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President’s perceptions: it’s a long, hot summer

As I was sitting down to write this column, many homes — including mine — were in the midst of school exam results season and the highs and lows that go along with it. Tensions were high in the Goddard household, and so we were grateful for the chance to take a break to sunny Wales. The summer's ‘good’ weather, though, had got me thinking.

Cruel summer

Getting back to Derby from London on the Thursday before our holiday was a challenge. All train lines north out of London were closed because of the fires caused by the hottest day in the UK on record. As I type this my home county has been ravaged by torrential downpours, with communities being evacuated due to damaged dam walls. 

That some still don’t believe that climate change is real and happening in front of us defeats me. It is an issue that affects health both now (my hospital is full due to the heatwave) and will do so increasingly in the future. The impacts in the UK are significant but will be catastrophic in other parts of the world. 

What seems to defeat most people, though, is the solution. It is not as simple as we might hope. The more I have researched into global energy supply and demand the more I realise the scale of the problem. We as a global community are addicted to energy, and it is estimated that the global demand will increase by 30–40% by 2040. Renewables seem the most attractive solution and will need to be up-scaled rapidly. However, many renewables cannot currently cope with the variation in energy demand that society needs, and the ways we use energy. Furthermore, even the most optimistic predictions of renewables show that the world will still be more dependent on
other forms of energy in 2040.

China has put its money into developing nuclear power on a huge scale and I suspect this will have to be an important part of the medium-term solution, even though it has its problems. Many other large countries use coal as their main source of energy and continue to develop that industry. How do we help them find other solutions? 

The RCP has been divesting from fossil fuels in a staggered process over the past few years and I am keen that we complete this process as quickly as possible. We have been consulting with our investment experts over the past couple of months to see how we can do this without a destabilising effect on our finances – it is more difficult than I imagined. I am also trying to understand which energy companies are at the forefront of finding carbon-neutral solutions so we can look to invest in them.

One day I’ll fly away

I am keen that the RCP has as low a carbon footprint as possible, but this creates some perplexing dilemmas. International work is a vital part of what we do, both as the RCP and as part of the Federation of Royal Colleges of Physicians. Air travel is a necessary part of this work and obviously not without impact. I would be grateful for any thoughts about how we can either reduce air travel or offset it. We need to keep the costs of such activities as low as possible, which adds to the challenge.

However, the bottom line is that no matter what we do at the RCP or in the UK, the whole world is going to have to rethink its energy addiction and societies will have to change radically. As with most addictions, the withdrawal process will be difficult and unpleasant.

It’s not all doom and gloom

With all the above, life could feel a bit depressing (and I haven’t even mentioned the possibility of a no-deal Brexit). Patients, though, can always put a smile on our faces. One of my colleagues was recounting a visit they made with their ageing in-law to the memory clinic recently. As an ice-breaker the clinician had asked said relative whether their glass was half empty or half full. 

‘It was half-full, doctor, but I drank it all, ‘cause that’s what you should do with life.’ You can’t argue with that logic. So if, like mine, your household is awaiting exam results, I hope things go well. Whatever the outcome, I trust that we can all adopt the approach of that glass half-full patient, and greet the two imposters of triumph and disaster just the same.