This is part of a series on sparking change with a Green New Deal.
When I first started working on climate issues almost 20 years ago, the World Health Organization (WHO) pegged the annual death toll from the climate crisis at 150,000. The WHO is now projecting that from 2030 to 2050 the climate crisis will take the lives of at least 250,000 every year.
Defending and expanding public health care to address our climate emergency can and should be part of a Green New Deal.
The climate crisis is a public health emergency
In February, the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment (CAPE), the Canadian Medical Association (CMA), the Canadian Nurses Association (CNA), the Canadian Public Health Association (CPHA) and the Urban Public Health Network (UPHN) united to call on federal parties “to recognize that climate change is the greatest public health challenge of the 21st century, and to make climate solutions a priority in the 2019 federal election.”
The group is calling on federal parties to commit to: 1) Implementing effective, evidence-based climate plans to ensure Canada meets is Paris Agreement commitments; 2) Creating and funding the policies needed for a just transition to a low carbon economy; and 3) Funding and coordinating climate crisis preparation for public health institutions “to minimize the impact of climate change on Canadians Physical and mental health.”
In March, doctors spoke out in support of the Fridays for Future student climate strike. Doctors also united with farmers and Indigenous leaders for a speaking tour to oppose fracking and Liquified Natural Gas (LNG), including the Coastal GasLink pipeline’s impacts on the people and traditional lands of the Wet’suwet’en Nation.
CAPE is also calling on the BC government “to withdraw its proposed legislation on new tax breaks for the LNG industry and enact a moratorium on its expansion until its human health impacts—including those related to its effects on global climate change and the direct consequences of fracking—are fully understood, communicated and addressed.”
In April, a coalition of health organizations noted that “The consequences will be even more devastating and irreversible if ambitious policies are not put in place quickly. Hospitals and clinics are already under pressure. Ignoring the growing stress on our public health system and its workers as a result of climate change is simply not a viable option.” The organizations called for a “drastic reduction of our dependence on fossil fuels by ceasing all hydrocarbon exploration and exploitation projects in Quebec with the goal of achieving greenhouse gas reduction targets (50% by 2030, carbon neutrality in 2050).”
Health impacts of the climate crisis
The Canadian Federation of Nurses Unions (CFNU) recently published a paper on climate and health. CFNU President Linda Silas writes in the report that “Over the coming decades, our rapidly changing climate will pose the biggest threat to human health and well-being across every region of our planet.” The report, Climate Change and Health: It’s time for nurses to act, examines how climate pressures lead to exposure pathways, resulting in a range of impacts on human health.
The report highlights health impacts from the climate crisis that include: higher rates of heatstroke and stress; increased allergens from more intense and prolonged pollen seasons, exacerbating asthma sufferers’ health condition; displacement from wildfire and floods, accompanied by the mental distress of loss; an acceleration in the spread of Lyme disease; cardiorespiratory distress from air pollution due to wildfires; increased respiratory ailments due to intensifying ground level ozone and air pollution; and decreased access to, and availability of, food due to fluctuations in agricultural yields and food prices.
The report includes recommendations for nurses and nurses unions to green their workplaces; help educate patients and the general public about the climate crisis; campaign for the ecological determinants of health to be included in nursing education; calling on governments to implement their Paris Agreement climate commitments; promote transitioning away from fossil fuels towards renewable energy; plan for the emerging patient needs resulting from climate change; assess patients for the psychological burden of climate change, including the effects of ecoanxiety, ecoparalysis and solastalgia; prepare for extreme weather events; and promote active transportation and local healthy agriculture and food systems that reduce emissions.
The climate crisis is projected to increase the likelihood and reach of infectious diseases, epidemics, and pandemics.
Toward a Green New Deal for public health care
The starting point is recognizing the potential for health care work as low carbon work. Defending and expanding our health care system is a climate solution.
In its 2012 paper on a A Green Industrial Revolution, the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives discussed how public service jobs like health care work "could be considered a major source of inherently green jobs.”
Health care advocates have long been calling for the expansion of our public health care system to include key services such as universal access to pharmacare, dental, vision and hearing care, mental health services, as well as environmental and occupational health. Doing so would create a stronger Medicare system with more green jobs.
There’s also a need for a new health accord to defend the system from creeping privatization, including threats to public plasma and blood donation. Trade agreements and corporate rights pacts also pose serious risks to health care and our climate commitments. A Green New Deal needs to reject this multi-pronged neoliberal assault on climate action and public services.
Several organizations that work on health care have endorsed the Pact for a Green New Deal, including the Canadian Health Coalition, Partners in Health Canada, and Women’s Healthy Environments Network, as well as CUPE Ontario which, among other sectors, represents 60,000 health care workers. As reported by the Tyee, “Unifor is currently supporting the [Green New Deal] framework in principle.”
Unifor, which represents 26,000 health care workers, notes that “Just transition programs need to be tailored to the circumstances of workers and their communities, and their selection, design and implementation will require participation of all those involved. Workers, unions, communities and firms will need to be engaged by government to develop specific programs that can include skills development and training, income support and relocation assistance, as well as working with the federal government on pension bridging and benefits programs for displaced workers.”
The Green Economy Network’s campaign for One Million Climate Jobs outlines how a just transition “can both reduce Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) and create decent paying jobs… These measures must also go hand in hand with efforts to deal with unemployment overall, as rising CO2 levels and job losses are the products of the same economic model.”
It’s also critical to address the intersection of public health care and migrant justice, which Canadian Doctors for Refugee Care is doing important work on. People should have access to health care without fear of detention or deportation, regardless of immigration status. Climate justice, migrant justice, and public health are inherently linked.
Former Detroit Health Director Abdul El-Sayed wrote in the Guardian in April, that "I realized that the forces that cause climate change are the same forces that poisoned the lungs of babies in my city… As a public health doctor, I know that by eliminating the local consequences of fossil fuel emissions, and lifting whole communities out of poverty, the Green New Deal will also be a Public Health New Deal."
El-Sayed writes powerfully on the importance of a Green New Deal that addresses the public health impacts of environmental racism, the prison-industrial complex, and inequality. He points out that, “The Green New Deal recognizes that the challenges of stopping climate change and providing low-income kids what they need to thrive are not mutually exclusive – rather they are mutually inclusive… It recognizes that climate change is an imminent threat to our Earth, and that the benefits of solving it must go to the people who have been most affected by it.”
A Green New Deal for public health care has decades of important policy, advocacy, and grassroots organizing work to draw on that addresses these priorities and more as a key part of the solution to the climate crisis.
What can we do?
1. Join a local or regional health coalition and help expand their capacity to address the climate crisis as a public health emergency.
2. Demand that federal parties include a commitment to a Green New Deal for public health in their election platforms.
3. Health care workers can use CAPE’s Climate Change Toolkit for Health Professionals.