“In case of medical climate emergency break glass”

Copyright Gareth Morris

As a psychologist, I know only too well the varied ways that we humans are distracted from painful knowledge that conflicts with our wishes, or our prevailing world view, or with wider political ideologies. And along with others, I see how citizens in the UK and beyond are increasingly confronted with the painful consequences of the wilful blindness in those who purport to lead us, but who deliberately and ignorantly seek to evade the truth. Hillsborough, Grenfell, the Post Office, and now the contaminated blood scandal: all show the dire consequences of silencing those who try to speak out against what they see happening. 

The climate and environmental crisis unfolding around us is the biggest, most unconscionable, and yet entirely avoidable scandal of all, threatening the health, lives and continued existence of billions of humans and the species with which we co-exist. But raising the alarm about what is happening is a very risky undertaking. People who do so through peaceful protest face hefty fines, the loss of their jobs and even of their freedom. They speak out because they understand the science, see the evidence of what is already happening, fear an unchecked catastrophic future, and hold open positive hope for change through direct action. 

On 3 June 2024, a group of six health workers – two consultants, two GPs and two nurses – face the start of a seven-day trial in the Crown Court. They had taken peaceful action to raise the alarm about climate and environmental damage. On 17 July 2022, the eve of the hottest day ever seen in the UK, they carefully broke eight panes of glass at JP Morgan’s Canary Wharf European headquarters, after scattering signs about them saying: “In medical climate emergency break glass”.

Health professionals hold a responsibility to protect public health where they see threat. JP Morgan is the largest funder of fossil fuels in the world, and the biggest funder of oil and gas extraction in the Amazon. And just like the cigarette manufacturers of old, the bank and the businesses it supports know full well the devastating impacts of their products yet keep silent about them. 

Cigarette harms were bad enough: climate breakdown is of an entirely different order of magnitude. We absolutely cannot continue with business as usual, and remain safe. The impact of the record-breaking heat of 2022 was even greater than anticipated. The Office for National Statistics reports that during the five heat-periods between June and August 2022, 56,303 deaths occurred in England and Wales: 3,271 deaths (6.2 per cent) above the five-year average. And for each of those deaths there will have been a cascade of other health impacts. Even worse, and unfairly, the most vulnerable (the oldest, youngest, poorest and already most ill) inevitably suffer the most.

We do not have to stand silently by while harms rage around us. We are not all in a position to take the huge risk of active protest, but we can think, reflect, respect and give moral support to those who put their bodies and freedoms on the line for all of us.

The good news is that a different world view is possible. By challenging entrenched power structures, and through developing new social imaginaries in the ways we talk and share with one another, we can build a climate of loving care instead of careless profit and damage. Change is in the air. Supported by good research led by climate scientist Tim Lenton at the University of Exeter, we know that there can be social tipping points for good, as well as awful physical tipping points when we breach safe planetary boundaries. 

As a health professional myself, I am deeply grateful to my courageous colleagues, who took such a bold stance two years ago and who now face this trial. Please consider supporting them yourselves, dear readers, and adding to the tipping point of positive change through your conversations and reflections with others, and even if you can by contributing to the crowd funder to help cover their legal costs. As a psychologist, I know that good change is possible: it can come about when we face the truth, together. 

Annie Mitchell, Newton Abbot, Chartered Psychologist with the British Psychological Society