Dr Caroline Jessel at COP26 – Part 2: Live from Glasgow

The second of three entries from Dr Caroline Jessel, Chair and Founder of Dandelion Time

Taking the train up to Glasgow allows plenty of time for reflection and study of our wonderful British countryside. My thoughts turned to opportunities for Natural Climate Solutions which were everywhere. Lack of woodlands which connect, overgrazed pasture, vast arable fields and scraggly or absent hedgerows abound. Plenty more work to do, I thought, and could imagine what a difference an effective Nature Recovery Network would make. We know we are the most nature depleted country in the G7 so that gives us the ability to sequester a lot of carbon while improving biodiversity. Arriving in Glasgow it was impossible not to be struck by the energy and positivity in the atmosphere. Here was a city proudly hosting the biggest ever conference on British soil with the most world leaders and determined to show its spirit of Can Do.

Despite the travails of rain-soaked walks, Covid testing, passes and other barriers I really enjoyed the Global Conference on Health and Climate Change. This was introduced by the General Director of the World Health Organisation, Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, who was followed by a host of star speakers including Julia Gillard, former prime minister of Australia and now chair of the Wellcome Foundation as well as Rosamond Adoo Kissi-Debra who, as the mother of the first child to officially die from air pollution, spoke movingly on the need to make clean air a human right. I caught up with many old friends from my NHS sustainability days and was very cheered to hear from Nick Watts who now leads the Greener NHS programme that next year the NHS will reduce its carbon footprint by the equivalent of 1.7 million flights from London to New York. One of the most engaging presentations was from a longstanding colleague and climate campaigner, Dr Robin Stott and Courtney Howard from Canada who have produced a video using music and dance to address feelings of eco anxiety. We now know that the best way to address our sense of fear and dread is to do something positive, preferably with other people, so the whole conference felt supportive and therapeutic!

Many people I chatted to were keen to see closer strategic join up between health and climate issues. The mantra was that climate change is a health issue, but I found the health community less focussed on the nature crisis which also is crucial for health and wellbeing. I spoke to several people about the value of eco-therapy, reconnecting with nature to heal troubled minds and weary bodies, and many were interested. When I talked about Dandelion Time as an example of a different way forward this aroused enthusiasm and interest. However the medical model has become so far removed from the natural world, very reliant on pharmaceuticals and technical interventions, so it is hard for people to see the join up in terms of actions.

I joined a group of doctors and other health professionals for the big march through the streets of Glasgow from Kelvingrove to Glasgow Green. Greta Thunberg and Vanessa Nakate were there along with many young people and children who braved the rain. The children were so inspiring, creative and passionate!  It felt great to be with over 100,000 people all standing up for greater ambition and faster action from the negotiators. There was a great spirit and a sense that people can achieve anything if they join with one voice and heart. It was a good humoured day with no violence or disruption. The vast numbers of police on duty were friendly and seemed supportive. Afterwards I reflected on the need for activism, which I approve of if nonviolent, but seldom do. What drives people to face danger and arrest for a cause? Are they brave or just fool hardy? Can it help achieve real progress from corporations, politicians and regulators who need to feel the public is on their side if they need to make unpopular choices? Will it stop the Blah Blah Blah?

The next day I joined medical colleagues in welcoming a psychiatrist from Bristol, Dr Jet McDonald, who had cycled all the way to Glasgow dragging a block of ice. It was his way of raising awareness and he had great stories to tell of the help and hospitality he had received along the way. It was tough going through the Lake District and I think he wished his ice block was a bit lighter on some of the hills!

There was a huge amount going on and I found it a great opportunity to learn how far business and our food system is moving to become more sustainable and resilient. I felt encouraged by the many positive announcements: on methane, on green finance, on divestment from fossil fuels, on stopping deforestation and on natural climate solutions. But Sir Patrick Vallance, our Chief Scientific Officer, summed it up for me when he said “Time is running out and many people are still not aware of the peril and certainly not willing to make changes”.  Unfortunately, we lack a system of world governance which means we are all “marking our own homework “on climate which makes progress very hard. My overall score from watching the negotiations is 9 out of 10 for effort but the jury is still out on whether it’s all too little, too late.