Paramedics are in a powerful position as potential climate change communicators – because of their real world experience of dealing with its health impacts. But instead, thinking about climate change leads many to worry about the environmental impacts of the profession, and feel guilty and powerless. This needs to change. Alex Randall from Climate outreach writes.

This year we spoke to a group of paramedics about the way they see climate change impacting their work. Our goal in these conversations was to speak to people who are on the front lines of dealing with some of the health impacts of climate change in the UK – air quality, extreme heat and flooding – and get their perspective.

Have these experiences changed the way paramedics connect the dots between climate change, health and emergencies? Has witnessing the health consequences of climate change first hand changed the way they see themselves and their work?

The interviews with paramedics were part of the pilot phase of our Climate Engagement Lab,  working with the UK Health Alliance on Climate Change and the College of Paramedics. The Lab helps civil society groups understand and reach new audiences and explore ways to deepen their engagement, drawing lessons for the wider sector.  Our partners wanted to understand more about how paramedics think about climate change, given they are on the front line of many of its impacts.

Jumping in points

In our conversations we saw some common ‘jumping in points’ – climate change issues that were at the front of our interviewees’ minds, and the first issues they mentioned in our conversation about climate change. For most of the interviewees, the issue of single use plastics in the medical professions came up first or early in the conversation.

Another common topic was the carbon emissions resulting from ambulances. This combination of vehicle emissions and single use plastics seems to have left many paramedics feeling that their profession has a high environmental impact. Many interviewees expressed a combination of guilt and frustration at this –  a sense that there was a very visible and tangible climate impact to their work, and  that reducing this impact was out of their control.

Issues around the connection between climate, extreme weather events and health were also brought up by the interviewed paramedics, but this happened later, as the conversations deepened. Some interviewees reflected on how their work changed during periods of extreme weather – especially when the combination of heat waves and poor air quality lead to more callouts and hospitalisations.

All the paramedics that we spoke to said they understood that these events were likely to get worse, and that the negative health consequences would follow. Most also said they felt powerless to act, or felt their actions wouldn’t change anything. However these issues were mentioned later, and seemed less front-of-mind compared with issues around plastics and vehicle emissions.

Impact of, or impact on

What struck me while conducting these interviews was that most paramedics focused on the environmental impact of the profession, rather than the consequences of climate change on their work. I couldn’t help feeling during the interviews that paramedics had been made to feel needlessly guilty about vehicle emissions and single-use plastics.

Messages about reducing consumer plastic waste and vehicle emissions are important. Communicating with the wider public about their climate impact and the options they have for reducing it is vital. However, the impact this messaging had on the paramedics I spoke to was to make them feel worried yet powerless about the plastics and vehicle emissions that result from their daily work.

Coming away from each interview I couldn’t help feeling that this was wrong. For paramedics single use plastics are vital for hygiene and safety reasons. The journeys made by ambulances are essential. Of course efforts can and should be made to reduce these. But individual paramedics shouldn’t have to feel simultaneously guilty and powerless about them.

The paramedics I spoke to did also see themselves as a group of professionals who are already helping people cope with the health consequences of climate change. But this came second and was often obscured by what seemed like stronger or more immediate feelings about their own impact on the climate.

Having conducted these interviews with paramedics I’m convinced of the role they could potentially play as climate communicators. Everyone I interviewed spoke powerfully about the health implications of climate change. They were able to speak about this not in a theoretical sense, but reflected on their tangible real world experience of dealing with these medical emergencies.

Ways forward

Paramedics are in a powerful position to talk about the reality of the health impacts of climate change. As medical professionals they also occupy a unique position as highly trusted individuals. Health very often tops the list of people’s concerns and worries. With the right support, Paramedics could have an important role to play in the climate debate as they are able to connect climate change with an issue of deep public concern, and to do so as highly trusted members of society. Even just talking about their experiences and what it means is an important part of making social change and motivating people to take action. On the topic of climate change, Paramedics should not feel powerless.

Our conversations with paramedics also point to wider issues in the public communication of climate change. Many of us initially look to our own environmental impact end up feeling guilty or powerless to act. This raises wider questions about how important it is that messages about our impact are paired with messages that also show tangible actions people can take and build a sense of efficacy. The paramedics we interviewed had some very powerful stories about the impacts of climate change they had witnessed. People from all walks of life thave these stories too. Encouraging people to explore and explain these stories is going to form a key part of broadening the conversation about climate change. Our conversations with have started to help us explore what this might look like with paramedics, but there are are powerful and compelling stories hidden in people’s daily lives right across society.

Climate Outreach worked with the UK Health Alliance on Climate Change and the College of Paramedics to conduct 5 semi-structured interviews with paramedics in the UK during April and May 2021. This was as part of the pilot phase of the Climate Engagement Lab funded by the Samworth Foundation, Kestrelman Trust and the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation. Climate Outreach would like to thank the Samworth Foundation for supporting the writing of this blog as a part of the Climate Engagement Lab.