Why Doctors Care About Climate Change
UPdate Fall 2002

While politicians dilly-dally about whether to make a concrete commitment to the Kyoto Protocol,  agonizing over possible negative effects on the economy, the Canadian Medical Association (CMA),  official voice of Canadian physicians, has no such hesitations.  "For our  members, more than 53,000 physicians across Canada, this international accord is a commitment to improve health status of our citizens and people around the world. ... CMA urge[s] the federal government to ratify the Kyoto Protocol and adopt a strategy that will reduce Canada's greenhouse gas emissions by at least 6% below 1990 levels by 2012."

Why would doctors care about climate change?
Consider these facts:

- close to 8% of all non-accidental deaths in Canada are caused by air
pollution resulting from by-products from burning fossil fuels

- following smog days, hospital admissions for respiratory problems
increase by 6%, admissions of infants with respiratory problems increase by 15%

-forecasts show that without reductions in fossil fuel consumption, in 20 years there will be a 60% increase in particulate emissions with a
corresponding increase in respiratory illnesses, hospitalization and health care costs.

Air pollution is caused  by the by-products of fossil fuel consumption, the same products which cause climate change. So cutting back on the contributors to air pollution is also a step towards decreasing greenhouse gases and global warming.

Not cutting back means an increase in greenhouse gasses, which means an
increase in hot, smoggy days. Increased heat and humidity lead to more heat
related deaths, as well as increases in smog and air pollution advisories and increases in pollens and mold spores in the air.  People with heart problems, respiratory diseases and allergies are all affected.

"Ralph Klein says the issue is greenhouse gasses, not air pollution, but you can't talk about one without talking about the other," says Ken Maybee, President of the NB Lung Association. Maybee underlines the correlation between the use of fossil fuels, increasing greenhouse gasses and increasing air pollution, which exacerbate health problems for those suffering from respiratory diseases including asthma, emphysema, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.  "It's essential that the general public understand that as greenhouse gases increase, so will the effects of
air pollution, low level ozone (smog) and particulate matter in the air," says Maybee.

Smog is not a problem restricted to major urban areas. Nova Scotia's agricultural Annapolis Valley is the site of  the highest smog levels in Nova Scotia, and smog advisories in the area were numerous this past summer.

Fifty health organizations and more than two thousand individual physicians and health scientists have signed the David Suzuki Foundation's Physician's
Statement on Climate Change, which calls for immediate and decisive action on Kyoto. They note that  "reducing fossil fuel use will improve air quality and protect the climate, both of which are key factors in public health."

A March 2002 report from the US National Academies' National Research Council, Abrupt Climate Change:Inevitable Surprises,  warns that people can expect "climate surprises" in the form of "large, abrupt and unwelcome regional or global climatic events," including drought, floods, extreme heat, hurricanes and rising sea levels. 

Dr. Paul Epstein, associate director of the Center for Health and the Global Environment at Harvard Medical School, says the report indicates that "we've underestimated the rate of this change, we've underestimated the sensitivity of biological systems, we've underestimated the cost of global warming."
In a paper printed in the Canadian Medical Association Journal in September 2000, Epstein and co-authors Andrew Haines and Anthony J. McMichael detail the widespread potential health impacts from climate change. Direct effects include illness and deaths from heat waves, drought, floods, storms and the breakdown of systems in the aftermath of weather disasters. Indirect effects include decreased crop productivity owing to pests and climate change, changing water availability, lower air quality, rising sea levels and animal-based diseases appearing in regions in which they had previously been unheard of.

Global warming is already resulting in the spread of infectious diseases, as tropical insects which carry these diseases move north and south of their traditional territory. Insect populations increase with warmer winters and better breeding conditions in summer. Projections show that malaria, dengue fever and yellow fever could appear in Canada as insects carrying them migrate north. Epstein links drought intensified by climate change to the spread of the West Nile virus. 

Climate change can also threaten the quantiity and quality of drinking water. Water sources may be threatened by drought, as well as by increased contamination from bacteria, viruses, protozoa and parasites.

Inaction on global warming is costly. Economists estimate that health benefits from improving ambient air quality in Canada would amount to $8 billion over 20 years. The CMA states,  "While opponents are eager to argue that signing on will have a negative impact on Canadian industries, they conveniently ignore the impact inaction will have on the health and well being of Canadians and others around the world. ... Reducing ... emissions would provide significant health benefits, not only in terms of the number of adverse health effects that can be avoided but also the economic cost of illnesses due to these health effects - an unhealthy workforce does not lead to a strong economy."

The bottom line is, there are many ways to run an economy, but there is no
substitute for clean air, clean water and good health.

What you can do...
While policy changes by government are important, individual action also helps cut greenhouse gasses. Driving less, and driving fuel efficient vehicles, making your home more energy efficient, and only heating when you need to, and letting politicians know you support Kyoto are valuable ways individuals can help. For more information on climate change and what you can do, check out www.davidsuzuki.org.