Adapting to climate change is a public health crisis — but also an opportunity.
We need to focus on the social determinants of health to become climate change ready. That was the message we heard loud and clear from the experts. Last week the Federal government released a report from its expert panel on Adaptation to Climate Change in Canada. In that report the experts recommended that addressing the social inequality and vulnerability was the top priority in addressing risks from climate change. They confirmed what those of us in public health have known for quite a while — your economic and social status determine your health outcomes. Those people who have low incomes would be particularly at risk from climate change health risks.
This expert panel report builds off the excellent work that was done by the 2015 Lancet Commission on Climate Change and Health that detailed the public health risks from climate change. These reports set the groundwork for conversation on climate and health.
Given that evidence is starting to pile up and there is a consensus emerging among experts that the social determinants of health will play an important role in setting goals for climate adaptation Upstream has decided to step into conversations about climate and health. We want to make sure that the social determinants of health provide the backbone of solutions to climate change because we think health and wellbeing for everyone is the goal of public policy.
Many proposed solutions to climate change seem to negatively affect the social determinants of health if we are not careful. For example a carbon tax can claw money away from already poor families struggling on a low-income. The health evidence shows a low-income is bad for health. Fortunately, there is a way to protect low-income families and still have policy to address greenhouse gas pollution.
In Alberta they have a rebate for all low-income families. So that the carbon tax system is progressive and fair. This low-income rebate system could be mandated by the federal government if they impose a carbon tax on provinces. Other countries have been more experimental. In the UK they have at times considered a basic energy income for every family through tradable national energy quotas.
"The social determinants of health will play an important role in setting goals for climate adaptation."
Another important way that climate change impacts our health is through housing. Over the last few years thousands of families have lost or damaged homes from natural disasters linked to climate change. The Insurance Board of Canada has noticed a significant rise in damage claims due to climate change and weather. We know that having adequate housing is essential to health outcomes.
Where we need research is on how climate change will put affordable housing at risk and how we can adapt to protect the housing of the most vulnerable populations. Do we need to shift where we build affordable housing and/or do we need a complete overhaul in the design of social housing to be climate ready?
At Upstream we want to work towards providing policy solutions that directly address these big questions about climate and health.
Alex is a researcher and campaigner who co-founded Manitoba Energy Justice Coalition and worked on the campaign to stop the Energy East pipeline. He currently serves as Upstream's Policy and Research Innovation Coordinator.