Climate Change and Health
There is compelling scientific evidence that damage to the earth’s atmosphere, in the form of climate change and air pollution, will have increasingly severe impacts on the health of Canadians in the future. If nothing is done to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, changes in the earth’s climate could result in significantly increased health risks, and even deaths.1
The Greenhouse Effect
Over the past 100 years, increased fossil fuel combustion has led to a 30% rise in atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), made up of more than 2,000 of the world’s leading scientific experts, has concluded that this build-up of carbon dioxide is accentuating the greenhouse effect, trapping heat and increasing global warming and climate change.2
Climate Change and Health
The IPCC has warned that, “Climate change is likely to have wide-ranging and mostly adverse impacts on human health, with significant loss of life.”3 Indeed, the evidence in North America over the last decade lends credence to this statement. Rising temperatures have led to heat waves causing illness and death, particularly among the young, the elderly, the frail and the chronically ill.
But increasingly hot weather and more frequent heat waves are not the end of the story; climate change has many other adverse effects that could cause significant harm to human health.4 These include unstable weather patterns, more frequent violent weather events such as floods, droughts and storms, higher risks of infectious diseases and threats to food supplies.5
Other public health concerns related to climate change include the potential for reduced food production resulting from higher temperatures and decreased soil moisture; the introduction of insect-borne diseases such as malaria and dengue fever into areas now free of these diseases; the contamination of water through the flooding of sewage treatment plants; the diversion of public health budgets to cope with the impacts of climate change; and the significant economic, social and health demands Canada will face in response to the massive human migration that will occur if certain areas of the world become uninhabitable because of climate change.6
Air Pollution and Health
With respect to air pollution, higher temperatures exacerbate the production of secondary air pollutants that can lead to more urban smog, which is already a major problem in Canadian cities.7 Air pollution is currently the cause of premature mortality for thousands of Canadians, and illness for tens of thousands more.8 With global warming, we will see an increase in the frequency of allergic and cardio-respiratory disorders caused by air pollutants.9
The Canadian government estimates that up to 16,000 premature deaths per year are associated with ambient air pollution.10 Recent findings published in CPHA’s Canadian Journal of Public Health (CJPH) indicate that close to 8% of non-traumatic mortality in Canadian cities is attributable to air pollution caused by the burning of fossil fuels.11 A related study showed that the increase in hospital admissions for children with asthma in recent years is directly related to worsening air pollution.12
Health Promotion and Public Awareness
As an educational and communications approach to addressing the health concerns of Canadians, health promotion has much to offer regarding climate change and its adverse impact on human health. Such an approach can encourage and support changes in behaviour among Canadians, and can also bring about changes in the environmental conditions that affect health. A health promotion approach to reducing the combustion of fossil fuels would encourage and support the use of more environmentally friendly means of transportation, whilst promoting healthy and environmentally conscious actions.
Where do we stand in terms of public awareness? While the last decade has seen a growing public consciousness and concern about general environmental degradation as well as about specific aspects such as air pollution, there are still gaps in awareness. As Taking Our Breath Away points out: “There is a growing but incomplete awareness of the atmospheric changes in concentrations of greenhouse gases that are inducing climate change, and less understanding that burning fossil fuels is the source of the problem. There is even less understanding of the health impacts of climate change.”
The Kyoto Protocol
- In response to reports from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), 160 industrialized nations came together in Kyoto, Japan, in December 1997. As part of an international agreement on climate change, the nations committed to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions.
- Canada’s commitment under this protocol is to reduce its emissions to 6% below 1990 levels by the period between 2008-2012. This will require a 20 to 25 percent drop in emissions.
- In February 1998, the Prime Minister of Canada established the Climate Change Secretariat to coordinate, in cooperation with Provincial officials, the development of a National Implementation Strategy.
- The Climate Change Action Fund (CCAF) is managed by the Climate Change Secretariat and funds four categories of projects and initiatives.
- CPHA receives funding from the CCAF for the project, “Supporting Public Awareness Initiatives on the Health Effects of Climate Change and Air Pollution” which is designed to inform Canadians and encourage action.
|1||J.T. Houghton et al. eds. Climate Change 1995 --The Science of Climate Change (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996). (Volume 1 of the Report on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.).|
|2||David Suzuki Foundation, Taking Our Breath Away: The Health Effects of Air Pollution and Climate Change, October 1998, p. 4|
|3||Taking Our Breath Away, p. 8.|
|4||Health Canada, Health and Environment: Partners for life, 1997, p.76.|
|5||Taking Our Breath Away, p. 1.|
|6||The Canadian Public Health Association’s Environmental Health Concerns, Speaking Notes to the David Suzuki Foundation Public Presentation, October 6, 1998.|
|7||Taking Our Breath Away, p. 9.|
|8||Taking Our Breath Away, p. 16.|
|9||Environment Canada, The Canada Country Study: Climate Impacts and Adaptation, Highlights for Canadians, 1997, p. 6.|
|10||Taking Our Breath Away, p. 32.|
|11||R.T. Burnett et al. “The Effect of the Urban Ambient Air Pollution Mix on Daily Mortality Rates in 11 Canadian Cities,”
Canadian Journal of Public Health 89 (3) (May/June 1998) pp. 152-156.
|12||M. Raizenne et al. “Air Pollution Exposures and Children’s Health,” Canadian Journal of Public Health 89 (1998): Supp 1.|