The global ecological crisis is also a global health crisis

20 September 2021

Dr. Trevor Hancock

(Published as ‘Measures to tackle climate change bring health benefits, too’)

701 words

Something extraordinary happened in mid-September: 231 medical journals around the world all published the same editorial, titled “Call for emergency action to limit global temperature increases, restore biodiversity, and protect health.”

Led by a group of chief editors from world-leading journals such as The Lancet, The BMJ and The New England Journal of Medicine, as well as the Canadian Medical Association Journal, the editorial stated, bluntly, “The greatest threat to global public health is the continued failure of world leaders to keep the global temperature rise below 1·5°C and to restore nature.”

Tellingly, notes the editorial, the latter – the destruction of nature – “does not have parity of esteem with the climate element of the crisis”. This is an important point. As recent UN reports have begun to recognize – and as governments, by and large, have not – we face not just climate change but multiple and interacting human-driven ecological crises.

This is well illustrated by the concept of planetary boundaries, first proposed in 2009. Nine major Earth systems are identified and boundaries are suggested, beyond which we should not go if we wish to avoid destabilizing our planetary life support system. One of these, of course, is global warming exceeding 1.5 – 20C.

The most recent updating of this model was in 2015; at that point we were already in a zone of high risk for species extinctions and nitrogen and phosphorus flows, in a zone of increased risk for land system and climate change and approaching it for ocean acidification. Troublingly, boundaries could not even be established for a couple of the Earth systems.

The editorial lists some of the health impacts that are already apparent as a result of these changes, including a 50 percent increase in heat–related mortality among older adults in the past 20 years and a host of other health problems related to climate change. But it also points out that “thriving ecosystems are essential to human health and the widespread destruction of nature, including habitats and species, is eroding water and food security and increasing the chance of pandemics.”

Moreover, the clear link between unsustainable development and inequality is made clear. Not only are the most vulnerable people – “children, older populations, ethnic minorities, poorer communities, and those with underlying health problems” – disproportionately affected, so too are low-income countries and communities.

Ironically, these are places that “have contributed least to the problem” – which historically, and still today, is disproportionately caused by high-income countries. Yet these low-income countries and communities have less capacity to deal with the problems caused by these global ecological crises. The burden of ecologically-related ill health thus falls most heavily on those least able to deal with it.

Which is why the editorial insists that “equity must be at the centre of the global response” and that wealthy countries – such as Canada – will have to make larger and more rapid changes to address these crises. In fact, the editors all agree, “only fundamental and equitable changes to societies will reverse our current trajectory.”

The good news, they point out, is that the dramatic changes we must make bring with them “huge positive health and economic outcomes.” These include improved air quality – which “alone would realise health benefits that easily offset the global costs of emissions reductions” – better diets, more physical activity, improved housing and high-quality jobs.

Now doubtless this will all be dismissed by the same ranting fools that deny the reality and severity of climate change and Covid. But their uneducated and unscientific opinions simply can’t be allowed to count. Nor for that matter can we accept the self-interested views of the major corporations and their government partners that make vast sums of money through their war on nature. They profit from the status quo and ‘business as usual’, and have no interest in ‘fundamental and equitable changes to societies.’

But those of us who do actually care about the wellbeing of both the population and the Earth’s systems that support our wellbeing (and the wellbeing of the myriad of species with which we share the Earth) must, as the editorial puts it, “do all we can to aid the transition to a sustainable, fairer, resilient, and healthier world.”

© Trevor Hancock, 2021

Dr. Trevor Hancock is a retired professor and senior scholar at the

University of Victoria’s School of Public Health and Social Policy


No matter who wins, we could all lose

13 September 2021

Dr. Trevor Hancock

698 words

It has been a pretty dispiriting election all round. It was called in the midst of a pandemic for no better reason than that the Liberals want to hang on to power. The campaign has been lack-lustre, the debates uninspiring and badly organised and, at the end of it all, it seems to me we may well be right back where we started; a minority government.

If that happens, given the global and national emergencies we face – of which more below – could we perhaps see an agreement between two or more parties, such as the one the BC Greens struck with the BC NDP, or even a coalition government?

If the latter, hopefully we won’t see a repeat of the ignorant and undemocratic posturing of Stephen Harper in 2015, when he tried to persuade people that a coalition government was somehow improper, if not unconstitutional.

Just to be clear, while the leader of the party with the largest number of seats gets to approach the Governor General and ask for the chance to form a government, they must then demonstrate they can command a majority in the House.

If they can’t, the leader of a party that believes they can command the confidence of the House can ask to be allowed to seek that confidence and form a government. This is completely legal and constitutional, it’s how the system is meant to work. And coalition governments are particularly important in times of national crisis, where we all need to be working together.

Which brings me back to my point in my column two weeks ago about the planet-sized elephant in the election room. Unfortunately, none of the parties that are likely to form the government seem to understand the global and national emergencies we face.

These emergencies were underlined yet again last week by Mr. Guterres, the UN Secretary General. In a September 10th speech to the UN General Assembly, he presented a report  – “Our Common Agenda” – requested by the General Assembly in 2021 as part of the marking of the UN’s 75th anniversary. His remarks are worth quoting at some length.

He began by stating: “On almost every front, our world is under enormous stress. We are not at ease with each other, or our planet”. He went on to identify the main elements of the crises we face, beginning with Covid-19.  But also, he noted: “From the climate crisis to our suicidal war on nature and the collapse of biodiversity, our global response has been too little, too late. Unchecked inequality is undermining social cohesion, creating fragilities that affect us all. Technology is moving ahead without guard rails to protect us from its unforeseen consequences”.

“Global decision-making”, he continued, “is fixed on immediate gain, ignoring the long-term consequences of decisions — or indecision . . . As a result, we risk a future of serious instability and climate chaos”. And, he added, “Business as usual could result in breakdown of the global order, into a world of perpetual crisis and winner-takes-all”.

Canada, of course, is part of this, and as a high-income country we contribute disproportionately to these emergencies. This is no time for business as usual in Ottawa; we have to treat the situation with the seriousness it deserves. That may well require the creation of a coalition government to address these national and global crises.

Such a government should take a leaf – in fact, several leaves – from Mr. Guterres’ book. For example, he proposes a Summit of the Future “to forge a new . . . consensus on what our future should look like, and how we can secure it” and he plans to appoint “a Special Envoy for Future Generations, to give weight to the interests of those who will be born over the coming century”, as well as establishing a new UN Youth Office and a Futures Lab to report on emerging trends and risks.

All these ideas – and others too numerous to mention – are worth replicating at a national level, as a matter of urgency. Because if the governing parties cannot recognise, accept and address these global and national crises we all lose, especially young people and future generations.

© Trevor Hancock, 2021

Dr. Trevor Hancock is a retired professor and senior scholar at the

University of Victoria’s School of Public Health and Social Policy

7 September 2021

Dr. Trevor Hancock

697 words

Last week I noted that none of the main parties – those likely to form the next government – have yet recognized and accepted the scale of the global ecological crises we face, to which Canada contributes disproportionately. Nor have they recognized the implications for Canadians and the rest of humanity, including the threat these crises pose to our human rights.

David Boyd, a BC-based environmental lawyer and currently the UN Special Rapporteur on human rights and the environment, noted in a recent blog posting: “Among the human rights being threatened and violated by the global environmental crisis are the rights to life, health, food, a healthy environment, water, an adequate standard of living, and culture.” Which is why he is a leader in the efforts to establish the right to a healthy environment in Canadian and international law.

Regrettably, Canada remains one of the few countries in the world that does not recognize that people have the right to a healthy environment – and that we also thus have a duty to protect nature and ensure the environment is healthy.

Admittedly, in April 2021 the Liberal government introduced Bill C-28, which would have amended the Canadian Environmental Protection Act to include the recognition of the right to a healthy environment. But the Bill, while welcomed as a good start by important health and environmental organisations, was also criticized by them as too weak.

Problematically, the right to a healthy environment would only be in the preamble to the Act, with no clear legal powers to ensure it is fully implemented. Even worse, the Bill stated that this right “may be balanced with relevant factors, including social, economic, health and scientific factors”. In other words – well, you sort of have that right, but not if economic or other factors are considered more important. Thus making money could triumph over your need for a healthy environment – as it has done for many years.

Anyway, Bill C-28 failed to proceed beyond first reading and was not even debated, indicating how little importance Parliament gives to this vitally important issue.

So one question to ask your candidates is: Do you and your party recognize that Canadians have a right to a healthy environment, that this right is not subject to modification for economic or other reasons, and that you will commit to introducing and or supporting legislation to enshrine the right to a healthy environment and, ultimately, to include it in the Canadian Constitution?

Another way in which Canada’s lack of interest in and support for the right to a healthy environment manifests is that Canada did not support a March 2021 Statement put forward at the UN Human Rights Council calling for “international recognition of the right to a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment”.

The Statement was proposed by the governments of Costa Rica, the Maldives, Morocco, Slovenia, and Switzerland and supported by almost 70 countries. Canada was not alone in failing to support it; other unsupportive major planet-harming countries were the USA, the UK, Australia, China, Russia and India.

The Statement was however supported by 15 major UN organisations, from the International Labour Organization to Unicef and the World Health Organization, all of whom recognized that the “rights of present and future generations depend on a healthy environment”. It was also supported by more than 1,000 civil society, child, youth and indigenous peoples’ organizations.

Happily, there is a growing global movement not only to recognize the right to a healthy environment, but to create a Global Pact for the Environment. The Pact, which the UN has been considering, would be a legally binding global instrument establishing “the right to a sound environment and the duty to care for the environment”. But ultimately, David Boyd suggests, “the right should be added to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights”.

So a second important – indeed vital – question you should ask your federal candidates is whether they will support the adoption, globally, of the right to a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment and its addition to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. If they and their party are seriously concerned about the wellbeing of this and future generations, they must answer ‘yes’.

© Trevor Hancock, 2021

Dr. Trevor Hancock is a retired professor and senior scholar at the

University of Victoria’s School of Public Health and Social Policy

The planet-sized elephant in the election room

31 August 2021

Dr. Trevor Hancock

697 words

In a December 2020 speech at Columbia University, the UN Secretary General said: “the state of the planet is broken. Humanity is waging war on nature. This is suicidal”, adding “Making peace with nature is the defining task of the 21st century. It must be the top, top priority for everyone, everywhere”.

A February 2021 UN Environment Program (UNEP) report, “Making Peace with Nature”, is blunt: “Humanity’s environmental challenges have grown in number and severity . . .  and now represent a planetary emergency”. Noting “human well-being is critically dependent on Earth’s natural systems”, the report identifies the three “self-inflicted planetary crises” we must address simultaneously: the climate, biodiversity and pollution emergencies.

Yet we are failing to meet even the agreed upon targets for climate change, protection of biodiversity, land degradation neutrality, protection of oceans and marine resources and the safe management of chemicals and waste. As a result, says the report, the web of life – of which we are a part, and upon which we depend – is unraveling.

These human-driven ecosystem changes thus represent a threat to the stability and sustainability of our society and the wellbeing of the global and Canadian populations, as well as the wellbeing, indeed the continued existence, of many other species.

So you would think the main federal parties would make the theme of making peace with nature a core element of their election platforms – and you would be wrong. To be sure, the parties all address climate change, with varying degrees of serious but generally inadequate commitment, have something nice to say about protecting our lands and waters (although the word ‘biodiversity’ is conspicuous by its almost total absence) and acting on some forms of pollution and in particular addressing plastic wastes.

But none of the parties addresses the underlying problem, which is that our entire way of life and our economy are unsustainable. The central fact is that globally we use 1.7 times the Earth’s bio-capacity every year, and almost five times that much per person in Canada. In other words, as a country we take almost five times our fair share of the Earth’s limited bio-capacity and resources, while disproportionately polluting the Earth.

The central challenge we face in the next couple of decades, then, is how we reduce our ecological footprint around 75 percent, share the Earth more with those who have less (including other species) and yet ensure a good quality of life for all Canadians.  

Continuing the ‘making peace’ metaphor, the UNEP report outlines both a peace plan and a post-war rebuilding program. There are recommendations for governments in three broad areas: Address Earth’s environmental emergencies and human well-being together; transform economic and financial systems so they lead and power the shift toward sustainability, and transform food, water and energy systems to meet growing human needs in an equitable, resilient and environmentally friendly manner.

But, notes the report, this will involve overcoming “vested and short-term interests” – those who do very well out of the current system (such as the fossil fuel, chemicals, mining, forestry, agricultural, automobile and consumer products industries), and want to maintain the status quo.

Among the specific recommendations that challenge a ‘business as usual’ approach are to “include natural capital . . .  and environmental costs . . .  in decision-making”, end fossil fuel subsidies, and develop and use alternatives to GDP.

These, then, are some of the transformative changes we need to see at the core of the platform of any party aspiring to form the next government. And they need to start happening right now, because time is short – “the coming decade is crucial”, says UNEP. This is not something that can be put off for another election or two.

Any party with pretensions to caring about the wellbeing of young people and future generations, as well as the wellbeing of the Earth itself, would make these issues the core of their platforms. Sadly, however, making peace with nature does not seem to be a top priority among Canada’s main political parties, and thus not a priority for whomever forms the next government. This is the planet-sized elephant that the main parties are trying to ignore in this election.

© Trevor Hancock, 2021

Dr. Trevor Hancock is a retired professor and senior scholar at the

University of Victoria’s School of Public Health and Social Policy