Gerard talks about the health impact of the climate crisis

Gerard worked as a GP in Newcastle from 1990 until he retired in late 2021.  When he began to realise the health impact of the climate crisis, he committed to taking action.

How did your role as a GP influence your response to the climate emergency?

For forty years, starting back then in the 80s as a medical student, I have always been a political campaigner for the NHS – against privatisation, and for better and fairer resourcing.  As a GP, I knew we needed prevention and early intervention, and in particular for those most vulnerable.  In the UK, inequalities are worsening: in social housing, income distribution (and welfare safety nets), clean water and many other factors. This leads directly to poorer and other marginalised people having worse health.  Both in prevention and once people are unwell, the NHS (despite its lauded aims) provides less good care to those most in need. 

I first saw Extinction Rebellion on the news during the Rebellion of October 2018 and I was excited that people were stirring things up taking action on the climate. I started to get better informed about the health impact of the climate crisis.  It is clear from reading the recent IPPC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) reports that we are heading for a catastrophe unless there is urgent and massive change.

I became aware that the bullshit of climate denial, then the bullshit of greenwashing and blaming individuals for our personal carbon footprints  (©Shell plc), that have been used by oil companies for decades.  I listened to the brilliant podcast Drilled detailing the fossil fuel industry’s continued crimes and dirty lies since the 70s.  I read Naomi Klein’s book, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs the Climate.  Not just urgent change but system change.  Just like in health, we can’t just put a band aid on this. Capitalism makes us unhealthy and capitalism is destroying the planet.

How did you get involved with Extinction Rebellion?

My first actions with XR were in 2019 with Heaton XR highlighting the excess deaths from air pollution. We went to the Monument with 200 pair of shoes representing the absence of the 200 people: the excess deaths in Newcastle from air pollution.  In another action, we also wore gas masks and intermittently lined across the Coast Road with placards as young people pressed the button and crossed to get to school breathing some of Newcastle air of the lowest quality.

I really got fired up at the Pont Valley 3-day action near Consett in the below zero weather and just before Covid lockdowns.  I was on the Wellbeing team which involved keeping an eye on people.  We got them warmed up with hot drinks in the van we had use of.  It was a carnival atmosphere and this fun turned to celebration shortly afterwards with the company pulling out of the coal facility there. 

I went up to COP26 In October 2021 and chopped a lot of veg for street food with XR.  It was great to enjoy the brief interlude when climate was discussed in the news for weeks before abruptly stopping. Jeremy Corbyn came to chat to us, and feeling really emotional, I talked with pride about my years as a socialist and a health campaigner, but explained that even with the worse Tory-led decimation of the NHS, it could be built again in the future.  The same wasn’t true for the planet.  No Planet B. It is great to see him increasingly supportive of Just Stop Oil

 Why is there a group specifically for Health for XR  and how have you been involved?

Two things became increasingly apparent to me.  Firstly that climate change would have the most profound impact on health: the 2022 report of the Lancet Countdown on health and climate change: health at the mercy of fossil fuels, is a catalogue of current disasters.  Issues such as heat-related deaths, infectious diseases, crop yields and undernourishment, and air quality are all getting worse and having a massive impact on health.  Secondly, just like with health, for the climate too, prevention is way more efficient than cure.  The prevention should have started yesterday, or at the least with the urgency that the science dictates.  These are molecules and we need action not chat.

I’d seen Health for XR (formerly Doctors for XR) in the media and they seemed to having actions in all the right places, such as JP Morgan who are No. 1 funders of fossil fuels.  I met some of them in Glasgow at COP and when I was down in London for the April Rebellion in 2022, I arrived early to be part of an action blocking a minor road outside the Treasury.  As health professionals, we blockaded the Treasury on World Health Day to demand an end to fossil fuel subsidies. The narrative from the hostile media can often label XR as out of touch, and sometimes the public heckle with “get a job”, so Health for XR gets in the way of that narrative.

Health Workers treat patients using evidence-based research.  We have the ability to understand the health science of climate catastrophe and it is harder for the media to undermine the message when it comes from us.  It also is a great optic when you see images of an action by people in scrubs.

You’ve been really involved in Outreach over the last year. How did you get involved in door knocking? What’s great about it and what’s not so good?

We’d done leafleting with XR at places like Grey’s Monument and had had some good conversations. We decided to set up local meetings to attract people to XR.  To build those meetings, we would knock on doors in the area and talk to people.  Most people are already aware of the climate crisis, and only a tiny handful are hostile to talking about it.  Surveys show that people in the UK have a relatively high level of awareness, but often I find that what people talk about is what they have been able to do themselves, which is a good start.  I try and move the conversation from individual acts/carbon footprint eg recycling, to the bigger picture. I have been cheered up by the high proportion of the public who know that to get anywhere, it is the politicians who have the power to make the big changes e.g. to stop licensing fossil fuel extraction.

My frustration is that whilst I have a lot of great conversations, it does not translate into large numbers joining us as activists.  I know that it can take time for people to move from awareness, to concern, to action.

Even with tricky conversations, I really like talking to people and, more importantly, listening to them.

From your conversations, how do most people respond when you ask them about climate anxiety?

One of the things we do when door knocking is to ask people about how serious they think the climate crisis is.  The majority of people I have spoken put it as 4 out of 5 or worse.  It is quite hard to open up a conversation about the climate without people noticing that they are frightened, hopeless, helpless, pessimistic.  This is usually in relation to the future, but I think people are referring more to the current state of the planet – referring to floods, heat, habitat loss.

I think people are able to describe their negative emotions if they know that someone is listening and not feel lectured on what they should do.  Most people are terrified at some level and it is important to allow them space for that. 

When we get very positive comments “I think it is great what you’re doing” but that for them it’s “not for me”, it can be frustrating.  I tell them about some of the wins from our non-violent direct action like the UK Government agreeing to our demand for the declaration of a Climate Emergency.  What I want them to feel is that they are part of the “We are many, they are few” argument, even though ‘they’ hold so much power

 Do you suffer from climate anxiety? What has helped you deal with this personally?

There are moments when I feel the despair of thinking that it is too great a challenge and we have left it too late.  Looking objectively at the current situation, anxiety is one rational response.  I try to learn to sit with that emotion rather than chase it away.

Locally we use a large banner, sometimes putting it on display on bridges above roads.  It says “Climate Anxiety?  The answer is Action”.  That is what sorts me out!  Action, and as importantly, action that connects me to other like-minded people.  It works against the isolation of the system. 

I read a lovely article by Adam Mackay who directed Don’t Look Up.  He said that climate activists should do something that combines these three aspects:

  • What is the work that needs doing?
  • What are you good at?
  • What brings you joy?

XR is tackling a sad situation, but doing that work does bring me joy – and with other people together, it helps keep climate anxiety at bay.