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10 Ways You Can Take Climate Action as a Medical Student

Oct 29, 2020

Written by Lauren Chiu

Lauren is a final year medical student from Monash University with a special interest in sustainability, public health, and wellbeing.

No longer is climate change accepted as an issue separate to health and medicine. 

In August of this year, Australian peak medical bodies representing around 90,000 doctors, signed an open letter to the government calling on parliament to recognise that “climate change is a public health emergency,” and to use the post-covid recovery plan as an opportunity to reduce Australia’s carbon emissions and invest in green infrastructure. This follows the declarations from the Australian Medical Association (AMA),  the American Medical Association, and the British Medical Association in 2019, that climate change is a health emergency.

As future healthcare professionals, there is a responsibility for medical students to be health advocates, and with health and the environment so inextricably linked, this also means advocating for the environment. With this in mind, it can be easy to feel overwhelmed or powerless in figuring out how to tackle climate change, as the problem is so big.

Everything starts with small steps, so here is a list of 10 simple things you can do as a medical student to start taking climate action today.

1.   Join your medsoc environmental club

Joining your medsoc environmental club is a great way to find opportunities to get involved, as well as form connections with other like-minded medical students and doctors.

As a medical student, you can get involved with Doctors for the Environment Australia (DEA) and AMSA Code Green. Both also often have local branches or a student representative within each medical school, so find out if they are at your university! Several other groups you can also become a member of includes the Climate and Health Alliance, Global Green and Healthy Hospitals, Healthy Futures, Planetary Health Alliance, Repower Health, and Doctors for Extinction Rebellion. In particular if you are interested in engaging yourself further, DEA holds the annual iDEA conference aimed towards doctors and medical students.

2.   Get to know your hospital green team

If you are in your clinical years, it can be worthwhile getting in touch with your home hospital’s green team. Whilst an official eco committee may not be established in all hospitals, many do have a local sustainability officer who you can chat with and find out more about your hospital’s sustainable initiatives, current priorities and future plans. Alternatively, if your hospital has neither, don’t be afraid to ask around for individual healthcare sustainability champions, and look into what barriers there are at your hospital preventing action in this space.

3.   Team up with friends

Part of the work (and fun!) in climate activism is spreading the word with others who are open to joining you to make a change. Whether this be through attending climate rallies or even hosting a climate conversation dinner party, there are certainly plenty of opportunities out there to get involved as a group. For those of your friends who are perhaps currently less engaged in climate change, see point 4.

4.   Bring it up in conversation with patients

The big “C” word of climate change can be a scary one to bring up in regular conversation with other people. However, in the words of the Dalai Lama, “Just as ripples spread out when a single pebble is dropped into water, the actions of individuals can have far-reaching effects.” Though I’m not suggesting responding to a passing “how are you?” with a rant about how climate inaction is actually making you feel, there is nothing wrong with sharing whatever planet friendly activity you did over the weekend – and hopefully even spark some interest at the same time!

READ: The Role of the Medical Community in Tackling the Climate Change and Health Inequality Crises

5.   Advocate for planetary health in medical curricula

The importance of knowledge cannot be underestimated when it comes to crucial issues like climate change. A survey recently conducted by the International Federation of Medical Students’ Association (IFMSA) found that climate change is only taught in 15% of medical schools worldwide. With the current generation of medical students and young doctors primed to face increasingly frequent extreme weather and climate events, resulting health complications such as heat stroke, smoke inhalation, infectious diseases and climate anxiety must be understood at an aetiological level, beyond just their clinical presentation and management principles.

If you feel there is a lack of planetary health teaching within your course, contact your academic representative, course coordinator or the head of school to see what can be done to improve and advocate for this. In 2017, The Medical Deans of Australia and New Zealand established a Climate Change and Health Working Group to support medical educators from several Australasian medical schools to develop learning resources for teaching climate change and health so that may be a good place to start.

6.   Engage in online learning

With the boom of digital learning in 2020, online opportunities to learn further about planetary health are now greater than ever, with access to an abundance of webinars, podcasts, modules and international symposiums just to name just a few. Online courses in particular are a great starting point, as you can learn in an interactive environment in the comfort of your own home. A few such courses can be found through the Changemakers Training School, the IFMSA Climate and Health Training Manual, and Climate Reality Leadership Corps. AMSA Code Green is also in the process of developing new educational resources for 2021, so be sure to keep an eye out for that!   

LISTEN: Podcast, Doctors Sound the Alarm To Government: Climate Change is a Health Emergency

7.   Lend your voice (and words) to the climate movement

Activism can be an intimidating step to take if you have never considered engaging in it before, however voices are needed now more than ever. In particular, sharing personal stories has the ability to reach and resonate with those who otherwise may not have listened. As a young person and a future doctor, you have the ability to leverage your position to advocate for a healthier and more sustainable future.

If you’re interested in focusing on upstream levels of policymaking, aside from voting for the environment, you can also sign petitions and write letters to your MPs.

Furthermore, it is imperative that the climate movement centers the voices of First Nations peoples. Racial justice cannot be separated from climate justice, and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities are not only the custodians of ancient knowledge that protects the land, but they are also disproportionately impacted by climate and environmental destruction.

8.   Take a conscious effort of sorting your waste properly

We’ve all been guilty of disposing our waste in the wrong bins at some point. However, starting from now, try to make a conscious effort of using the right bin for the right purposes. Using biohazard bins for only their intended purpose is especially important, as the waste is incinerated and will ultimately be the source of toxic dioxins, furans and mercury emissions released into the atmosphere. Coffees are also the quintessential staple for busy doctors, so for the times that you forget your keep cup or aren’t dining in, remember that the plastic lid is recyclable whilst the cup itself is not.

9.  Make changes in your personal life and divesting from fossil fuels

The four lifestyle choices that can have the biggest impact on your carbon footprint are eating less or no meat, swapping your car for one that’s electric (or ditching it completely), giving up on air travel, and having less children. Beyond these though, the list of changes you can make are essentially endless. Perhaps one that takes less sustained effort on your part and has a big impact, is divesting your money from organisations that financially support the fossil fuel industry. Areas where you can divest include your bank savings, health insurance, superannuation and shareholdings. Market Forces is a highly useful resource to help you through the process of figuring this all out. 

10.  Be curious, think critically, and stay informed

As Netflix’s popular yet harrowing documentary The Social Dilemma has taught us, our newsfeeds are manipulated to suit what algorithmically appeals to us the most. Likewise regardless of conscious intent, print media, television and radio are constructed with partiality, based on a multitude of factors such as media ownership and intended audience. Though watchdog groups exist to report on such biases in the news, you can also take some control over your information intake by being conscious of persuasive techniques used and their emotional effect on you. Fact-checking and recognising the omission of facts are also important. An exercise worth trying is to open your regular news masthead and scan through the headlines, taking note of how they are framed and over time which topics are focused on more often than others.

Finally, it is also important to read widely. Whilst it can feel like an enormous chasm to cross, having some understanding of conflicting viewpoints will allow you to keep an open mind, and connect with others when it is difficult to understand their viewpoints.

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