Intended for healthcare professionals

Analysis Essay

Why doctors and their organisations must help tackle climate change: an essay by Eric Chivian

BMJ 2014; 348 doi: (Published 02 April 2014) Cite this as: BMJ 2014;348:g2407
  1. Eric Chivian, associate
  1. 1Department of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA, USA
  1. eric_chivian{at}

Doctors are ideally placed to provide people with compelling, concrete examples of the medical consequences of climate change, argues Eric Chivian. Not only do they have the ability to turn around the potentially destructive changes to the environment caused by human behaviour, but they also have the responsibility to do so

In 1980, with three other Harvard faculty members, I started an organisation called the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, which eventually included some 250 000 physicians from 80 countries. In 1985, we won the Nobel peace prize. The most important contribution of the physicians who joined this federation was to help people grasp what a nuclear war would really be like—so that they knew that these weapons were so catastrophically destructive that they could not be used, and so policy makers and the public would do everything in their power to prevent a nuclear war from occurring.

We did this by translating the abstract, technical science of nuclear weapons explosions, which world class scientists had been warning about for decades, into the concrete, personal terms of human health, in everyday language that people could relate to and understand—namely, what would really happen to us in such a war. We talked about skull fractures instead of the number of joules of force in the explosion, about third degree burns instead of the number of degrees centigrade in the fireball, and about radiation sickness instead of the number of Rems of radiation in the fallout. As a result, I believe we helped make nuclear war more real for people; we made it harder for them to think about such wars in vague, abstract, technical terms and, in the process, we helped change public opinion, and maybe even public policy, about the use of these weapons.

But, in contrast …

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