Why we still need to love this planet

Why we still need to love this planet

Dr Trevor Hancock

11 February 2019

700 words

The proximity of Valentine’s Day and the plan by a UVic Student, Antonia Paquin, to create love letters for the Earth for Valentine’s Day, put me in mind of the work of Dr. Helen Caldicott, an internationally renowned Australian physician and anti-nuclear activist. Now 80 years old, she sprang to fame in part due to a short film of a lecture she gave on the dangers posed by nuclear weapons. Made for Canada’s NFB, “If You Love This Planet” won the Academy Award for best documentary in 1982 – helped perhaps by the US Justice Department officially labelling it “foreign political propaganda”.

Dr. Caldicott was no stranger to controversy. In the 1970s she helped lead the opposition to French atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons in the Pacific. She went on to lead Physicians for Social Responsibility (PSR), a US-based anti-nuclear organisation founded in 1961. In the early 1980s I was an Associate Medical Officer of Health in the City of Toronto, and we too were inspired by her work, and by the work of the Canadian branch of PSR, which later became Physicians for Global Survival (PGS).

Like Health Departments in many other cities around the world at the time, we did a report on the expected health impacts of a one-megaton nuclear weapon air burst above Toronto. The findings were devastating, shocking the public and politicians alike and contributing to the global movement to limit nuclear weapons, which ultimately led to several treaties to limit nuclear weapons. The international umbrella group International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, co-founded by American and Soviet physicians, won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1985 for its work.

That work is not over, as the recent decision by the US and Russia to pull out of the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty demonstrates. Nuclear war remains the greatest single threat to the health of people and myriad other species, and to the survival of human civilisation. But we now face an equally serious, slower but more certain threat; human-induced global ecological change, in particular climate change. And once again, physicians have been mobilising for many years to protect health.

In 1992, PSR expanded its mission to address these global environmental threats, as did Helen Caldicott, whose 1992 book “If You Love This Planet” was focused not so much on the nuclear threat but on the ecological threat. And here in Canada, I was one of the co-founders in 1993 of the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment (CAPE), whose mission is to better human health by protecting the planet.

The current President of CAPE is Dr. Courtney Howard, an ER physician based in Yellowknife. She reminds me of Helen Caldicott – smart, passionate, eloquent and seemingly tireless. She is particularly focused on climate change, and has led the Canadian work on the Lancet Climate Countdown Report, an annual international report on the health impacts of climate change.

Most recently, CAPE was on Parliament Hill in February 5th, along with representatives from the Canadian Medical Association, the Canadian Nurses Association, the Canadian Public Health Association and the Urban Public Health Network, calling on federal parties to recognize that climate change is the greatest public health challenge of the 21st century, and to make climate solutions a priority in the 2019 federal election.

Finally, back to Antonia Paquin’s plan for love letters to the Earth. It’s an important idea at two levels. First, it’s a youth-led initiative, part of a growing global movement of young people rising up and saying ‘enough’ – witness the high school climate strikes, including here in Victoria, inspired by the 15 year-old Swedish activist Greta Thunberg. I am grateful to the young people who are organising and leading these strikes.

Second, it’s about changing our relationship with the Earth. We have lost our connection with nature, seeing it as an object apart from us that is there for us to exploit, rather than as something we are part of and dependent upon. If we are to save the Earth and ourselves from ourselves we need to re-establish a reverence for nature, we need to be able to feel the pain we are inflicting on the Earth, we need to love this planet.

© Trevor Hancock, 2019

 

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Local councils are right to sue fossil fuel industry

Local councils are right to sue fossil fuel industry

Dr Trevor Hancock

6 February 2019

697 words

Considerable derision has been heaped on Victoria City Council for endorsing a class action lawsuit against the fossil fuel industry, seeking financial compensation for the added costs the City will incur as a result of climate change. But far from complaining, we should be praising them, and other local municipal councils that are also preparing to sue. Not only are they being prudent managers of the public purse, seeking to protect taxpayers from added costs, they are also being leaders in addressing climate change.

The City’s latest action follows its November 2017 letter to 20 of the world’s largest oil and coal companies in which the City asked them to “pay your fair share of the costs of climate change that face our community”. The City took the view that “You cannot make billions of dollars selling your product, knowing that it is causing significant financial harm to communities around the world, and not expect to pay for at least some of that harm”.

The costs are significant; a 2012 report from the BC government on the cost to adapt flood protection to meet the rise in sea level predicted by 2100 found the cost for Metro Vancouver would be $9.5 billion. Note this is only the cost associated with sea-level rise; it does not include costs from other aspects of climate change such as forest fires and air pollution, severe weather events and so on. Nor does it include the health costs of climate change.

Victoria was not even the first in BC to act – that honour goes to the District of Highlands, which sent a letter in July 2017. Since then, letters have gone from Saanich, Colwood and View Royal, Sooke has voted to send one, and in September 2018 the Association of Vancouver Island and Coastal Communities sent a letter on behalf of its 53 local government members. All of this is supported by a West Coast Environmental Law campaign to hold the fossil fuel industry to account known as Climate Law in Our Hands.

Filing a lawsuit can have several beneficial effects. First, it can force open the files of the fossil fuel industry, so we can see just how much they knew about global warming and its relationship to their products, when they knew it, what they may have done to hide this evidence, what they may have done to create doubt in the minds of the public and what their lobbying efforts with governments may have been.

For those of us who are veterans of the ‘tobacco wars’, this all sounds very familiar. The tobacco industry was also sued because it was making money by selling a product it knew to be harmful, and then concealing that harm and casting doubt on the evidence in the minds of its users. In fact the Centre for International Environmental Law, in its research into the Tobacco Industry Archives (one of the fruits of the legal action against the tobacco industry) found close ties between the oil and tobacco industry, noting “the oil companies have benefitted from the tobacco playbook in their fight against climate science.”

Second, when a company is sued this has to be reported to investors, so it becomes an investment risk. Third, there is a degree of public exposure and awareness, which helps to change the social and political conversation and may lead to a loss of market appeal. Fourth, the prospect of facing law suits and negative public opinion may encourage the companies to shift away from fosil fuels.

Finally, if found liable, any costs awarded would not only help reimburse taxpayers but would raise the price of fossil fuels. This would be helpful – if unwelcome in some quarters in the short term – because we should pay the full cost of the fossil fuels we use. If we did, we would make very different choices.

Far from deriding local governments for being irresponsible, critics should be chiding the provincial and federal governments for failing to take action themselves. It would be a lot more effective if the BC government took on the case on behalf of local governments to recover their costs, adding in the provincial costs as well.

© Trevor Hancock, 2019

 

 

 

 

Many global health threats linked to global change

Many global health threats linked to global change

Dr Trevor Hancock

29 January 2019

701 words

The World Health Organisation (WHO) recently released a report on the top ten threats to health in 2019. Strikingly, several are related to global ecological change, marking perhaps a turning point in the recognition of the health implications of the rapid and massive ecological changes we are causing.

The first threat is air pollution and climate change. The WHO reports that nine out of ten people around the world breathe polluted air every day, causing around 7 million deaths annually, mainly from heart and lung diseases and cancer. About half the deaths are due to outdoor air pollution, mainly due to emissions from industry, transport and agriculture. Indoor air pollution from heating and cooking with biomass fuels is an important factor in the other half of the deaths.

Troublingly, about 90 percent of those deaths are in middle and low-income countries, according to the 2017 report of the Lancet Commission on Pollution and Health. This is a pattern seen in most of the other major health threats facing the world today.

The major source of air pollution is the burning of fossil fuels, which of course is also the major cause of climate change. While the WHO estimates that climate change will contribute to about 250,000 additional deaths each year between 2030 and 2050, many see that as a considerable underestimate. Emerging evidence suggests the impact of climate change on health and society will be more serious and more rapid than we used to think.

The second major health threat is non-communicable or chronic disease – heart disease, cancer, lung disease, diabetes and the like – with “over 85% of these premature deaths in low- and middle-income countries”. The first three of the five key factors cited by the WHO – tobacco use, physical inactivity and the harmful use of alcohol – are not obviously linked to global ecological problems.

But the remaining two – unhealthy diets and air pollution – are very much related to global ecological problems. I have addressed air pollution above, while I noted in last week’s column that our agricultural system and the highly animal-based, highly processed diet it is increasingly designed to produce is not only bad for our health, it is also a major contributor to several global environmental problems. These include greenhouse gas emissions, land degradation, pollution, water depletion and loss of habitat and biodiversity.

Fragile and vulnerable settings are number four on WHO’s list of the top ten global health threats: “More than 1.6 billion people (22% of the global population) live in places where protracted crises . . . and weak health services leave them without access to basic care”. These places are made vulnerable by “a combination of challenges such as drought, famine, conflict and population displacement”.

Many of these challenges are in part or in whole due to climate change, which is only going to get worse. Drought and floods – both caused or exacerbated by climate change – lead to displacement and famine, while rising sea levels, rising temperatures and increasing severe weather events will result in increasing numbers of eco-refugees. The UN High Commission for Refugees estimates that every year since 2008 there has been “an average of 22.5 million people displaced by climate or weather-related events.” The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change expects these numbers to increase throughout the 21st century.

The fifth threat identified by WHO is antimicrobial resistance, which “threatens to send us back to a time when we were unable to easily treat infections”. Among the factors contributing to this problem, WHO notes, is the overuse of antimicrobials not only “in people, but also in animals, especially those used for food production”; again, we see our animal-based diet and agricultural system is a problem.

Finally, ninth on the list is dengue fever, an unpleasant and occasionally fatal infection spread by mosquitoes. Climate change is increasing the distribution of these mosquitoes, which WHO reports are “spreading to less tropical and more temperate countries”.

This list of threats to global health shows us that now, more than ever, we must pay attention to the links between the health of the environment and our own health. The good news is that when we protect the environment, we almost always protect our health.

© Trevor Hancock, 2019

 

 

 

 

Many global health threats linked to global change

Many global health threats linked to global change

Dr Trevor Hancock

29 January 2019

701 words

The World Health Organisation (WHO) recently released a report on the top ten threats to health in 2019. Strikingly, several are related to global ecological change, marking perhaps a turning point in the recognition of the health implications of the rapid and massive ecological changes we are causing.

The first threat is air pollution and climate change. The WHO reports that nine out of ten people around the world breathe polluted air every day, causing around 7 million deaths annually, mainly from heart and lung diseases and cancer. About half the deaths are due to outdoor air pollution, mainly due to emissions from industry, transport and agriculture. Indoor air pollution from heating and cooking with biomass fuels is an important factor in the other half of the deaths.

Troublingly, about 90 percent of those deaths are in middle and low-income countries, according to the 2017 report of the Lancet Commission on Pollution and Health. This is a pattern seen in most of the other major health threats facing the world today.

The major source of air pollution is the burning of fossil fuels, which of course is also the major cause of climate change. While the WHO estimates that climate change will contribute to about 250,000 additional deaths each year between 2030 and 2050, many see that as a considerable underestimate. Emerging evidence suggests the impact of climate change on health and society will be more serious and more rapid than we used to think.

The second major health threat is non-communicable or chronic disease – heart disease, cancer, lung disease, diabetes and the like – with “over 85% of these premature deaths in low- and middle-income countries”. The first three of the five key factors cited by the WHO – tobacco use, physical inactivity and the harmful use of alcohol – are not obviously linked to global ecological problems.

But the remaining two – unhealthy diets and air pollution – are very much related to global ecological problems. I have addressed air pollution above, while I noted in last week’s column that our agricultural system and the highly animal-based, highly processed diet it is increasingly designed to produce is not only bad for our health, it is also a major contributor to several global environmental problems. These include greenhouse gas emissions, land degradation, pollution, water depletion and loss of habitat and biodiversity.

Fragile and vulnerable settings are number four on WHO’s list of the top ten global health threats: “More than 1.6 billion people (22% of the global population) live in places where protracted crises . . . and weak health services leave them without access to basic care”. These places are made vulnerable by “a combination of challenges such as drought, famine, conflict and population displacement”.

Many of these challenges are in part or in whole due to climate change, which is only going to get worse. Drought and floods – both caused or exacerbated by climate change – lead to displacement and famine, while rising sea levels, rising temperatures and increasing severe weather events will result in increasing numbers of eco-refugees. The UN High Commission for Refugees estimates that every year since 2008 there has been “an average of 22.5 million people displaced by climate or weather-related events.” The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change expects these numbers to increase throughout the 21st century.

The fifth threat identified by WHO is antimicrobial resistance, which “threatens to send us back to a time when we were unable to easily treat infections”. Among the factors contributing to this problem, WHO notes, is the overuse of antimicrobials not only “in people, but also in animals, especially those used for food production”; again, we see our animal-based diet and agricultural system is a problem.

Finally, ninth on the list is dengue fever, an unpleasant and occasionally fatal infection spread by mosquitoes. Climate change is increasing the distribution of these mosquitoes, which WHO reports are “spreading to less tropical and more temperate countries”.

This list of threats to global health shows us that now, more than ever, we must pay attention to the links between the health of the environment and our own health. The good news is that when we protect the environment, we almost always protect our health.

© Trevor Hancock, 2019