In recent years, the UK medical establishment has come to take increasingly serious the warning of the Lancet-UCL commission that anthropogenic climate change may pose the “greatest threat to global health of the 21st century.” This has manifested not merely in rhetoric, but also in substantive action – most recently, in the British Medical Association’s vote to form an alliance for action on climate and health, and to divest from the fossil fuel industry. But it has long been recognised by environmental health workers and campaigners that environmental health threats do not respect national borders, and action to remediate them must consequently be similarly international in nature. It’s for this reason that the attention of many across the world will be directed towards the proceedings of the General Council meeting of the Canadian Medical Association, currently taking place in Ottawa, hoping that Canada’s doctors will engage with the threat to human and planetary health posed by our continuing dependence of fossil-fuel energy sources.
The General Council will vote on a series of motions brought forward by the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment, calling on the CMA to take a stronger leadership role in acting on the health effects of climate change. In particularly, they want the CMA to acknowledge the role played by fossil fuel dependence in driving climate change (as well as producing the air pollution responsible for 1 in 8 deaths worldwide in 2012), and to work towards the renewable energy transition by supporting a coal phase-out and offering a fossil-free investment fund to its members.
With the vast death toll of air pollution, the fossil fuel industry’s role in driving climate change and attempting to subvert both climate science and international climate change mitigation policy, and its continued commitment to exploiting newer and more-polluting fossil fuel resources in place of renewable energy investment, there is a substantive moral and medical case for Canada’s doctors to sever their ties with the industry. The main opposition to this case, however, comes less on medical grounds than economic ones – this has been the case in the UK, and is likely to be the case in Canada. However, these economic arguments do not stand up to scrutiny – the fact is that, not only will concerted climate action be better for our health, it’s better for our pockets too.
One prominent concern is that the economic costs of breaking from fossil fuel dependence may hurt our health more than the gains from doing so. This is a favourite line pursued by fossil fuel industry-funded climate contrarian Bjorn Lomborg; however, it compares apples with oranges – the world now is not as it was before the Industrial Revolution, and renewable energy technology now provides a viable alternative. Recent estimates of the costs of all-renewable energy infrastructure predict that the additional investment required will be more than offset by longer-term savings (and that’s without even factoring in the economic impacts of climate change). And far from renewable energy holding them back, many emerging economies are finding it central to improving their energy infrastructure – in particular, the easy provision of off-grid renewable energy is making electricity supply to relatively inaccessible regions easier and cheaper – saving lives in the process. When it comes to exacerbating inequalities, then, the ways in which the health, social and economic impacts of climate change will hit the poorest hardest should be of far more concern. It is, of course, vital that the energy transition is brought about equitably – but that is not an argument against its necessity.
Furthermore such arguments neglect the ‘social cost of carbon’ – the fact that fossil fuels don’t just make us sick, this sickness costs. The health-related externalities of coal power alone are vast – recent estimates suggest that coal costs Albertans some $300m, while corresponding figures for the EU come to some €43bn, and across the USA it is thought to be a staggering $350bn. These costs add to the potentially huge health cobenefits of a renewable energy transition –a 30-40% reduction in all-cause mortality through increased cycling, two million premature deaths averted with more-efficient cookstoves, or any of the other range of health improvements arising from less air pollution, better transport, healthier diets and more green space. These benefits themselves have positive economic ramifications – for example, it has estimated that the UK’s health service could save £4 for every £1 invested in cycling infrastructure, or £17 billion within 20 years.
A second set of economic concerns comprises those rather closer to home, focusing on the impact of severing ties with the fossil fuel industry on the members of the CMA. If CMA members choose to make their investments fossil-free, will this hurt them financially? While such matters are beyond me – and most – to predict, available evidence shows fossil-free portfolios closely tracking, if not outperforming, conventional benchmarks. Continued investment in fossil fuels, meanwhile, risks ex exposure to the ‘carbon bubble’ – the trillions of dollars the fossil fuel industry stands to lose if climate change mitigation legislation (which would make up to 80% of currently-listed fuel reserves worthless) is enacted.
While the actions of the CMA are for its members to decide, their decisions will influence not just them – indeed, not just Canadians – but affect the entire globe. Many health workers internationally will be following the events of the next few days with interest, and offering solidarity to CAPE and all CMA members willing to commit to the change we need. Leaving fossil fuels behind is not unaffordable – it is the alternative that is unaffordable.
· Summary of the health impacts of climate change detailed in the latest report of Working Group 2 of the IPCC from the Global Climate and Health Alliance.
· The summary argument for health sector divestment presented to the BMA before its Annual Representatives’ Meeting voted for fossil fuel divestment.
· The parallels between the fossil fuel and tobacco industries and their impacts on health.
It isn’t a secret that improving your health can have positive impacts on other areas of your life. However, one of the most significant influences health-conscious people can have is on the environment around them. It is clear that there are many ways in which we can help the environment and ourselves at the same time, these are the so-called ‘co-benefits’ of healthy living. [i][ii]
When I was in medical school, I began to realize that the symbiotic relationship between wellness and the environment is key to developing a healthy, eco-friendly society. Here, I investigate a few ways that you can help the environment and improve your health at the same time.
1. Use alternative or public transportation.
Alternative methods of transportation, such as walking or cycling, reduce fossil-fuel emissions and can improve your cardiovascular health.[iii] By choosing human-powered transport, you are reducing the amount of pollutants in the air we breathe, as well as decreasing your risk of heart attacks, strokes and type 2 diabetes. [iv]
Also, by using public transportation, you are encouraging your government to commit to large-scale public transportation projects and are helping to reduce the number of cars on the road. Additionally, by using public transport you are decreasing the amount of fuel-based irritants in the air, and may decrease your risk of developing respiratory illnesses such as asthma. [v]
2. Eat organically
By consciously choosing the food you consume, you prioritize both your health and the environment. Organic farms cause less environmental impact by decreasing the run-off of pesticides and herbicides in our water supply. More obviously, eating organically decreases the amount of chemicals, antibiotics, and hormones you consume on a daily basis. This allows your body to detoxify more efficiently, making you less likely to suffer the ill effects of unknown chemicals in non-organic food products.[vi]
3. Buy locally-grown food
Local farms are always an excellent choice for both the environment and your health. Growing foods locally means less fossil-fuel used in their transportation and processing.[vii] By choosing local food, you are also supporting farmers in your community and promoting local economic growth. Most importantly, the short distance from farm to fork means that the food can be picked at its peak ripeness and eaten fresh. Thus, local foods are packed with nutrients and vitamins that you may not get otherwise. [viii]
4. Go meat-free
Reducing consumption of meat, and in turn increasing the amount of vegetables in your diet, is incredibly beneficial for your health. Vegetarians reduce their risk of chronic heart disease and type 2 diabetes[ix], and increase their intake of fiber, potassium and calcium[x]. Additionally, a recent study has shown that vegetarians reduce their green house gas emissions by an average of 29%.[xi] If going vegetarian is too challenging, reducing meat consumption by eliminating meat one day a week (‘Meat-free Mondays’), can also offer health benefits ix, and reduce green house gas emissions by 22%. xi
5. Spend time outdoors
Making an effort to help your environment is much more rewarding when you can reap the benefits. From spending time out in your garden, to hiking through the forest, nature has the ability to restore and revitalize. Whether you prefer to meditate in a meadow or paddle a canoe, being outdoors can reduce stress levels. [xii]
*Bonus: if you live in a sunny climate, being outdoors for a mere 15 minutes can give you an adequate dose of vitamin D and promote bone health. [xiii]
Alicia Pawluk received her BSc Honours in Medicine from the University of St Andrews in Scotland. Having volunteered at the World Health Organization’s ‘Climate and Health Summit' in Warsaw, 2013, Alicia’s scientific interest in climate change has taken her to a Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). Her work on the health benefits of tackling climate change has been published in numerous journals, but her ultimate goal is to develop public awareness of environmental issues. Alicia is currently studying for her Bachelor of Surgery at the University of Manchester in England.