A Peeblesshire climate activist “died” during a demonstration at the COP26 summit in Glasgow last week. Thankfully, this is not literally true, but Lesley Morrison, the co-ordinator for Medact Scotland, took part in a staged ‘die in’ at the climate conference. Reporter Hilary Scott spoke with the retired GP, who is part of an organisation of health professionals working for social and climate justice...

“About ten of us ‘died’,” said Lesley, speaking of the staged demonstration. Medical activists lay down simulating being dead as a result of the consequences of climate change.

Lesley was given access to the inner Blue Zone, where only ministers, government officials, plus other accredited individuals and organisations are allowed. The main business within this restricted area is the international negotiations over climate change agreements and actions.

“There was a group of medical students from all over the world there, and I joined them to do a ‘die in’. We had big banners saying that fossil fuels must end, and at a given signal, about ten of us died, and that created a lot of interest,” said Lesley.

She says there are two and half thousand more deaths a year in Scotland from fossil fuel pollution.

“That’s happening now,” says Lesley. “So as doctors and health professionals, we are already seeing people, especially those who live in the city, whose health has been adversely affected by fossil fuels.”

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Although she was not in the areas where the negotiations were happening, Lesley, who teaches medical students at Edinburgh University, talked at one of the rallies and took part in marches.

Climate clinics were held in George Square, where she was part of the medical team handing out prescriptions – but not the ones she was used to writing in her professional capacity as a doctor.

Lesley explained: “We were distributing prescriptions for the climate crisis and the treatment on them is to take a dose of climate action a day. On the back are some suggestions for climate action. The medicine is to inject urgency into the climate talks, so we are using the health parallel of treatment.”

As well as handing out prescriptions for planetary health, Lesley delivered a powerful speech at one of the rallies, holding up a petrol can and a pack of cigarettes.

“Doctors became engaged in the struggle to stop people smoking 30 years ago when the evidence came out about lung cancer. With their involvement, it became more political, and smoking has now become banned in public places and become socially unacceptable.

“Now, doctors are engaging with fossil fuels in the same way and saying these are killing people now. Their effects on our society, and more importantly societies in the Global South, are huge, and we need to get people and governments to view them in the same way as people view smoking – dangerous and socially unacceptable.”

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The climate crisis is a health crisis, says Lesley and she and other activists are working for ‘climate justice’.

“The health message is clear”, she said. “No one is safe until we’re all safe. We’ve been making links with the COVID crisis in that neither COVID nor climate recognise national boundaries, so this must be an international effort. The most vulnerable are suffering and will suffer most.”

Countries in the Global South may have the smallest carbon footprint, but they already face extreme weather caused by global warming.

There are concerns that minority voices are being drowned out in the climate change dialogue.

Still, Lesley said she was encouraged to see people from all over the world represented at COP26, especially young people.

The question is, was COP a flop? Or was this last-ditch attempt to hit the reset button on the climate crisis by bringing world leaders together going to save the planet?

“My personal view is that we have to believe that commitments in terms of stopping deforestation and coal mines have been made, and we have to hope that they will be kept,” said Lesley.

“It’s going to be interesting to see what monitoring of these commitments is undertaken.”

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On Saturday, 100,000 marched through the streets of Glasgow demanding climate justice, and Lesley was proud to be one of them.

She said: “There was a fantastic collection of students, young and older health professionals marching in a block, about 250 of us, including people from the Borders, to try and get this message across that the climate crisis is a health crisis.

“No-one can deny the science now; the science is clear. I think most politicians and people are recognising ‘something has to be done’.

“What is not coming through is a sense of urgency, that we have ten years to turn this around before tipping point.”

Despite the high-profile event, the activist was disappointed with the media’s coverage of the youth march.

She said: “It’s up to us to continue to put pressure on our political representatives, and in our view, every single discussion that goes before Scottish Borders Council and the Scottish Government, should be prefaced by ‘this will be considered in the context of the climate crisis’.

“Because everything, whether its new houses, roads, water supplies, sewage and flood prevention, health education – absolutely everything is being affected by the climate crisis.”

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Lesley attended a session where there was a campaign to recognise the carbon footprint and the carbon bootprint.

She explained: “People in various walks of life are doing their part, but we need governments to step up and listen to what the people want.

“Having been in the Blue Zone for a week and going back and forth to participate in marches, my overall impression is that it is inspiring to see so many young people really engaging with this.

“That the health message is understood. The climate crisis is a health crisis, and it’s urgent.”

During my interview with Lesley, she became quite emotional, and it is clear how much she cares about the climate crisis. Yet, through the tears, I could hear a unique sense of optimism for the future.