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COMMENTARY: Climate change is a health crisis

For decades, politicians have heard about the reality of climate change from scientists and about the threats of climate change to our natural world from environmentalists. Yet they have not acted. It is time they heard from us, the people that elect them. 

As we cope with extreme heat waves and unpredictable wildfires this summer, it is hard to deny climate change is a reality. With record setting high temperatures in many places in the west, this stretch of hot weather is a searing reminder of how human actions are affecting our planet. If global warming continues unabated, it is easy to imagine how life will become unbearable.

The health of humans and the health of our planet are inextricably linked. The effects of climate change on human health are already evident in Canada and many other places in the world. Our northern latitude exaggerates the effect of climate change and disproportionately affects populations living in the Far North, including many Inuit communities whose livelihoods are intertwined with the conditions of the land. 

Climate change is the biggest public health threat of the 21st century. The World Health Organization estimates five million deaths will occur due to heat, malnutrition and diarrhoeal diseases attributable to climate change between 2030 and 2050. The scale and severity of the impact of global warming on human health can put health systems, economies and even global security at risk.

Climate change has both direct and indirect impacts on health. Heat waves, hurricanes and wildfires result in heat-related illness, trauma and death. Warmer temperatures increase the range of insect-borne diseases such as Lyme disease, malaria and West-Nile virus resulting in their spread to parts of the world they were not found in before. Climate change also has significant effects on mental health as extreme weather events can increase anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder and suicide risk. 

Labour productivity is reduced during natural disasters and heat waves and these economic losses can lead to poverty and widening of inequality in society. Globally, climate change causes food insecurity, migration of populations and conflict between groups competing for the same resources such as water and fertile land. 

Fortunately, we have the technical and policy knowledge to avert climate disaster. What we need to do is create political will for immediate action and push our decision makers to make use of the tools we have to keep us, and our planet, healthy. 

The federal government’s Strengthened Climate Plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions falls well short of what is required to stay below the 1.5 Celsius target outlined in the 2015 Paris Agreement. To achieve this critical goal, we need to decarbonize quickly with at least a 45 per cent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions from 2010 levels by 2030 and net zero by 2050. Sadly, our greenhouse gas emissions are higher today than they were in 2010 and are not projected to reach even the modest target set by the federal government for 2030.

Carbon pricing is a vital policy tool that forces the fossil fuel sector to pay for environmental and health costs resulting from their profit making activities. It also helps level the playing field for the renewable energy sector whose newer technology is currently more costly to develop and put into operation. 

Fortunately, all major federal parties now support carbon pricing but the effectiveness of the policy depends on setting a high enough price on carbon to discourage fossil fuel use and on directly supporting renewable sources of energy. Setting minimum requirements for carbon-free sources of energy in the energy mix and increasing incentives for renewable sources of energy will accelerate a transition away from carbon.

Fossil fuel subsidies are on the decline, but still overshadow incentives for renewable energy sources. Income from carbon pricing and a reduction in fossil fuel subsidies can be used to pay for a just transition for individuals and communities that currently rely on the fossil fuel sector for their livelihood. 

The Alberta government's website proudly claims “coal-fired plants currently generate most of Alberta’s electrical power.” Yet, electricity generated by coal results in more air pollution, mercury release and greenhouse gas emissions than any other source of electricity.

Any attempt to modernize Alberta’s coal policy should have the phase out of coal as its focus. The United Kingdom has shown the world this can be done quickly and effectively. By dramatically reducing coal use from 40 per cent in 2012 to less than 5 per cent today, they reduced greenhouse gas emissions to the lowest levels seen since 1890. The United Kingdom is projected to be completely coal-free by 2024.

For decades, politicians have heard about the reality of climate change from scientists and about the threats of climate change to our natural world from environmentalists. Yet they have not acted. It is time they heard from us, the people that elect them. 

We don’t want our government to mount a weak and inadequate response to the biggest public health threat of the 21st century. We need to make our demands for policies to reduce global warming clear to our elected officials at all levels of government. Because healthy people need a healthy planet. 

Vamini Selvanandan is a family physician and public health practitioner in Alberta. For more articles like this, visit www.engagedcitizen.ca.