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​“It’s a public health emergency:” CMA board member authors Lancet report on health impacts of climate change

​As an emergency room physician in Yellowknife, Northwest Territories (NWT), Dr. Courtney Howard easily recounts stories about the impact of climate change on the health of her patients. Less stable ice conditions have increased the risk of traveling to hunt moose and caribou, which in turn affects people’s food security and mental health. Many of her patients live up in the Mackenzie Delta, which NWT government statistics show is now three degrees Celsius warmer than it was in the 1950’s.

Internationally, Dr. Howard spent six months on a pediatric malnutrition program in Djibouti with Doctors Without Borders. She saw repeated deaths of children and infants due to malnutrition – forecast to be the biggest global health impact of climate change this century.

“I decided if I wanted to work on an issue that impacted my northern patient population, the children I really cared about overseas, and my own kids – because our own kids are facing this diagnosis as well – that I should work on climate change.”

Dr. Howard joined The Global Climate and Health Alliance in 2015. She has since researched the health effects of wildfires and participated in initiatives around active transport, coal phase-out and fossil fuel divestment. Last year, the Lancet Countdown on Health and Climate Change approached her to write a Canadian policy brief – a perfect opportunity to further her work.

As the lead author of the Lancet Countdown 2018 Report: Briefing for Canadian Policymakers, Dr. Howard focuses on the links between climate change and health, and their implications for Canadian governments. The report is supported by the CMA and the Canadian Public Health Association.

In addition to health risks in the Arctic, the report highlights climate change-related health concerns in other parts of Canada, including dozens of heat-related deaths in Quebec, cardiorespiratory illnesses from wildfires in British Columbia and Alberta, and post-traumatic stress disorder and displacement from flooding in New Brunswick.

The Lancet Countdown Report makes seven evidence-based recommendations that federal, provincial and territorial governments can adopt to mitigate the impact of such climate change-related events on the health of Canadians. 

  • Phase out coal-powered electricity by 2030 (which Canada has committed to doing)
  • Increase efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and air pollution and provide re-training for workers in the fossil fuel industry
  • Enact a strong carbon pricing program
  • Integrate climate change and health into the curriculum of all medical schools
  • Coordinate the surveillance and reporting of heat-related illnesses and deaths across Canada
  • Ensure health organizations provide proactive communications about the links between climate change and health
  • Increase funding to study the mental health impacts of climate change

Dr. Howard was in Ottawa for the release of the report and met with officials from the Prime Minister’s Office. She believes framing climate change as a health issue is the most effective way to motivate the government to take action.

“This isn’t a political issue, this is a public health issue, and we need to start treating it like one, the same way we treat tobacco.” says Dr. Howard.

“As health professionals, this is the place where there’s the greatest room for us to move the dial − because of all the different ways reducing greenhouse gas emissions can also improve health.”

The CMA Board of Directors recently identified climate change and the impact on health as a global health issue the CMA should tackle.

“This is the public health imperative of our time,” says CMA President Dr. Gigi Osler, who also attended the government meeting with Dr. Howard.

She says the CMA supports the report’s findings that Canada must continue to show leadership in addressing climate change issues, including developing public health responses to deal with the impact already being felt in Canada and around the world.

“Much more is still to be done, beyond the commitments already made, to adapt our public health system and capacity to meet the growing challenge that climate change represents,” says Dr. Osler.

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