Bierstone and Levreault: Let’s not lose sight of the biggest health threat — climate change

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As the federal government prepares its post-COVID-19 economic stimulus, let us therefore also not lose sight of what has become another powerful determinant of human health: climate change. Climate change is still considered by the World Health Organization to be the greatest threat to human health in the 21st century, and it likewise disproportionately affects already marginalized groups. For instance, poor air quality during heat waves — which are expected to double or triple over the next decades — poses serious risks for children with asthma and other lung conditions, especially for those living in cramped settings.

Warming temperatures also alter infectious disease patterns and may amplify effects of future pandemics, one example being the increased rate of Lyme disease we have seen in children in the Ottawa region over the past 10 years.

Possibly most troubling is how climate change disproportionately affects Indigenous communities in Canada. Changes to sea ice and animal migration patterns have disrupted food security, critical infrastructure and cultural and spiritual ties to the land and water, and are perpetuating the forces of colonization and dispossession.

Just recently, the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment (CAPE) released its Healthy Recovery Plan with 25 concrete recommendations towards a post-COVID-19 recovery that prioritizes human health by safeguarding planetary health through rapid decarbonization of the economy and achievement of a 2050 net-zero emissions goal. Through government investments and regulatory changes, Canada could make use of existing technological solutions to achieve decarbonization of electricity production, transportation, buildings, and health care in the coming decades. It is estimated that if Canada met its 2050 zero-emissions goal, more than 112,081 people would be saved between 2030 and 2050 due to improvements in air quality alone — roughly equivalent to the current population of Waterloo.