Faith, a green recovery, and the NHS

As the NHS turns 72, Faith for the Climate is supporting campaigns for a “green” post-Covid recovery which also put an emphasis on funding public health. The Time Is Now, led by The Climate Coalition, calls for a “healthier, greener, fairer future”; while Build Back Better calls for the government to “protect and invest in our public services… from the NHS to paid and unpaid social care”, and has produced a video for International Nurses’ Day appealing for better conditions. So what does the NHS have to do with the climate crisis, and what’s the role of faith leaders in joining the dots? For our July 2020 article, we speak to Quaker activists Olivia Hanks and Lindsey Fielder Cook to explain these connections.

Climate, health and Covid-19

The links between the climate emergency and public health are inextricable. This is the crux of the NHS’ “For a Greener NHS” programme, which aims to share ideas on how to reduce the impact of climate change on public health, save money, and approach net zero within the service. With air pollution linked not just to asthma, but also to heart disease, stroke and lung cancer, causing almost 700 avoidable deaths per week, it’s essential to tackle UK emissions, which frequently break WHO guidelines. Extreme heatwaves also pose a significant risk to public health, killing almost 900 people in 2019, as do flooding and the potential spread of infectious diseases after floods. Further, with a warming UK climate, diseases such as Lyme’s Disease and encephalitis are expected to become more common.

What about Covid-19 and climate change? Some of the links between the pandemic and environmental issues are clear, such as the rapid spread of the disease through global leisure travel; the way it disrupted our vulnerable and complex food supply chains; links between air pollution, respiratory health, and infection rates; connections between zoonotic diseases and ecosystems collapse; and of course, the dramatic reduction in some of our carbon emissions under lockdown. The pandemic also created the political will to bring about rapid changes on a large scale despite decades of slow progress on climate goals. And communities around the world contradicted fatalistic narratives about the impossibility of collective sacrifice for the climate by acting for the greater good and adhering to movement restrictions.

Faith and action

Other, subtler connections, lie in the way the pandemic and the climate crisis accentuate existing moral issues in our societies. Olivia Hanks, Programme Manager for Economics and Sustainability for Quakers in Britain, tells Faith for the Climate, “Quakers believe that there is something of God in all people.”

As a Quaker, she says, this worldview entails being committed to climate justice and a much more equal society. “The pandemic has exposed a lot of existing inequalities, and it’s also making them worse,” she explains. “The health risks are higher for Black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) communities, and people in low-paid work are less likely to be able to work from home. The same groups of people tend to be worst hit in disasters. We need to address those inequalities and build a more resilient society, otherwise it’s going to be the same story again and again as the climate crisis makes itself felt in the UK.”

In her view, a post-Covid recovery package must also emphasise investing in public services. “When we think of green jobs and the green economy, most people probably think of solar panels and home insulation. But a green job is really any job we need in a zero-carbon economy, including doctors, carers, teachers… The crises we are facing – poverty, climate and ecological breakdown, racism – are all connected. We have to stop trying to solve them as if they were separate, and think about the kind of society we want to build.”

According to Olivia, we are seeing very unusual levels of government spending, but this hasn’t been targeted at the people most in need. “The signs are that the government is trying to rush us back to normal, but ‘normal’ was failing millions of people,” she says.

A UK recovery for all

Lindsey Fielder Cook, Representative for Climate Change at the Quaker UN Office, tells us she agrees that a stronger NHS is an essential component of a recovery package. “The systematic underfinancing of the NHS, and tendering NHS services to private companies with questionable expertise, left the NHS far less able to react sufficiently to the pandemic,” she points out. “For example, its number of intensive care beds, after Conservative government austerity, were at the start of Covid a quarter of the number in Germany, with a comparable population. Unable to react sufficiently – including delaying hospitalisation until patients were very ill, resulting in a much higher hospital death rates compared to neighbouring countries – the UK economy experienced greater lockdown, initiating debt borrowing unprecedented since the World War II period.”

For Lindsey, a sufficiently funded and staffed NHS would need to make provisions for training British doctors and nurses without student debt, as in most European countries. This would make the British economy – and the wider population in Britain – more resilient to future Covid waves, pandemics, and climate and environmental shocks. “A green economy must be a sustainable and just economy, ensuring the most vulnerable are cared for, and the NHS, with its healthcare for all regardless of income, is essential to delivering this.”

Yet the moral obligation of a green recovery goes further than building UK resilience; it also means addressing the suffering of those in poorer parts of the world. Lindsey quotes the Quakers’ 2015 Shared Statement on Facing the Challenge of Climate Change:

We recognise a personal and collective responsibility to ensure that the poorest and most vulnerable peoples now, and all our future generations, do not suffer as a consequence of our actions. We see this as a call to conscience.

A “green” recovery package would go towards addressing the UK’s responsibilities to poor communities worldwide, where people are already suffering the effects of climate change. Lindsey would like to see the UK finance climate grants for developing countries. Also necessary would be a carbon tax at extraction, reflecting the UK’s historic responsibility for greenhouse gas emissions, with revenue used to support vulnerable affected communities. Finally, there should be a transfer of subsidies from the UK weapons industry to renewable energy technologies – which, in a world transformed by climate change, could also represent a major security investment.

She adds that a fairer taxation system should underpin post-Covid relief measures. “Currently, neither wealth nor extensive land ownership are taxed in the UK. A wealth or net asset tax would better reflect fair taxation, and increase revenue to fund recovery packages,” she says. And overall, these measures are underpinned by justice and would transform the root causes of climate change as well as boosting the UK economy.

The centrality of human rights

As part of her work with the UN, Lindsey champions a rights-based approach to climate policy. “Climate change is at core a health concern, because rising global temperatures lead to citizens’ loss of life and livelihoods,” she says. The right to life and the right to livelihood and well-being, of course, are core articles in the Universal Declaration on Human Rights.

Within this framework, Lindsey explains that the Covid-19 pandemic experience is a microcosm for climate change. “It exemplifies how the health of a society is critical to a country’s economic, political and social stability, and in turn its ability to uphold human rights obligations,” she says. “The varied reactions to Covid-19 also exemplify how, as with climate change, sufficient and rights-based action reduces human rights abuses, including the right to life.”

Relationships between Covid-19, the climate crisis, and global human rights were explored recently at a series of webinars hosted by the Geneva Interfaith Forum. During the first webinar, Hindou Oumarou Ibrahim of the Association of Peul Women and Autochthonous Peoples of Chad gave a concrete example of the interconnections between the climate and Covid-19 crises and the need for a human rights framework to tackle them effectively. The rapid drying-up of Lake Chad, she said, was due to climate change and has affected impoverished groups’ ability to respond to Covid-19.

“In my community, where there is no access to clean water to drink, can people wash their hands, even every four hours? It’s completely impossible and unimaginable.” She issued a call to rich nations investing in post-Covid relief packages: “They are putting billions and billions to inject into the economy, so what we can ask them is to use this for rights. Do not inject this money into fossil fuels, do not inject it into big industry, but use it for sustainable development issues. Use it for the communities’ needs, to reinforce infrastructure – health, education, access to the market. Invest it in renewable energy, where communities can get access, and then can benefit from it. Invest this money for the sustainability of all.”

This and other examples pose a crucial question for all post-Covid recovery plans – are they aimed at helping those most affected by the pandemic? And this is why healthcare systems in nations the world over are so vital in any effort to address the Covid-19 and climate crises. The NHS, with its origins in the sacrifices of World War II and the post-War rebuilding of society, offers a fundamental statement about justice in UK society that should be at the core of recovery efforts. And, as Olivia and Lindsey and indigenous activists like Hindou remind us, faith leaders have an important role to play in highlighting this, as “a call to conscience”.