08/28/2014 05:30 EDT | Updated 10/28/2014 05:59 EDT

Canada Should Start Taking Climate Change Very Seriously

Climate change is widely recognized as being one of the most serious threats to global public health of the coming century. It is crucial that public health organizations such as the Canadian Medical Association (CMA) take meaningful action in order to limit the health consequences of climate change.

The causes of climate change are responsible for a significant share of the global health burden: the WHO's new estimates report that in 2012 around 7 million people died -- one in eight of total global deaths -- as a result of air pollution exposure. Burning fossil fuels both creates local air pollution and contributes to climate change. The direct damage costs to health of climate change are estimated by the WHO to be between US$ 2-4 billion/year by 2030. The current global temperature increases expected by the end of the century already greatly exceeding our adaptive capacity.

The situation in Canada is not different from the rest of the world. The country is already feeling the consequences of climate change: diminishing quality and quantity of water, increasing pollens and other allergens, coastal erosion, road and infrastructure degradation and floods. The health consequences of those climate change impacts are already being strongly felt. The number of people affected by extreme weather events has "shown a dramatic increase in recent decades": there were for example 578,238 people affected in the 1994-2003 decade. Examples of such events are the five major heat waves that have occurred between 1990 and 2005, responsible for 1,900 deaths; 52 significant forest fires, responsible for the temporary displacement of 155,000 citizen, as well as violent storms, floods, droughts and tornadoes.

Furthermore, air quality is an important concern for Canadians' health, and it is very variable in time given the more important ozone formation during summer months. A study conducted in eight cities in Canada concluded that air pollution was responsible for 5900 premature deaths per year. Finally, there is a concern for future risks in the area of water-borne and vector-borne infectious diseases, including many diarrheal diseases, West Nile virus, Lyme disease, St. Louis encephalitis, and both eastern and western equine encephalitis.

In the past week, the Canadian Medical Association (CMA), bringing physicians from coast to coast to discuss, among other things, three motions regarding environmental and climate health. Those discussions follow on the dialogue started by the British Medical Association (BMA), which openly supported fossil fuel divestment. Divestment has been proven successful in the past, and one may recall the medical leadership in divesting from tobacco companies. For example, in 2005, the CMA took a stance, and asked the Canada Pension Plan Investment Board to stop investing in tobacco stocks and to divest the $100 million it had in tobacco stocks. This has sent a strong message to the Canadians about the seriousness of their governments to fight tobacco in the name of public health. We believe it is now the time to do the same with the fossil fuel industries.

Sadly, the CMA assembly wasn't able to take a stand on divestment because the plenary ran out of time. However, as a global public health organization, we strongly believe the CMA has a moral and professional responsibility to address the global problem that is climate change. Following the World Health Organisation (WHO) first-ever conference on climate and health, health professionals of the country must take the opportunity to maintain the momentum on global climate action, and we hope the association will take a clear stance on the matter in the upcoming months.

We today speak on behalf of the 3700 Canadian medical students represented by IFMSA-Quebec to ask the country's leading health physicians association to take meaningful action to support sustainable development. Divestment from unsustainable energy sources, such as fossil fuels, and investment in green and renewable energy sources, is the one of the most promising options. Additionally, we urge all doctors to not only support that collective decision, but to ensure that their personal actions are also in line with what is best for the health of the population they serve.

As Christina Figueres, the executive secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) said in her opening statement at the recent WHO Conference, "climate change is the biggest global health threat of the 21st Century, but it also the biggest opportunity".

The time to act is now and health professionals must lead by example.

This entry was written in collaboration with Yassen Tcholakov, medical student at the University of Montreal and IFMSA-Quebec board member.


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