By Cameron Esler
10/6/2015

In August, the Canadian Medical Association voted to divest its holdings in fossil fuel companies. For two doctors from the Northwest Territories, it was a successful step in efforts to raise awareness within the medical community about the health impacts of climate change.

“I heard David Suzuki speak in Yellowknife during the Blue Dot Tour,” Jennifer Harris said. “Previously I was quite overwhelmed by the implications of climate change and I’d felt I wouldn’t be able to do anything more meaningful to secure our natural world other than individually reducing, re-using and recycling. The Blue Dot message was positive and unarguably essential.”

“I think as an Arctic population we’re more conscious of the link between the environment and health,” said Courtney Howard, who spoke at the CMA’s general council meeting. She also serves on the board of the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment and is involved with its climate-health advocacy. “People here are still very close to the land, so they really notice changes in the land and they communicate that to us.”

Together, the two brought a Blue Dot motion to their professional association, the Northwest Territories Medical Association, which passed last February. For Harris and Howard, environmental leadership is a natural fit with their profession.

“Food availability, for me, is the crux of it; that’s the thing I worry about going forward,” Howard said. “I spent six months working on a pediatric malnutrition project in the Horn of Africa. Having seen infants and children die of malnutrition, I’m extremely aware of that as a risk. When you see the droughts, when you see the changes in agriculture already, and you see the forecast for how warm we’re heading on our current trajectory, I can see how that would very quickly affect the lives of many.”

Howard said the 2014 forest fire season also drew a firm line between environmental and human health. “We had really terrible air quality for more than two months, which affected people’s ability to go outside and exercise. It affected a lot of people with asthma and people had trouble with coughing, headaches and itchy eyes. I think it required enough of us to breathe wildfire smoke, to have felt it in our bodies, to be willing to stand up there and do what has always been ethically right.”

Howard added, “There’s also a very under-acknowledged mental health aspect to this. When I read Bill McKibben’s [2012 Rolling Stone article] “Terrifying New Math”, I had a six-month old daughter. By the end of the article I was curled up in the fetal position around her.”

Globally, health professionals have increasingly worked to raise the alarm about climate change. The medical journal The Lancet has identified the effort to tackle climate change as the greatest global health opportunity of the 21st century. The World Health Organization has just launched a campaign to mobilize the global health community to act on climate change called “Our Climate, Our Health.” Howard contributes her time and science background to help popularize reports such as Acting on Climate: Solutions From Canadian Scholars, which says Canada can meet its needs with 100 per cent renewable energy by 2035 and decrease emissions by 80 per cent by mid-century. And the CMA’s fossil fuel divestment decision followed similar moves by national medical associations in Britain and Australia.

“I think it’s very important that everyone helps champion the cause,” Harris said. “However, people who have been given more of a voice in society, which at times can include physicians, are essential to helping us shift toward protection of our environment. It would make a huge difference to have this enshrined within our Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Once we have this platform, our soil, water, trees and oceans would not be something we have to constantly fight to protect.”

Howard said the divestment effort helps speed up attention and action, something the CMA wanted to contribute to. “One of our major roles is to train the next generation of physicians, to hand over the knowledge they need to function,” she says. “If we hand over a planetary system that isn’t functioning, that’s about the wickedest bad handover we could ever do. It doesn’t matter how well we teach them how to treat hypertension if their patients are dying of starvation. Whereas, if we tackle climate change, from a health point of view we’ll see side benefits, such as better fitness related to people using bikes more, or less asthma and COPD related to air pollution.”

Howard acknowledged that the CMA motion was difficult for doctors from communities whose economies depend on fossil fuel industries. “But at the end of the day we need to make a choice,” she said. “Are we going to acknowledge that climate change is a major health issue that requires immediate treatment? The doctors of Canada said yes.”

For health professionals seeking information or mentorship related to climate-health advocacy, contact CAPE, or Dr. Howard via Twitter, @courtghoward. Join the Blue Dot movement today.