In this excerpt of Upstream Medicine: Doctors for a Healthier Canada, Upstreamist Dr. Courtney G. Howard tells us how using a health frame in the short-term can help save our planet in the long run.
Kelly Lau: So what do you think is the plan?
Courtney Howard: Right now, the issue of climate change is in the environment box, but people only care about the environment box to a certain extent. Everybody cares about the health box. Study after study, survey after survey, shows that Canadians care about their health. So it is our job to communicate clearly that climate change is in the health box and to take ownership about trying to find solutions.
We need to reinforce and support the people who are making the system. I’m working with an economist who does carbon pricing, and he asked me to work with him because he didn’t have the scientific knowledge to talk about climate change. He was trying for years to get carbon price legislation in the territories, but was always unsuccessful because he was never formally trained in anything scientific or environmental.
When he learned I had an interest in climate change and health, he asked me to present with him. I looked at carbon pricing for a bit and realized that pretty unanimously, academics – even the head of the World Bank – have been asking for carbon pricing.
"People only care about the environment box to a certain extent. Everybody cares about the health box."
Once I realized that this was a dependable thing to support, we put together presentations on “a carbon price for what ails us.” I would talk about the health effects of climate change, and everyone would look down and seem to feel a bit depressed. Then I would say, “Hey, now do what Doug says.” And so Doug Ritchie would talk about carbon taxes.
I liked it because there was a clear action item associated with the presentation instead of people just becoming depressed. Doug liked it because he didn’t have to wade into climate science and also because people actually came to his presentation. I mean, who wants to come listen to a presentation about a carbon tax?
KL: There are so many options for how to address climate change on higher levels. How do you think this will affect our future patients?
"It is amazing when you set the wheels in motion how many people join in."
CH: I think the more we are able to build healthy, low-carbon, walkable environments, with fresh water and local food, the better everyone is going to feel. The data has shown that the more eyes on the road, the more you are going to chat with your neighbours, the fewer feelings of social isolation, the nicer neighbourhoods you will have, and the better health outcomes you will have in terms of cardiovascular and respiratory disease, etc.
Low-cost local foods are more likely to taste good and to have a smaller carbon footprint. I think we need to paint a better picture of where we are going and where we want to get to. We have to start becoming like the condo sellers who show glossy photos of people doing things and walking places instead of scaring people with a ragged, torn, scary future. What motivates you more and makes you want to get out in the world to contribute?
I think the job for Canadian doctors is to (a) learn about climate change, (b) come up with an action plan, and (c) do their best to communicate that plan to their patients. It is amazing when you set the wheels in motion how many people join in.
Dr. Courtney Howard is an emergency physician in Yellowknife, a mom, and a board member for the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment (CAPE, follow on Twitter @CAPE_Doctors). Dr. Howard grew up in North Vancouver and has worked in ERs all over Canada including the North West Territories, as well as in the Horn of Africa. (Follow Dr. Howard @Courtghoward).