OP-ED: The Public Health Case for a Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty

Kim Perrotta and Dr. Jacob Pendergrast, July 26, 2021

Reprinted with permission from The Hill Times, July 27, 2021

As public and clinical healthcare professionals who are deeply concerned about the risks that climate change presents to the livability of the planet, we were encouraged by Toronto City Council’s July 15th decision to endorse the Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty.  This treaty calls upon countries to phase out fossil fuels – whose consumption serves as the single greatest cause of climate change – and invest in a just transition to a sustainable and decarbonized energy system.  We are now hoping that Canada’s five federal parties will do the same.  

In June, when a draft report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change was leaked to the press, we learned that climate scientists are increasingly concerned that we are now dangerously close to triggering tipping points which would rapidly accelerate the rate of global warming.  As an example, rising global temperatures are increasing the incidence and severity of forest fires, which further accelerate the accumulation of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.  Similarly, the mass release of fresh water from melting ice caps threatens to disrupt ocean currents that normally maintain rainfall patterns that help stave off droughts. The effect of these disruptions are a series of cascading events that would have catastrophic and irreversible implications for the planet.  We are talking about impacts that could make the world uninhabitable for human beings within a short period of time.

 A similar tone of urgency was apparent in the May 2021 report by the scientifically conservative International Energy Agency. It described the path to net zero emissions by 2050 as “narrow and extremely challenging” and concluded, among other things, that no new fossil fuel projects should be approved. This is a stunning statement from this organization.

Climate change has already had a devastating impact on global health. The prestigious medical journal, The Lancet, in its 2020 Countdown Report on Health and Climate Change, estimated that nearly 300,000 people around the world died prematurely in 2018 due to of extreme heat alone.  In addition, 712 extreme weather events that occurred the year before were estimated to have caused $326 billion (US) in economic losses, nearly a three-fold increase compared to 2016.

The past month has been a clear reminder that Canada is not immune to the health risks presented by climate change.  In fact, many people in Canada have already lost their lives to extreme heat, wildfires, ice storms and floods.  But the mental and physical health of many more people is being affected by melting permafrost, rising sea levels, insect- and tick-borne diseases, and by climate-related events, such as wildfires, hurricanes, heat waves and ice storms, that have become more frequent and more intense with global warming. Researchers have estimated that wildfire smoke alone is producing $4.7 to $20.8 billion in health-related impacts, each year, in Canada.  How can we afford not to act?

Like COVID-19, while climate change affects us all, it will have a much greater impact on some populations who are more sensitive to stressors such as heat and air pollution, ie., the elderly, the very young, and people with pre-existing health conditions such as asthma.  People who live on lower incomes are also at greater risk because they are more likely to live or work in places that lack air conditioning, are less likely to have access to parks or pools and are less likely to have the resources to recover from floods or wildfires.  Finally, the melting permafrost, intensifying wildfires and warming waters induced by climate change are all amplifying food insecurity for Indigenous populations that rely on the land for a significant portion of their food. 

Many health professionals share our concerns. In December 2019, 24 health organizations across Canada signed on to a Call for Action on Climate Change and Health, including the Canadian Medical Association (CMA), the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons, the Canadian Nurses Association (CNA), and the Canadian Public Health Association (CPHA).

There is still reason to be hopeful.  In addition to the economic benefits of transitioning to a more sustainable energy system, many of the actions needed to fight climate change will also improve the health of Canadians. Investments in public transit, active modes of transportation, building retrofits, zero emission vehicles and renewable energy will improve air quality, increase physical activity, and if done correctly, reduce health inequities.  These investments have significant and immediate health benefits.  One study, has estimated that we could avoid up to 36 000 air quality-related premature deaths each year in Canada if we stopped burning fossil fuels. 

But we are now out of time; the changes required to our energy sector must happen now, and they must be significant.  For 30 years, we have been warned about the impacts that greenhouse gas emissions could have on the climate, the economy and human health. It is well past the time for decision-makers to listen to the scientists, to heed the advice of public health and healthcare professionals, and to make the tough decisions that are needed to save humankind from disaster. The future of the planet is in our hands. By endorsing the Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty, the Government of Canada can start to give us hope that we can leave our children and grandchildren a stable and livable planet.  With talk of a federal election in the air, we want to know which parties we can count on to endorse this Treaty?

Kim Perrotta MHSc is the editor of the Climate Change Toolkit for Health Professionals, the former Executive Director (ED) of the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment (CAPE), and the current ED for the Canadian Health Association for Sustainability and Equity (CHASE).

Dr. Jacob Pendergrast, MD, FRCPC, is an Associate Professor in the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Medicine and a practicing physician at the University Health Network.