The intricate relationship between our planet’s changing climate and human well-being has given rise to a new crisis. As temperatures surge, ecosystems falter, and natural disasters become more frequent, it is increasingly evident that climate change isn’t merely an environmental crisis; our physical and mental health are also at stake. In her 2022 annual report, Generating Knowledge to Inform Public Health Action on Climate Change in Canada, Dr. Theresa Tam, Canada’s Chief Public Health Officer, highlights the importance of addressing climate change as a public health emergency. There are decades of research highlighting the link between the environment and health; sunburns and our ozone layer, floods and their impact on waterborne illness, storms and their risk to key infrastructure, extreme temperatures leading to heat stroke, hypothermia, and more severe cold and flu seasons, and – perhaps most relevant to Canadians in the summer- wildfires and their impacts on communities.
By communicating the impacts, issues, and complexities of climate change through the lens of health impacts and health equity we have a new shared language to collaborate and garner support for action. It is significant that our Chief Medical Officer, Canada’s lead health professional and spokesperson for public health, has recognized climate change as a public health emergency. Now the question becomes: how can we, as sustainability professionals, leverage that to affect change and increase impact?
By communicating the impacts, issues, and complexities of climate change through the lens of health impacts and health equity we have a new shared language to collaborate and garner support for action.
Communicating the need for action around climate change has been highly politicized for decades. Focusing on the undeniable links between the environment and health allows people to bypass some of the more politicized parts of climate change and speak in terms that affect everyone – people are dying. Globally, records for the hottest days or weeks are being broken regularly. In Nova Scotia rates of Lyme disease are skyrocketing. In the summer of 2021, 595 people died of heat stroke in BC. In the northern territories, rising temperatures and changing environments limit transport via ice roads and access to traditional food sources further exacerbating food insecurity in communities. As of July 25, a total of 4,746 wildfires have been recorded in Canada — which is above the 10-year average, according to CIFFC data. This year will become a record-breaking summer for land lost to fire with more than 4.7 million hectares of land already lost. Not only does this mean the displacement of more than 150,000 Canadians, but it also means increased respiratory illness for people all over North America, destruction of key infrastructure, overwhelmed emergency response systems, and, in the most extreme circumstances, death.
For some, often those with more privilege and power, the impacts of climate change can be distant and indirect, happening in faraway places to people they don’t know, and on a timeline that’s difficult to comprehend. As climate change continues, the immediacy of the impacts will affect more people directly. When we are witness to such tragedy, it reinforces the importance of our shared work and allows us to communicate the need for action in much more urgent and relatable terms.
For some, often those with more privilege and power, the impacts of climate change can be distant and indirect, happening in faraway places to people they don’t know, and on a timeline that’s difficult to comprehend.
The health impacts of climate change also provide an opportunity to discuss equity and power as it relates to climate change. The health impacts of climate change are felt most by historically marginalized communities. For example, across Canada Indigenous communities are less likely to have access to safe drinking water, historically Black and Mi’kmaw communities are more likely to be next to a waste facility, and less affluent communities have less capacity to deal with rising sea levels, storms, changes in temperature, and inflation. There is a long and complex history of oppression and exploitation in Canada. By understanding the inequity of health impacts due to climate change, there is also a clear opportunity to bring those perspectives into the conversation. The inequity made apparent by the health impacts of climate change also highlights our need for more dramatic and transformative systems change.
To address climate change meaningfully we must look upstream and address the issues of power, oppression, and exploitation, manifested most clearly in our culture of extraction, the hoarding of wealth and resources, and our obsession with infinite growth. With Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion as one of ASI’s six Transition Leadership competency domains, our team aims to challenge the status quo and prioritize solutions that address issues of equity, not perpetuate them.
Addressing climate change requires collaboration across all sectors; this has been a foundational component of ASI since the beginning. Acknowledging it as a public health emergency welcomes new partners and provincial/federal health staff into the fold. Integrating a health lens enriches our efforts, tapping into the expertise and resources of health professionals. Public health staff’s experience with upstream solutions positions them well to aid in climate change work. Conversely for health professionals, collaborating with climate and sustainability-focused professionals and organizations enhances policy-making, best practices, funding, and community-driven initiatives. Let’s navigate this together to create a sustainable future, one that hosts healthy people and a healthy planet.
Upcoming Event Related to DEI: September 7
It’s important to recognize that marginalized and vulnerable communities are disproportionately affected by climate change. They bear the brunt of extreme weather events, experience displacement, and face increased health risks.
Join us on September 7 for a conversation on the interconnectedness of climate change and social justice. Learn about and share your own approaches to ensuring that our climate action work is equitable and inclusive.