Climate Change and Health Effects
by Dr. Nahid Azad, on behalf of the FMWC Women, Peace, and Security Committee
Climate change has been described by the Lancet as the “greatest threat to health of the 21st century”. In a Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5C (2.7F), the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warns a reduction is only possible with significant changes to how we all live, no matter where we live. The importance of 1.5 degrees is the amount needed to stave off even greater destruction and the negative effects of excess carbon emissions (1).
The Federation of Medical Women of Canada Women, Peace, and Security Committee supports the Canadian government in its 2019 declaration of a climate 9 and its emissions reduction plan. The Canadian Net-Zero Emissions Accountability Act, Bill C-12, assented to on June 29, 2021, sets targets for every five years from 2030 to 2050 (2). The purpose of this Act is to require the setting of national targets for the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions based on the best scientific information available and to promote transparency, accountability, immediate and ambitious action in relation to achieving those targets, in support of achieving net-zero emissions in Canada by 2050 and Canada’s international commitments in respect to mitigating climate change.
We know that climate change further exacerbates the gender inequities through many means such as crop failure, fuel shortage, water scarcity, natural disaster, diseases and caregiving burden, displacement, and conflict (3). We see wildfires exacerbating respiratory illnesses and leading to community displacement in Western Canada; heat-related illness in urban areas; changes in the availability of traditional foods in the Arctic region; mental health stresses; extreme weather events such as floods and droughts; progression of infectious diseases such as Lyme disease. Moreover, climate change drives inequities: older persons, those of low socioeconomic status, and racialized people living in Canada, face a greater burden of the impacts of climate change on their health (4).
The Lancet Countdown: Tracking Progress on Health and Climate is an international, multi-disciplinary collaboration that monitor the links between public health and climate change. It brings together 38 academic institutions and UN agencies from every continent, drawing on the expertise of climate scientists, engineers, economists, political scientists, public health professionals, and doctors. Each year, the Lancet Countdown publishes an annual assessment of the state of climate change and human health, seeking to provide decision-makers with access to high-quality evidence-based policy guidance (5).
The Way Forward: Healthy Recovery (3)—we require an urgent transition to environmentally sustainable societies that prioritize low-income groups, migrant workers, older persons and Indigenous peoples. Canada’s healthcare system also has one of the largest carbon footprints in the world & requires urgent transition to low-carbon, energy-efficient, reduced-waste health services. Pollution from the health sector can take many forms. Hospitals and pharmaceutical companies are the largest drivers of emissions, according to the PLOS Medicine study (6).
A just transition to carbon-neutral society should consider health and equity impacts of all proposed policies to address climate and COVID-19 crises. As a society, we need to:
- Prioritize communities that have been disproportionately impacted (i.e. women, Indigenous people, older adults, , racialized people, low socioeconomic status).
- Strengthen Health System Resilience by prioritizing decarbonization, energy efficiency, improved waste management and supply chains.
- Full and effective participation of women are needed at all levels of decision making, as well as a gender responsive approach in all policies and measures related to climate change (4).
Most important, health care providers need to understand the health impacts of climate crises and how to help and prepare their patients for changes in the future. Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment (CAPE) has created an online toolkit consisting of 8 modules designed for health professionals to help understand the science and impacts of climate change for themselves and their patients (7).
The FMWC is committed to advocate for and be involved in actions combating climate and environmental changes. We support the battle against climate change. There are 4 key lessons for Canada's WW2 mobilization that can be used to act on climate change by Canadian governments and institutions. Using these lessons, we can envision what true climate action looks like (8).
- The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)
- Howard, C et al. Lancet Countdown 2019 Policy brief for Canada. Lancet Countdown, Canadian Medical Association, and Canadian Public Health Association. November 2019. Available: https:// www.lancetcountdown.org/resources/
- lancet countdown.org/2020-report.
- Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment. https://cape.ca/campaigns/climate-health-policy/climate-change-toolkit-for-health-professionals/