playing out in our lives today.
“…it is difficult to imagine a more existential challenge for future generations than that posed by our warming planet.”
The scale of the devastation in Australia feels new and unprecedented – the fire covered an area equivalent to most of the South of England, 20 people have died, and thousands of lives have been changed forever. It is a harsh and tragic reminder that the effects of climate change are already here and cannot be ignored. As an organisation dedicated to child health, it is difficult to imagine a more existential challenge for future generations than that posed by our warming planet. All of us in a position to influence government policy need to take this issue extremely seriously – individual action is important, but it is not enough. A broad, united, collective effort to tackle this ‘wicked problem’ is surely the defining challenge of the decade and every organisation must play its part.
While we have yet to face anything like the challenges felt by Australia or California, the UK has serious environmental problems which are contributing to and exacerbated by climate change. Air pollution is linked to 40,000 deaths in the UK every year and 86% of our cities exceed recommended limits for particulate matter. We know that air pollution is very bad for our health generally and is linked to cancer, asthma, diabetes, obesity and dementia. For those of us concerned with child health, the effects of air pollution start before birth and are most pronounced in communities that experience deprivation.
As a Royal College, we recognise that there is a climate emergency and that we have an important role to play at governmental, membership, and organisational level. From a policy perspective we want the government to go further than the current 2050 net zero commitment – we need to be much more ambitious and we will call for the target to be brought forward. We also strongly support clean air zones in cities and towns, supported by an active travel policy based on a solid network of public transport. We’re also calling for better research and more comprehensive monitoring of air pollution near schools.
For our members, we’ve produced a set of messages for health professionals based on a duty of care to inform patients about the risks associated with air pollution. We’ve also shared advice for parents and families about how to reduce their contribution and exposure to air pollution.
“The most important impact we can have is to speak up on behalf of children and young people to policy makers and politicians”
Finally, as an organisation – we must live up to our own values. Central to this is our ethical investment policy: we do not invest in any company or scheme that owns fossil fuel reserves. We’re also committed to the small but important changes at workplace level. Our buildings use motion activated lighting, we don’t buy plastic cups or bottles and we recycle 100% of our waste. We’re also investing in IT not just a business tool, but with the objective of significantly reducing travel to and from our London hub.
I am convinced that the most important impact we can have is to speak up on behalf of children and young people to policy makers and politicians. As CEO I’m committed to making sure we do that through our policy and advocacy work. If you’d like to get in touch with feedback or ideas, it would be great to hear from you.
Chief Executive Officer, Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health
This blog originally appeared on the website of the Royal college of Paediatrics and Child Health.