The link between climate change and health is clear. It’s been called “the greatest threat to global health in the 21st century” by the World Health Organization — but it is also seen as an ideal opportunity to seek ways to both reduce climate change while greatly improving health.
Climate change is connected to health in many ways:
Climate change shapes what we eat. Although local food production is increasing, much of our food is imported from other parts of the world where a drought can wipe out crops and increase scarcity. That makes it harder for us to find and afford foods.
Climate change and the air we breathe are closely linked. For example, the burning of fossil fuels creates air pollution that effects air quality and worsens conditions like asthma and chronic obstructive lung disease (COPD) — and it makes climate change worse. In China, they recently declared a “red alert” — the country’s highest alarm level, in response to thick smog. Their pollution is due largely to the burning of coal.
Climate change increases the likelihood of certain infections. Lyme disease is moving its way north because warmer conditions are better for the ticks that carry the infection. Mosquitoes carry malaria, and they like warm, damp conditions — malaria is now being seen in places in the world where it was once uncommon.
Climate change contributes to more heat-related illnesses. People have died because of increased heat, sometimes in great numbers, as they didn’t have the means to protect themselves. Weather events such as floods and typhoons are more likely to happen with climate change, resulting in more illnesses, injuries, and loss of homes.
Climate change erodes our coastlines through rising sea levels. Communities and fisheries are at risk. Our homes and employment are part of what makes us healthy, and coastal communities know the threat that our way of life faces.
Climate change makes places unlivable. A newer term, “environmental refugees”, has been used to describe people fleeing at least in part because they are unable to grow food or because of flooding. The conflict in Syria is influenced by environmental conditions. As Nova Scotia prepares to welcome refugees from Syria, it is inevitable that refugee numbers will increase due to climate change.
Healthcare providers recognize that addressing climate change and improving health go hand-in-hand. An open letter signed by doctors was just released and given to the federal Minister of the Environment as representatives gather in Paris for COP 21. The asks included an ambitious climate agreement, integrating health into climate change policies, phasing out fossil fuel subsidies, and prioritizing actions that both reduce climate change and improve health.
This last ask is where local efforts fit in. We can all promote active transportation through how we design our streets and sidewalks, how we create supportive environments at work, and whether we decide to leave our cars behind and walk or cycle to work and school.
We can advocate for the phase-out of coal powered electricity in Canada and increase our use of renewable energy. This might mean, for example, solar panels on our homes, or new wind farms. Any significant change requires a plan that ensures employment for people involved in fossil fuel industries, but, ultimately, ending dependence on fossil fuels improves air quality, decreases deaths from cancer, respiratory and cardiovascular diseases, and limits global warming.
We need to adapt to environmental changes caused by climate change, but we also have to pursue every opportunity to combat it.
Using the fact that climate change is a health issue makes it easier to see how we are all personally impacted. It also makes it clearer that by taking action we can improve our own health as well as that of those around us.
By Monika Dutt, Medical Officer of Health (Cape Breton, Guysborough, Antigonish),