Climate change the new public health emergency

The following is a July 11 article by Pegeen Walsh and Kim Perrotta. The original article in the The Hamilton Spectator can be found here. Pegeen Walsh is the Executive Director for the Ontario Public Health Association. Kim Perrotta is the editor of the Climate Change Toolkit for Health Professionals, the former Executive Director (ED) for the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment (CAPE), and the ED for the Canadian Health Association for Sustainability and Equity (CHASE).

The last week [in early July] has been a harsh reminder that while we are close to getting one public health emergency under control, we have done far too little to address climate change, the public health emergency that threatens the livability of the planet.

This has been a terrifying week. Record-breaking temperatures across B.C. and the Prairies have left a trail of despair and destruction. Nearly 500 heat-related sudden deaths have been reported in B.C. Lytton, the hottest town in B.C., was consumed by flames with frightening speed. And 180 wildfires are burning across B.C. in the wake of last week’s “heat dome.” The week has driven home some hard realities.

First, no one is safe from climate change. It is already harming the physical and mental health of people across Canada with heat waves, wildfires, smoke-filled skies, floods, hurricanes, tornadoes, and droughts that have become more frequent and more intense as global temperatures have increased. The Canadian Institute for Climate Choices estimates that, within the next 30 years, a few climate-related impacts alone — increasing levels of smog and increasing temperatures — could produce nearly $100 billion in health-related impacts each year in Canada.

Second, climate change amplifies the health inequities that already exist in our society. As was the case with COVID-19, the health impacts of climate change will not be experienced equally. Some people are more sensitive to climate-related impacts. Young children, older people, and people with pre-existing health conditions are more sensitive to extreme heat, air pollution and toxics. Some people will be more exposed to climate-related impacts. People living on low incomes, for example, are less likely to have air conditioning in their homes and workplaces and less likely to have access to pools and green space. People living in the North — particularly Indigenous people who rely on the land for food — will have their lives disrupted by melting permafrost, thinning ice, and rising sea levels.

Third, Canada is not properly prepared to protect people from climate-related impacts that are now inevitable. We need planning, policies and programs to prepare for the climate-related impacts that might occur in different regions of the country with the 1.1 C of global warming that we are currently experiencing and for the 1.5 C of warming that could be our reality within the next decade. These policies and programs must mitigate the impacts of climate change on essential services, protect public health, and reduce the health inequities that put so many people at increased risk. They might preserve green space to reduce flooding, increase trees and shade across a community, or require the installation of high efficiency heat pumps that can cool and heat air in long-term-care facilities and apartment buildings.

Fourth, we must phase out the use and extraction of fossil fuels as quickly as possible. Scientists around the world agree that we must eliminate climate emissions by 2050 and that we must make significant steps toward this goal by 2030. Too few Canadians realize that Canada has been one of the top 10 emitters of climate emissions for decades. We are one of the climate laggards; we have not yet met one of the international commitments we have made on climate change.

One quarter of our emissions in Canada come from the extraction of oil and natural gas; a sector that continues to receive billions of dollars in subsidies from our governments and billions in investments from our pension funds. Another quarter comes from the transportation sector. Zero emission vehicles that are run on electricity will help reduce these emissions, but we also need to make significant investments in fast passenger rail service, public transit, cycling and communities that foster walking, cycling and public transit. Buildings, heavy industry, electricity and agriculture are responsible for 10 or 11 per cent of our emissions each. We need dramatic reductions from every sector of the economy and we will need them fast.

The current federal government has done more to fight climate change than any previous federal government, and yet their actions fall far short of the dramatic steps that are needed if we are to leave our children and grandchildren a livable planet.

The good news is that many of the policies needed to fight climate change will produce immediate health benefits, reduce health inequities and improve social cohesion in our communities. This will reduce air pollution, increase physical activity, decrease social inequities and foster social interaction. For example, a recent study has estimated that air pollution from fossil fuels burned in this country is responsible for approximately 34,000 premature deaths each year. Those are early deaths that could be avoided by phasing out coal, oil, diesel and natural gas. In fact, the fight to save the planet might be the greatest public health opportunity of our time.