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It’s About Public
Health: A Canadian Approach to Climate Change

318.864.98 Current
Issues in Policy Analysis

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Robert Carlin

2017 Johns Hopkins
Fall Institute in Health Policy and Management

 

 

           

 

Problem Formulation

 

Anthropogenic climate
change is the result of increased greenhouse gases in the atmosphere that lead
to a greater absorption of infrared radiation from sunlight by the earth’s
atmosphere (Agency, 2017a). This is referred to as the greenhouse effect (Agency, 2017a). The primary gases responsible for this change are carbon dioxide
followed by methane (G. o. Canada, 2017). Globally, certain types of industrial development are the main
anthropogenic sources of these gases. Carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is largely
due to fossil fuel use for energy production, transport, and industrial
production (Patz, Frumkin, Holloway, Vimont, & Haines, 2014). However, deforestation may also contribute to the global burden of
carbon dioxide (Warren & Lemmen, 2014). Methane is derived from agricultural or waste management
activities in addition to emissions from fossil fuel related industries (Agency, 2017c). In Canada, the primary sources of greenhouse gases are the oil and
gas sector and the transportation sector of the economy (E. a. C. C. Canada, 2017). Additionally, these same sectors are the main sectors responsible
for increases in Canadian greenhouse gas emissions from 1990 to 2015 (E. a. C. C. Canada, 2017). This contrasts with decreases seen for both the heavy industry and
the electricity sectors during the same time period, despite coal still accounting
for most greenhouse gases emitted by the electricity sector (E. a. C. C. Canada, 2017).

 

Climate change
due to the greenhouse effect leads to increased weather extremes related to heat,
cloud cover, and precipitation and it also leads to altered climate patterns (Warren & Lemmen, 2014). Global warming is accentuated in Canada where a global 2 degree
Celsius increase translates to a 3 to 4 degree Celsius increase for Canada (Canada, 2015). Canadian temperature trends from 1948 to 2012 have shown an
increase in all areas of the country with the most pronounced increases seen in
the northwest of the country – Annex 1 (Canada, 2015). This has resulted in more less arctic sea ice, heat waves, fewer
cold spells, and more precipitation in large parts of the country – Annex 1 (Canada, 2015). There are numerous downstream effects of these climate changes on
ecosystems, natural resources, water, food production, built environments, and human
health some of which are outlined below.

 

The impacts of
climate change on Canadian ecosystems are diverse. Changes in climate patterns are
added to the already existing stressors of environmental pollution and fragmentation
of the natural landscape (Warren & Lemmen, 2014). These factors threaten biodiversity within Canadian ecosystems
with the concern that species may be unable to adapt to such accelerated environmental
changes (Warren & Lemmen, 2014). For example, Canadian forests in British Columbia have already suffered
from the introduction of the mountain pine beetle which was possible due to
warming temperatures (Warren & Lemmen, 2014). In Quebec, rising temperatures are predicted to result in a
northward shift of species by about 40 to 70 kilometers per decade with
significant shifts predicted within northern Boreal forests (Ouranos, 2015). In more northerly environments in Quebec, increasing temperatures
are already affecting caribou and certain fish populations due to habitat
changes and changes in freeze-thaw cycles (Ouranos, 2015).

Increases in
precipitation are observed and also expected in the future in much of Canada along
with earlier spring melts and river ice break-up (Canada, 2015). The growing season in southern agricultural regions may increase,
although the impact of extreme weather events including droughts and the
introduction of novel pests due to warming temperatures may offset some of
these gains (Warren & Lemmen, 2014). Floods are the most common and the costliest natural disasters observed
in Canada with many urban areas located near to fresh water systems and such climate
changes posing a threat to these built environments (Séguin et al., 2008; Warren & Lemmen, 2014). The increased frequency of storm surges as a result of rising sea
levels and stronger weather systems represents a threat to coastal areas (Séguin et al., 2008; Warren & Lemmen, 2014). Melting permafrost threatens northern infrastructure due to the
resulting instability of underlying soil structures (Séguin et al., 2008; Warren & Lemmen, 2014). These environmental issues pose a clear risk to infrastructures
that are necessary transportation, community water supply, and electrical
systems to name a few examples (Séguin et al., 2008; Warren & Lemmen, 2014).

 

Human health is
directly and indirectly impacted by climate change. High temperatures may lead
to dehydration and death, particularly in vulnerable individuals (Séguin et al., 2008; Watts et al., 2017). Deterioration
in air quality may also lead to poorer health outcomes in some individuals (Agency, 2017b) Extreme weather events and accompanying disasters may lead to significant
morbidity and mortality including mental health disorders such as depression
and posttraumatic stress (Patz et al., 2014; Séguin et al., 2008). The introduction of new pathogens into the environment such as
Lyme disease and West Nile virus as well as changes in the presence of certain
allergens in the environment represent some indirect impacts of climate on
human health (Séguin et al., 2008). Although some other northern countries expect decreased mortality
due cold weather events as result of warming, this may not occur in Canada
where no increase in mortality is usually observed with cold weather due to
existing adaptation measures (Séguin et al., 2008; Vardoulakis & Heaviside,
2012). Other
health impacts that result from a combination upstream determinants or
accumulated hazards such as those described above may also result in poorer
mental and physical health outcomes (Séguin et al., 2008).

 

The upstream
determinants of climate change and greenhouse gas emissions are equally
complex. Emissions are partly dependent on individual lifestyle choices. For
example, the cumulative decisions of individuals around activities using fossil
fuels contribute to global emissions of carbon dioxide. In order to address
this issue, these individuals are expected to make a decision for the collective
good without necessarily seeing an immediate tangible benefit. This gap between
an individual’s activities and perceived global impacts is captured in the
following statement concerning climate change, “I don’t think that it is
because of my lawn mower” (Silverman, 2017). In Canada, roughly 80% of people are using private transport
during their work commute and even urban centers such as Montreal have about
70% of the population still using private transport for this commute (Association, 2017). This contrasts with percentages in cities such as Tokyo (10%),
Berlin (30%), and London (40%) (Association, 2017). Most Canadians now live in urban centers and many municipalities
are now looking at improving and protecting active forms of transportation to
influence individual decisions (P. H. A. o. Canada, 2017).Fortunately, a growing number of Canadians believe that global
warming is happening and is caused by human activity. In 2014, 63% of Canadian
though that the science was conclusive that global warming was happening and
caused mostly by human activity (Institute, 2014) and 86% of the population was at least somewhat concerned about
climate change (Institute, 2014).  The top reasons for concern
were what it might mean for children and future generations, disappearance of
wildlife species, greater scarcity of water and more frequent droughts, as well
as more extreme weather such as storms and floods (Institute, 2014).

 

The greenhouse
gas emissions of the electricity sector are also influenced by individual behaviors.
However, it also determined by government policies and past decisions that have
lead to choosing fossil fuels as an important power source (E. a. C. C. Canada, 2017). A national decision to phase out coal for use in producing power by
2030 should reduce this sector as contributor to global climate change, although
coal is still traded with other countries (N. R. Canada, 2017)

 

There are
geographic or jurisdictional variations in greenhouse gas emissions in Canada
where British Columbia and Quebec have relatively low and stable outputs due to
reliance on hydroelectricity (E. a. C. C. Canada, 2017). Ontario has emissions that are higher than other provinces due to
the presence of large industrial manufacturing in the province and Alberta has
the highest and increasing emissions due to the oil and gas sector produced for
export markers (E. a. C. C. Canada, 2017). Due to this variation across the country, national policies top
reduce emissions have the potential to aggravate existing regional frictions if
they do not account for the unique economic contexts of each province.

 

The current
party in power at the federal level in Canada is the Liberal Party of Canada.
They signed onto the Paris Agreement with a commitment to reducing greenhouse
gases and a goal to keep global temperature rise over the next century to less
than 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels (Change, 2017b). The previous federal government under the Conservative Party of
Canada withdrew from the Kyoto protocol that had set reduction targets for
greenhouse gas emissions (Change, 2017a). A cap-and-trade system exists between the provinces of Quebec and
Ontario as well as the State of California for the industrial and electricity
sectors as well as fossil fuel distributors (Quebec, 2017). As such, there exists a fair degree political will at different levels
of government to address the issue of greenhouse gas emissions in Canada.

 

Trade is
important to the Canadian economy and our top three trading partners (United
States of America, European Union, and China) have had different contributions to
past greenhouse gas emissions as well as to climate change controls. Currently,
mineral fuels and oils and motor vehicles account for a significant proportion
of Canadian exports to both the world and the United States of America (A. P. F. o. Canada, 2017; Representative, 2017). Therefore, a contribution to the global reduction of greenhouse
gases also requires a transition in some of the country’s main economic
activities and trade. In fact, the current government has proposed that
environmental and human rights issues be incorporated into international trade
deals (Economist, 2017). Although this approach has been acceptable to European trading
partners, it has not garnered favor with China or complete acceptance by the
United States of America.

 

As a final point
of context, some have argued that the apparent passivity of citizens and
societies to the massive and imminent crisis of climate results from the
reification of current neoliberal world market systems (Browne, 2017). A considerable barrier needs to be overcome for global capitalist
elites benefiting from the current system to be able to recognize the destabilization
that may be introduced by concurrent climate change induced economic,
political, and ecological crises (Browne, 2017).

Vulnerability

 

In parallel with
the global reality that those who have benefitted the least from past carbon
emitting activities are often the most at risk for the negative effects of
climate change, Canadian regions that are at greatest risk for changes in their
ecosystems are not the areas of the country that have been historically responsible
for large carbon emissions (Canada, 2015).

 

Indigenous
populations are particularly at risk of the negative health impacts from
climate change, especially those in northern areas (Séguin et al., 2008). Many communities already face problems of food insecurity with
some reliance on traditional or country food (Séguin et al., 2008). The harvesting of these foods depends on a relatively stable ecosystem
to support both existing flora and fauna (Séguin et al., 2008).  However, this stability is
predicted to change significantly in the upcoming years (Séguin et al., 2008).  Changing weather patterns
also make it more difficult to pursue traditional activities leading to more
hunting injuries and a threat to cultural continuity within communities (Séguin et al., 2008). All of these changes are occurring in populations that have
already faced pressures from rapid social, cultural, political, and economic
change (Séguin et al., 2008).

 

Canada also faces
an aging population over the coming decades with over 20% of the population
predicted to be over the age of 65 years by 2030 (Séguin et al., 2008). Seniors are at increased risk for the impacts of climate change
such as extreme heat exposures, air pollution, and natural disasters from
extreme weather events (Séguin et al., 2008; Warren & Lemmen, 2014). Although children account for a smaller proportion of the overall
population, they show similar increased risks to the exposures just described (Séguin et al., 2008; Warren & Lemmen, 2014). Of note, indigenous populations have a large proportion of
children who are at risk not only because of their age, but also because of the
factors described above for indigenous communities (Séguin et al., 2008; Warren & Lemmen, 2014). Similarly, people experiencing adverse socioeconomic conditions or
with existing health problems are also more vulnerable to climate change (Séguin et al., 2008; Warren & Lemmen, 2014). Finally, communities may also be vulnerable due to the aging of
critical infrastructure or due to their geographic isolation (Séguin et al., 2008; Warren & Lemmen, 2014).

Overall, a
population’s vulnerability to climate change is related to their risk of
exposure to climate hazards, their sensitivity to its impacts, and their
adaptive capacity (Séguin et al., 2008).

Priorities for Public Health

 

            From
this brief overview, a few key priorities emerge.  In terms of mitigation, Canada needs to move
away from a fossil fuel based economy. This needs to be done in a timely way to
achieve global goals aimed at protecting our ecosystems and living
environments. However, transitions to new areas of economic and social activity
need to be developed to ensure the stability and health of communities.
Although the public is generally supportive of measures, an ongoing dialogue
needs to be maintained to ensure continued public support during a period of
transition and rapid change. Industry also needs to prepare for this shift in
opportunities.

 

            In
terms of adaptation, communities need to prepare for more extreme weather
events. This involves emergency planning to address these events as well as
planning to adjust to increasing heat extremes with an attention to measures that
protect populations who have been identified as particularly vulnerable.
Infrastructure needs to take into account the anticipated future stresses related
to climate change. Northern regions and indigenous populations of Canada need
to receive extra support to address the multiple stresses and accumulated risks
introduced by climate change.

                       

Recommendations

 

1. Invest in public health climate change
research and collaboration (Watts et al., 2017).

2. Ensure transparent reporting by
government departments and ministries for all activities linked to climate
change.

3. Ensure implementation and follow-up from
the Paris Agreement (Watts et al., 2017).

4. Phase out coal-fired power production by
2030 (Association, 2017; Watts et al., 2017).

5. Expand the renewal energy sector with at
least two thirds of power derived from non-emitting sources by 2030 (Association, 2017; Watts et al., 2017).

6. Include health impact assessments as
part of the environmental assessment process for all development projects (Association, 2017).

7. Switch to active commuting and move away
from fossil fuel dependent transport and develop a National Strategy for
communities (Association, 2017; Watts et al., 2017).

8. Emphasize plant-based proteins in
dietary recommendations (Association, 2017).

9. Healthcare systems should serve as
examples of low carbon workplaces by tracking and reducing greenhouse gas
emissions (Association, 2017).

10. Planning to cope with severe weather
events including extreme heat, floods, fires, and coastal surge should be
funded and shared (Association, 2017).

11. Interventions described above should
calculate healthcare cost savings in relation to costs of the proposed
interventions (Association, 2017).

12. Invest and support adaptation
strategies for indigenous and northern populations impacted by climate change
with involvement of local populations (Association, 2017).

Annex 1

 

A. Canadian Temperature Trends – 1948 to 2012

Source: https://www.canada.ca/en/environment-climate-change/services/climate-change/science.html

 

B. September arctic sea ice extent in 1984
versus 2012

Source: https://toolkit.climate.gov/sites/default/files/11-d1-194f4ff5a32e5e2b284c0302fb71-Tribal_arctic_sea_ice_V3.png

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