Tony on clean air, XR for Health & cycling

Tony is a retired consultant paediatrician and honorary senior lecturer in child heath working in community paediatrics in Newcastle. With experience in Zambia, Zimbabwe and Palestine, he’s still active in global child health teaching and advocacy.

Let’s find out more about how his work has influenced his perspective on what is happening in the world right now.

So Tony, tell us first of all, what led you to environmental campaigning and activism?

My mother and brother were both political activists and I went on CND marches while at Medical School in the 1960s. Two spells working in Africa showed up the huge differences in consumption and in waste including in the Health Service. My wife and I were both active in the medical anti-nuclear movement from the 1980s and still are. She leads the nuclear weapons group in Medact (Medical Action for Global Security). I joined the transition movement in Newcastle in the 1990s but always felt that political action was needed and joined the Green Party (having left Labour over the Iraq War) in early 2000’s. I’ve stood in local elections a few times and was party agent when we had the youth surge (pre-Corbyn!). I was so pleased when XR started up as we had sympathy for NVDA in CND days (Committee of 100). I joined in Newcastle in 2019 and love the movement. Over the last 20 years, I have come to see that climate crisis is the greatest cause of conflict globally and has to be our no 1 priority for political action.

How does your profession influence how you view the climate emergency?

Being a paediatrician does influence my view by helping me to understand the science and giving me an orientation on the impact of climate change on children and child health around the world. It allows me to see the children and young people’s perspective on climate change and helps me to see that children and young people must be part of the solution as their perspective is critical. A child rights approach also contributes to this and is part of the paediatric view. I think being a doctor also helps to put the message over as health professionals tend to be trusted!

There’s a group within Extinction Rebellion specifically for doctors, isn’t there? Are you involved with that?

I am relatively new to XR Doctors, now named Health for XR, and first worked with them in the last London action. I had respected them greatly especially after the arrests in Glasgow at COP26 and joined up after the child health cycle ride from London to Glasgow which centred on air pollution. I think a separate group within XR for Health is useful as the health impacts are something that the public can easily relate to. I see them as a valuable addition and enables connections to be made with mainstream health organisations and associations which may need a push to be more radical. There is also a big sustainable health movement in the NHS which is doing good things, so again potential collaborators.

When we did our Fossil Fuel Trail in Newcastle in July 2022, you spoke on a petrol station forecourt about clean air. Why is this an issue that is close to your heart?

Here are three reasons why I think it’s important to campaign on clean air:

a) pollution (in the UK, mainly from petrol and diesel car engines) is toxic and kills 40,000 people a year and has been ascribed as the cause of death of a child with asthma living near a motorway

b) our government fails to take action despite clear warnings yet air pollution could be cut at a stroke by stronger policies to reduce car use – also very necessary if we are to reduce climate emissions

c) clean air campaigning goes with sustainable transport campaigning and especially cycle campaigning – as cycling is zero carbon and zero pollution. I see cycle campaigning as being one very important part of climate campaigning.

Ride for their Lives (the child health cycle ride from London to Glasgow) was focused on clean air and used pollution pods which you could enter and breathe the air of highly polluted cities such as New Delhi, Mexico City and London. RFTL participants in Newcastle are taking on Newcastle council in relation to their slowness of action but there’s been no breakthrough as yet! Also, I’m an active member of Newcyling, the Newcastle cycle campaign which I’ve been involved with for many years and seen shockingly sluggish progress in our city in promoting bike use.

You always turn up to meetings and events on your bike. What led you to choose cycling as your mode of transport and what can be done to encourage others to cycle?

I bike because it is the most sustainable form of transport, it’s quick and easy and helps you to live longer, and is great fun! I often see friends on a bike which doesn’t happen in a car. We gave up our car about ten years ago and don’t miss it although I am in a car club for occasional use. The best way to encourage others is for the city to build a sensible and safe cycling infrastructure- the demand is there, we just need separation and fewer cars around like it was in the lockdown!