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It's Time for Canadian Doctors to Divest in Fossil Fuels

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Stephan Savoia/AP
Stephan Savoia/AP

I have been working in the field of climate change and health for many years now with a variety of organizations such as the International Federation of Medical Students Associations (IFMSA), the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Global Climate and Health Alliance (GCHA). Earlier this year, IFMSA, representing over 1 million medical students in 122 countries, has expressed publicly its stance on divestment in a letter published in the Guardian. Yesterday, the Canadian Medical Association voted a motion supporting divestment from fossil fuels at their general assembly held in Halifax. Efforts done internationally would be nothing if they were not supported by national advocacy and grassroots initiatives. This open letter that I have the chance to publish today was written by a collective of young health professionals - medical students, residents and young physicians - from across the country who are deeply concerned by the impacts of climate change on our health. Let's listen to them.

Rising temperatures, record-breaking wildfires and worsened health outcomes -- these are just a few consequences facing our country today because of climate change. This summer, Canada faced an unprecedented number of wildfires in the north and west. Busy emergency rooms received both adults and children choking and wheezing from smoke-filled lungs. Increasing temperatures in the east suffocated the isolated elderly already at highest risk for heat stroke. Manitoba and New Brunswick previously unbeknownst to Lyme disease -- presented hikers suffering from fatigue and joint pain, leaving physicians confounded. Make no mistake; the observed rise in temperatures and the suffering health of Canadians is no coincidence. Climate change is harming our health and it is getting serious.

For us young physicians-in-training, these examples are simply red flags for what is yet to come. As future practicing physicians, we will bear the responsibility of decisions being made now. If left unchecked, climate change can and will undermine the very air we breathe, water we drink, food we eat and homes we live in.

The world leading medical journal, The Lancet, has deemed climate change "the biggest global health threat of the 21st century" and Dr. Margaret Chan, the Director General of the World Health Organization has previously referred to climate change as the "one of the greatest challenges of our time." Direct risks to our health include increasingly intense and frequent heat waves, extreme weather events such as hurricanes and flooding, whereas indirect risks include amplified food insecurity, displacement and conflict. The ever-accumulating evidence on climate and health is there. It is time that the medical community collectively do something about it.

Fossil fuel divestment, an action taken already by the British Medical Association and the Royal Australasian College of Physicians, is one such solution that needs to be adopted by the Canadian medical community. Divestment means getting rid of stocks, bonds and investments in unethical industries and practices, such as those that profit from the uncontrolled burning of fossil fuels. It is now well recognized that around 80 per cent of the world's remaining fossil fuel sources must stay underground in order to prevent the worst effects of climate change.

Divesting from fossil fuels and reinvesting in renewable energy solutions has the potential to benefit the economy, the climate system and public health by decreasing fossil fuel emission, lowering local air pollution, lowering risk of respiratory and cardiovascular disease. Globally, cutting fossil fuel consumption could save up to 300,000 to 700,000 lives annually by 2030 from improved air quality alone. Furthermore, as we face the worst oil price crash in 45 years, now is the time to divest from fossil fuels.

In line with the hippocratic oath, we physicians-in-training make a formal request to our colleagues and mentors, we call upon the Canadian Medical Association, MD Financial, the College of Family Physicians of Canada and the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Canada to divest from fossil fuels and reinvest in renewable energy/low-carbon solutions. Second, we request that healthcare providers lend a voice to public debate by endorsing carbon-pricing as one of the mechanisms to abate the uncontrolled burning of fossil fuels. Carbon-pricing has been proposed by the Lancet to be the "[t]he single most powerful strategic instrument to inoculate human health against the risks of climate change" -- it is time for us to implement it.

In medicine, the concept of handover is very important. The previous generation has left us woefully unprepared to tackle the health problems we will soon be facing. The Canadian Medical Association (CMA) has already recognized the link between climate change and the health of Canadians as this topic has been part of CMA policy since 2009. Changes this policy was supposed to bring included the teaching of climate change and health in medical school curricula. However, this past year the Canadian Federation of Medical Students found that of the 14 Canadian medical schools surveyed, none dedicated time to the topic of climate change and health. We cannot continue to live in denial of our changing climate. The threats to our health that climate change poses is a topic we need to learn about, address and (if possible) prevent.

We are still young but within our lifetimes we are witnessing changes in our environment that have been described as "unprecedented." Climate change is no longer a distant threat, Canadians are feeling the profound effects of climate on health now. Similar to divesting from tobacco industries due to the public health risk of smoking, we need to divest from fossil fuels and invest in sustainable solutions to improve our industries, our cities and our health. To conclude, a note to the generation of physicians who came before us: we went into medicine because you inspired us. Every day you demonstrate your wisdom about health to us on the wards. Please inspire us once again and show us what it means to stand up for health in the world.

Sincerely,

Kelly Lau
Medical student at McGill University

Sheiry Dhillon
MD student at McMaster University and DPhil Candidate Oxford University

Mike Benusic
Resident, Public Health & Preventive Medicine, University of Toronto

Erin Budd
Medical student at McMaster University

An Qi Juliet Shao
Medical student at University of Toronto

Benjamin Langer
Family Medicine Resident at University of Toronto

Wenzhen Zuo
Medical student at University of Montreal

Cheryl Young
Medical student at University of Toronto

Claudel P-Desrosiers
Medical student at University of Montreal

Jacquie Lu
Medical student at Queen's University

Chris Charles
Medical student at McMaster University

Yassen Tcholakov
Public Health Resident at McGill University

Henry Annan
Medical student at Dalhousie University

Thomas Piggott
Public Health Resident at McMaster University

Andrew Gray
Medical resident at McGill University

Lee Sterling
Medical Student at McGill University

Nikki Bozinoff
Fellow in Addiction Medicine, St. Paul's Hospital, Vancouver

Koray Demir
Medical Student at McGill University

Sian Tsuei
Public Health Resident at UBC

Suraya Bhabha
Medical student at McMaster

Natasha Snelgrove
Psychiatry Resident at McMaster University

Melanie Kalbfleisch
Family Medicine resident at University of Toronto

Petra Hroch
Medical student at McMaster University, PhD Sociology.

Rebecca Psutka
Medical student at University of Calgary

Catherine Habel
Public Health and Preventive Medicine Resident at Université de Montréal

Adam Burgess
University of Calgary

Colleen Fuller
Resident, McGill University

Nadine Qureshi
Medical student at University of Calgary

Jamie Keess
Medical Student at University of Calgary

Kristy Williams
Resident at University of BC

Marcus Cunningham
Medical Student at University of Calgary

Alexander Nataros
Medical Resident in Dauphin, Manitoba

Janine Reid
Medical student at University of British Columbia

Thane Smith
Medical student at University of Calgary

Emily Macphail
Medical student at University of Calgary

Tahireh Shams
Medical student at the University of Calgary

David-Martin Milot
Medical resident at University of Sherbrooke

Karus Sessford
Medical student at the University of Calgary

Andreanne Roy
Medical resident at University of Sherbrooke

Esther Rosenthal
Family medicine resident at University of Toronto

Evan Schneider
Family medicine resident at the University of Toronto

Andrew Bresnahan
Northern Family Medicine Resident at Memorial University of Newfoundland

Kayla Feragen
Medical Student at the University of Calgary

Mariel Van
Medical student at University of Calgary

Chantelle Champagne
Resident at University of Alberta

Marguerite Heyns
Medical Student at University of Calgary

Lidiya Luzhna
Medical student at University of Calgary

Lwam Ghebrehariat
Medical student at McMaster University

Kathryn Marsilio
Medical student at University of Toronto

Pieter Jugovic
Medical student at University of Toronto

Naila Makhani
Medical student at Yale University

Ashley White
Resident at McMaster University

Jared Mccormick
Medical student, University of Calgary

Ashleigh
Family Medicine resident at McMaster University (Rural site)

Melanie Fortune
Medical student at McMaster University, MPH

Rebecca Buttar
Medical student at University of Calgary

Susan Poon
Medical student at University of Calgary

Robin Whitty
Medical student at University of British Columbia

Jackie Mann
Medical Student at University of Calgary

Lisa Monkman
Family Physician, Winnipeg, MB

Melissa Bota
Resident at UBC

Emma Pedersen
Medical student at University of Calgary

Noémie
Medical resident at McGill University

Aarti Rana
Medical student at McMaster University

David Klassen
Medical student at UBC

David Galiano
Medical student at McGill University

Camille Pelletier Vernooy
Medical student at Université de Montréal

Laurie Dolcé
Medical student at Université Laval

Nina Nguyen
MD Candidate, University of Sherbrooke

Aline D. Khatchikian
Medical student at Laval University

Renee
Family Medicine Resident at University of Calgary

Yang Guo
Medical student at McGill University

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