OP-ED: Health Professionals Prescribe Climate Action for a Healthy Future Ahead of COP26 Meeting

October 15, 2021.

By Kim Perrotta and Helen Doyle.

Reprinted from The Hill Times with permission. https://www.hilltimes.com/2021/10/14/health-professionals-prescribe-climate-action-for-a-healthy-future-ahead-of-cop26-meeting/322906

On October 11th, the Global Climate Health Alliance released an open letter signed by over 400 health organizations representing 45 million health professionals around the world.  It calls upon world leaders to deliver climate action at the upcoming UN climate conference to prevent the climate crisis which “is the single biggest health threat facing humanity”.  This is why we, as Canadian health professionals, signed that letter. 

Last Summer, approximately 600 people died in one week on mainland BC from a heat wave of unprecedented intensity. Two people lost their lives when the Town of Lytton burned to the ground with frightening speed after experiencing record-breaking temperatures in the high 40s for three consecutive days. Then thousands of people had the lives upended over the coming months as BC battled over 1600 wildfires that consumed over 8,700 square kilometres of land.  During those months, millions of people across the country were exposed to high or extremely high levels of toxic air pollution created from burning forests.    

This is not the first year that lives have been lost to climate change in Canada. Hundreds have lost their lives to heat waves, wildfires, ice storms and floods, that have become more frequent and more intense because of climate change, in different parts of the country over the last several years.  And for each one of those deaths, many more people have been harmed, physically or mentally, from wildfire smoke, evacuations, power outages, and insect- and tick-borne diseases. One study estimates that wildfire smoke alone is producing $4.7 to $20.8 billion in health-related impacts, each year, in Canada.

Like COVID-19, climate change is having a much greater impact on the sensitive and disadvantaged people in our communities.  Older people, young children, and people with health conditions such as asthma, are more sensitive to heat and wildfire smoke. People who live on low incomes are more likely to live or work in places that lack air conditioning, less likely to have access to green space, and less likely to have the resources to recover from floods and wildfires. Indigenous populations that live close to the land are experiencing greater food insecurity as melting permafrost and shifts in animal populations disrupt their access to food. 

We are experiencing these impacts at 1.1°C of global warming. With each 0.1°C of warming, the climate impacts and health risks will be greater. The most recent studies tell us that millions will lose their lives from climate-related impacts if we are unable to limit global warming to 1.5°C. They tell us that governments must increase their climate commitments and that they must do so quickly, if we are to limit global warming to 1.5°C and preserve a habitable planet for our children.  

No country will be immune to the impacts of global warming but people living in low-income countries such as Haiti will be the hardest hit. Low-income countries have contributed the least to climate change but are the least able to protect their citizens against it. 

In a few weeks, leaders from around the world will meet at the UN climate change conference in Glasgow, UK.  Called the COP26, this conference is their last chance to deliver the new commitments that are needed to limit global warming to 1.5°C and to provide the funding needed to protect people in low-income countries.

For decades, we in Canada have been among the top 10 emitters of climate pollution. We are one of the nations that has benefited most from the extraction and use of fossil fuels such as coal, oil and gas that have created the climate crisis. As such, we have an obligation to do everything in our power to help those who are now most at risk.

There is good news in this story.  Many of the actions needed to fight climate change will improve public health and reduce healthcare costs right here in Canada. One study has estimated that we could avoid up to 36,000 early deaths each year in Canada if we stopped extracting and burning fossil fuels because of the reductions in air pollution.  By phasing out fossil fuels and investing in public transit, cycling, building retrofits, zero emission vehicles and renewable energy, we can improve air quality, increase physical activity, and if done correctly, reduce health impacts for disadvantaged populations in Canada.

Our reaction to climate change at this moment could be the death knell for civilization or one of the greatest public health opportunities of our time.  

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

Helen Doyle BSc, CPHI(C) is a co-author of the Climate Change Toolkit for Health Professionals. She was the Environmental Health Manager of a public health unit in the GTA for 20 years and has been the Chair of the Ontario Public Health Association’s (OPHA) Environmental Health Workgroup for many years.