THE 1993 film Alive tells the true story of a group of Uruguayan rugby players stranded in the Andes after a plane crash. Every day at noon, the survivors turn on the radio to hear how the search for them is going. About 2 weeks after the crash, they hear that the search has been called of and they are presumed dead.

One of the men leaps to his feet and starts dancing around. His teammate says “Why are you so happy – didn’t you hear? They’ve called off the search.”

“Yes,” says the happy man. “Now we’re going to get out of here on our own.”

A week before the start of the UN Climate Change Conference (COP26) in Glasgow, Professor Hugh Montgomery, intensive care specialist, Director of the Centre for Human Health and Performance at the University College London, and long-time climate activist, believes humanity is now at the point where we have to “get out of here on our own”.

“COP has never delivered the answers before,” Professor Montgomery told InSight+ in an exclusive podcast. “And it won’t this time.”

“There will be a deal, but it won’t deliver anything significant at the speed and scale of risk required. Which then leaves you with a question? Well, who will lead it?”

In the lead-up to COP26, new data have been published, including the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) Sixth Assessment Report and the latest MJA–Lancet Countdown report. The picture is not pretty.

“We’re out of time now, completely,” says Professor Montgomery.

“Global warming is radiation gain. We’re probably gaining five Hiroshima bombs a second of energy at the moment. And the trouble is we’ve now gone through some positive feedback loops.

“The bushfires you had in Australia in 2019–2020 – those fires alone put in three-quarters of a billion metric tons of carbon into the atmosphere. All of that, again, causes more radiation gain. Carbonate rocks release methane, that causes global warming, melting tundra releases methane, more global warming.

“The Amazon basin is now a net emitter, because it’s so dry. When lightning strikes, it catches fire.

“We’re now in a situation where even if we stop emitting carbon dioxide, things continue to get worse, as the IPCC report says, probably for a millennia. It’s now running away. And we have to put the brakes on.”

So, if it’s too late, why bother?

“It’s the only rational, logical thing to do, isn’t it?” says Professor Montgomery.

“If the boat’s going down, if you decide that you’re certain to die, you will be certain to die. The only logical approach is to fight for survival.

“And there is a chance – if the world moves aggressively and quickly together, right now, we can salvage some of this.

“But we haven’t got time for this talk about ‘net zero by 2050’. It is just nonsense.”

In the UK, Professor Montgomery says, health professionals have now embraced the concept of taking responsibility for the carbon footprint of the health system, and improving sustainability in their own circles.

“It was only 11 years ago that there was a first mention of climate change affecting human health,” he says.

“Now it is, I would say, universally accepted by health professionals in the UK. They are very, very much more engaged. The feeling, particularly the younger generations coming through, now is … I have a global health responsibility. I’m not just interested in chemotherapy or the antipsychotics. I’m interested in how I make the world a safe place, an equitable one for everyone to live in.”

If governments won’t take the risks of changing national economies to more sustainable models, how can we save the planet?

“You’ve got countries that are dependent or have built an economy on chopping down trees, mining for coal, digging out tar sands, drilling for oil,” says Professor Montomery.

“Look at Russia – its entire economy is dependent on gas and oil, the whole economy.

“Australia’s economy is heavily dependent on coal. I could see why a politician might say, if we stop all of that right now, that’s a juddering to a halt of the economy.

“But we have to do that now. We have to do that. Someone in Australia and these other countries is going to have to go think quickly. How do we reinvent our economy, because Australia will become uninhabitable in the next decades.”

Where is the hope if politicians aren’t brave enough to act?

“Certainly here in the UK, but in a lot of other places too, the people are saying enough, we are not standing for this anymore. We will change,” says Professor Montgomery.

“There are businesses that are genuinely moving, absolutely, to the core, committed to action on climate change. This is not window dressing. It’s not a bit of greenwash. There are some businesses who genuinely want to act.”

Like the Uruguayan plane crash survivors, it’s time to do it ourselves, he says.

“That’s the challenge for us, and that’s the opportunity.

“How often have people had the chance to save their biosphere? And their species? It’s a big ticket ask. But if we change the way we behave, the way we travel, the way we eat, the way we spend, make it clear to our politicians, the way we vote, then we can do it.

“When we’re talking to our politicians, try to think about their side of things. Don’t bring them problems, bring them solutions.

“Let’s invest in this way. Let’s grow a business that way. Let’s do the following things that will make the difference. Find the companies that are doing the right things and work with them.”

The health care sector in Britain is doing its part.

“We’re big spenders,” says Professor Montgomery.

“In Britain, it’s now being written into contracts. Every National Health Service contract above 5 million pounds has to have decarbonisation built into the contract. So as a supplier, you have to say, I’m X per cent down, which will eventually be zero.

“And that bar is going to move down from 5 million pounds, slowly down to every contract.

“Every contract will soon ask two questions:- does it work; and number two, is it zero carbon? No? Okay, then we can’t buy it from you.”

COVID-19 has had its effect on the climate change debate, says Professor Montgomery.

“COVID showed us we live now in the age of consequence. We were reminded that the actions we take, or don’t take, matter. They can matter lethally.

“We’re now at that situation with climate change. It’s no longer some existential threat down the pipe. It’s no longer something we have to think about for our grandchildren. This is about us in the coming few decades.

“This is us and if we have young children, it’s absolutely about them, too.

“We have a responsibility to act. In the health sector, we’re good communicators, we’ve got a massive budget and the health sector worldwide can join together to take action.

“If people are left wondering, what is it that I can do in my personal life, the answer is quite simple.

“Go online, find a good carbon calculator. It’ll take you half an hour to fill in, find out the bits of your life that are the high carbon things and just hit those quickly and easily to start with.

“You’ll feel really good about yourself. Then work out how you do the rest of it and bring people with you.”


Anonymous comments denying climate change should be banned from this website
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  • Disagree (6%, 3 Votes)
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16 thoughts on “Time to fill the climate action leadership void ourselves

  1. Chris Arthur says:

    The efforts to reduce CO2 emissions is commendable for many reasons including health benefits but I agree with Adrian Clifford’s comment reminding us that Australia’s contribution to global emissions is around 1.6 % so we could achieve net zero tomorrow and there would be a negligible effect on global emissions. I am not saying we shouldn’t try but rather be aware that all of the efforts we are making will amount to very little. The 3 largest emitters China (28%), USA (15%) and India (7%) account for half of the worlds emissions. Surely our efforts would be more productive by reducing the emissions from the largest polluters. It’s reported that China will continue to increase emissions at least until 2030 and therefore wipe out any gains that Australia might contribute. I am surprised that the conversation seems to be missing this “elephant in the room”, i.e. what can we do about the big polluters rather than focusing so much on our 1.6%. Sure, collectively lots of little gains will amount to something substantial but why not target the biggest problem. So how could we influence another nation’s CO2 production? I recently tried to purchase some face masks at the local pharmacy but the only ones I could find were made in China. I know that there are Australian mask manufacturers. Probably most have experienced the difficulty of finding something in the shop or on -line that is not made in China. Every time we purchase something made overseas we are sending money to buy coal to power the factories that make the TVs, the toasters, the clothes, the phones etc etc. I know it’s cheaper to buy from a mass producing factory overseas but if we are serious about climate change perhaps we must accept to pay more for local goods or just not buy a new phone or car or clothes whenever we want. Unless these top 3 polluting countries can change to non-polluting energy sources then the logical solution to reduce global emissions is to reduce factory production from these countries and that will only happen if we stop purchasing so much “stuff” and giving them the money to do it.

  2. George Crisp says:

    Max, sadly that’s not the case – at least in the critical short to medium term – this whole charade of climate deniers promotes a false debate, you should look at Naomi Oreskes and Eric Conway’s book “Merchants of doubt” exploring how quite small well funded vested interests groups have acheived signifincat delay in action and action through obfuscation.

    The tobacco industry employed these tactics to great success (sic) delaying meaningful tobacco regulations for several decades. Fossil fuel companies are copying their playbook having known that climate was occuring since the 1980s at least and its implications for human health.

    So no, if we do want to protect and promote human health we need truth in media on climate (as well as Covid and vaccinations) – that includes publishing and coverage, and I’d argue comments too – if we are to respond in a timely manner to what is now the greatest and most urgent threat to our health and prosperity (see WHO / IPCC / UNHCR / AMA etc etc).

  3. Max says:

    If it’s science, then it will be in no way threatened by the widest ranging debate and commentary, and truth will always emerge.

    It is a characteristic of religion, on the other hand, that protection is needed from dissenting viewpoints. The more fragile the religion, the more totalitarian is the suppression of questioning views.

  4. George Crisp says:

    Perhaps having a poll on whether to allow climate denial comments misses the point – I’d suggest if you are having one then have a poll on whether misinformation stated as if it were factual should be removed.

    Other media agencies such as BBC did this some years ago.

    This is not about censorship – it is about scientific accuracy and validity. Would we accept anti-vax opinions stated as if fact all over media?

    It is no different and it just perpetuates the falsehood that there is doubt about the basic premise of climate science (anthorpgenic enhanced greenhouse effect).

  5. Adrian R. Clifford says:

    Fellow medical practitioners, I believe that you should concentrate on doing your job for which you were trained and stop pontificating about climate change and how to alleviate it. Australia is responsible for approximately 1.6% of the total production of CO2 and methane emission, whilst industrialised China and India together with USA account for the greatest amount of pollution. Until all countries on the planet get together and stop burning fossil fuels there will be little or no change. If you consider the problem from a holistic aspect, the main cause of pollution is the world’s population which has doubled in a very short time. This planet can only support a finite number of people and until we control population growth, the climate problem will continue, despite anything and everything we do. Global warming is a fait commpli which can be ameliorated, but not excluded. There is no such thing as NET ZERO emissions.

  6. George Crisp says:

    When it came to act on smoking and tobacco control we did more than just stop smoking ourselves. We became advocates – to the public shpere and lobbied politicians. We used our wiating rooms and started conversations and we divested our superannuation.

    There is so much we can do to shape public discourse on health matters.

    Climate and ecological loss are the biggest determinants of health. Its absolutely our place to lead – advocate, support, talk, join, divest, everywhere

  7. Ian Cormack says:

    I agree it is time to take over. Some problems: I am the proud owner of some working solar panels. I would like more but there are disincentives and blocks. West of the range there are windmills turning and more have been planned. but they lack a suitable power line for connection. Our Gov planned same but decided against that, while supporting coal mines for export. We will then blame the importers for the CO2.
    2 other initiatives of interest: Tidal power and soaking up C in kelp forests. Experts in either would be worth supporting. Paying farmers to plant trees seems doubtful if they burn in the hotter weather.

  8. Anonymous says:

    In the name of evidence-based research let’s all support our struggling fossil fuel companies, that for decades have been blocked from getting their independent, unbiased research and advice heard and published in Cabinet, in Murdoch papers or in scientific circles, in spite of the billions of dollars of tax-payer supported profit year after year.
    What are 8 million deaths from air pollution, a bit of extreme weather and natural disasters compared to their right to utilize their profits to influence public opinion and politicians to delay banning a deadly industry?
    Doctors were at the forefront of fighting the tobacco industry and the deadly asbestos trade – with immense success.
    Now it’s time to use our knowledge, understanding and influence again, only against a much more powerful lobby with many more billions of dollars, that buy many more papers, votes and offices.

  9. Max says:

    Yet more hair-shirt posturing from the I’m-alright-Jack medical fraternity whose comfy ‘essential’ jobs, livelihoods and lifestyles will never be degraded by the gargantuan dislocations that they demand of others.

    When they say ‘we need to do something about climate change’ what they are really admitting is that they need to be seen to be doing something about climate change.

    The fact that those demonstrative steps will be utterly ineffectual without engagement of the worlds’ major emitters and without embrace of nuclear power matters less to them than the theatre of virtue-signalling.

    But I’ll continue to recycle my plastic bags: I’m sure that will make all the difference.

  10. Anonymous says:

    “Oh! let us never, never doubt
    What nobody is sure about!” Hilaire Belloc 1897

    Pursuing David King’s line of reasoning, is it not surprising that there has never been any real debate published in the lay press about anthropomorphic climate change by climate scientists. Yet this concept has gone from a concept to established fact.

    Just follow the money if you want an answer and Green is the colour of the dollar.

  11. David Evertt says:

    Ian Hargreaves – your ‘shoot the messenger’ response prompts the question: what are YOU doing to decarbonise your personal and professional lives? Huh?
    Prof. Montgomery may well have achieved a carbon zero ICU, including an E-copter, within 10 years – its possible. Will you still suggest it be closed then? And he is perfectly qualified to comment on the human health impacts of climate change as well as the current high carbon footprint of hospitals.
    You reference, rightly, the IPPC report, which tells us that if we fail to respond quickly and completely to the challenge that we are likely to enter the catastrophic degree of climate change that Prof. M alludes to.
    Perhaps argue the case, rather than denigrate the person next time?
    (PS – I voted to eliminate anonymous comments)

  12. Ian Hargreaves says:

    I’ve always admired the chutzpah of Al Gore, driving his SUV from his mansion to the airport, to fly first class around the world to warn us about decreasing our carbon emissions.

    I wonder if Prof Montgomery’s ICU refuses admissions via helicopter, and what they do for baseload power on a long, windless winter night?

    If Prof Montgomery is as sincere as he sounds about “how I make the world a safe place, an equitable one for everyone to live in” the simplest thing he can do is close his ICU. Compared to public health measures like clean water, sewerage, and vaccination, ICU returns the lowest QALYs per dollar spent or carbon emitted.

    But as he suggests, “if the world moves aggressively and quickly together,” a more effective way would be to close all hospitals in the developed world. Hospitals provide care only for the sick, not the massive population benefits of building hydroelectric dams to deliver plentiful water supply and permanent green power. Chlorinating and fluoridating water in the third world gives far more health benefit than treating British Covid patients with expensive drugs and mechanical ventilation. Even within the developed world, hospital care is less effective and has a higher carbon footprint than preventive or even primary care.

    Covid has cancelled carbon intensive activities like elective surgery and breast cancer screening, so our governments have demonstrated that it is OK to let people suffer and die without hi-tech medical care, in an emergency.

    So if Prof Montgomery does not want to join Vice President Gore on my ‘climate hypocrite’ dartboard, he can “find out the bits of [his] life that are the high carbon things and just hit those quickly and easily to start with.” When that helicopter lands on his hospital, he can jam his clog in the engine, refuse to treat the patient, quit his job and walk home (not cycle, the tyres are imported Malaysian plantation rubber).

  13. George Crisp says:

    Can we please dispense with these ignorant “anonymous” posts that deny basic established science? There is no scientific debate on this, anthropogeic enhanced climate change is fact – enough of this senseless ideologic crusade.

  14. Amelia Lake says:

    The Director of the Centre for Human Health and Performance is qualified to comment on the impact of climate change on public health. Hiding behind anonymity benefits no one.

  15. David King says:

    Ok, so let’s instead turn to the expert in this area, and ask climate scientists for their expert opinion…hmm, i seem to remember a recent very comprehensive summary of their opinions, the latest IPCC report.

  16. Anonymous says:

    In Jane McCredie’s article this week, a judge rejects evidence from a biochemist deemed unqualified to discuss vaccines.

    In this article, an intensive care physician advises on global warming.

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