• Photograph by Light Brigading/cc/flickr

Climate action is healthcare outside the clinic

We entreat leaders to attack the low-carbon transition with the same ethos we use during the cardiopulmonary resuscitations that work: push hard, push fast, don’t stop.”

- Dr. Nick Watts

For years human health resided in a different ‘box’ than climate health.  At first, healthcare professionals themselves didn’t recognize climate change would have an effect on their health or on their work. Then in 2009 the Lancet stunned us all with the pronouncement that “Climate change is the greatest global health threat of the 21st century.”  This was followed by several years of physicians urging other physicians to, in journal-speak, “do something.”  Anxiety was high, and productive action was low.

planetperth.jpgTown by town, healthcare providers have been feeling their way into the space where the health box and the environment box intersect, and have been figuring out how to amplify the efforts of those who have been caring for the climate while we have been in clinic.  We now see these efforts mirrored and amplified at the highest international levels with the second World Health Organization conference on climate change and health which is going on now in Paris. Approaching climate change through the frame of health makes the danger easier to grasp for many, and the health improvement opportunities of climate action have created momentum for health professionals.

Climate action for health is Dr. Eric Notebaert of Montreal attending council meetings and working with cycling groups to point out the reductions in chronic disease, local air pollution and greenhouse gases that will be made possible as Montreal’s cycling infrastructure is transformed into something that makes cardio-commuting easier and more convenient. 

Climate action for health is the Yukon Nurse’s Association and the Northwest Territories Medical Associations passing resolutions on the right to a healthy environment and the Canadian Public Health Association’s release of its conversation-changing discussion paper on the Ecological Determinants of Health.

Climate action for health is Dr. Joe Vipond of Calgary tirelessly researching and communicating the health benefits of the reduction of air pollution that will be made possible when Alberta phases out its coal plants.  As Dr Vipond moves onwards from Alberta’s commitment to coal phase-out, climate action for health is spreading new learnings countrywide, with physicians such as Saskatoon-based MD and founder of Upstream Dr. Ryan Meili and Nova Scotia public health physician Dr. Monika Dutt joining the push to take the coal phase-out across Canada.

Climate action for health is  the Toronto Public Health Department calculating the lives saved by improvements in air pollution, thanks partly to the phase-out of coal plants in Ontario, and making recommendations to policymakers to increase funding to transit and active transport infrastructure in order to ensure the health of Torontonians gets ever better. 

"Approaching climate change through the frame of health makes the danger easier to grasp for many."

Climate action for health is Dr. Angie Legresley and other New Brunswick physicians invoking the precautionary principle regarding hydraulic fracturing, and contributing to the successful push for a moratorium in New Brunswick. It's the College of Family Physicians of Newfoundland passing a resolution endorsing a moratorium on shale oil and gas development and hydraulic fracturing in Newfoundland and Labrador.

Climate action for health is Dr. Melissa Lem of Vancouver speaking about the heath benefits of nature, and reminding us of what we are working to protect, and MDs like Dr Jean Zigby of Montreal working to decrease the impact that the healthcare system itself has on nature.

Climate action for health is  the Canadian Medical Association divesting from fossil fuels and bringing in Dr James Orbinski, the physician who accepted the Nobel Peace Prize on behalf of Doctors Without Borders, to give a keynote on climate-health at the CMA’s annual general council this year.

Climate action starts with something as simple as presenting rounds on climate-health at your health institution or school.  If you are a healthcare professional who is looking for a place to start, do that.  Getting the home team up to speed is a powerful first step towards community engagement.

More than choosing new subjects upon which to focus, climate action also means seeking new partners and new ways in which to work.  Few healthcare professionals in the past have sat on a team with an urban planner, an energy planner, a graphic designer, an environmentalist and a politician.  They are starting to do just that, and are finding the confluence of ideas and expertise stimulating and inspiring.

"The resuscitation has begun."

Climate action also requires professionals used to wielding stethoscopes to seek new tools, like digital communications platform.  Recently Upstream joined more than eighty organizations from 30 countries, representing more than 300,000 doctors, nurses and public health professionals and advocates, to release a statement coordinated by the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment, which called on G7 leaders to discuss a coal-power phase-out in their health talks at their meeting in Japan.  The production of that statement required technology and partners previously un-accessed by healthcare professionals in Canada. 

All of these people and projects are part of a global movement dedicated to planetary health which coalesced around the COP21 meeting in Paris and which is solidifying its plan for the implementation of the Paris agreement at the World Health Organization’s conference this week.  Best practices are being shared between countries, and collaboration with multidisciplinary teams is allowing dusty research papers to be reworked into memes. Within countries, new alliances are forming, and health learners are swapping social media tips for advocacy instruction by the more experienced members of their profession.

It has taken health professionals a long time to generate an effective response to the threat climate change poses to health but we are now at the bedside, and the resuscitation has begun.  




Head_shot.jpgDr. Courtney Howard, MD, CCFP-EM, is an Emergency Physician in Yellowknife, the Climate-Health Board Lead for the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment (CAPE), and an Upstream Environmental Cluster member.  

Twitter: @courtghoward

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