Doctors see health and hope in Burnaby Mountain protests

Remarkably, our patients have recently been putting on a clinic on climate and community health in the most unlikely of locations-- up Burnaby Mountain.  They stood up for the health of the planet and the people whose lives depend on it.

Doctors See Health and Hope in Burnaby Mountain Protests
Kinder Morgan protest on Burnaby Mountain, post-injunction. Photo by Mychaylo Prystupa.

Climate change is the biggest public health threat of the 21st century.  The Lancet said it first in 2009.  Since then, British Medical Journal, the Canadian Medical Association Journal the Journal of the American Medical Association, and others have urged MDs to take action to treat and prevent the increases in heat-related illness, air-pollution-related problems and mental and stress-related disorders that have been predicted.  

Unfortunately, climate change wasn’t well covered in medical school—so as a group, physicians have been slow off the mark in responding to the climate crisis. As with all of medicine’s most profound issues, however—we have the blessing of the best teachers of all—our patients.

Remarkably, our patients have recently been putting on a clinic on climate and community health in the most unlikely of locations-- up Burnaby Mountain.  They stood up for the health of the planet and the people whose lives depend on it. They stood in recognition of the right of communities to set aside conservation areas where people can enjoy the well-documented health benefits of exercise and the contemplation of nature.  They stood for the idea that the health of children is as important as the health of today’s ruling generation. 

As doctors, we have been inspired.  The medical literature has been telling us that we must attend to this Code Green outside of the hospital with all the urgency we would lend to a Code Blue within it.  And now our patients have done just that.  

In thanks, let us now add our voices to the climate-health efforts with three major reasons for hope: 

1-Tackling climate change will have substantial health benefits.

A transition to clean energy and carbon pricing will decrease emissions as well as the costs and health impacts of air pollution, which is currently responsible for 1 in 8 deaths worldwide.  Active commuting will help decrease chronic disease. Distributed renewable energy generation and local food will create jobs, reduce poverty (and its indisputable effect on health), and help make our society more resilient to adverse weather events.

2-Treatment is possible.

The mental health impacts of climate change are increasingly well-recognized and it is possible that climate-related depression is as much of a barrier to change as climate-denial.  That need not be: we can make this situation much better. Thanks to rapid decreases in the price of renewable technology, all that is now missing for a transition to a low-carbon, more resilient society is the social and political will to build it.  The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) says we must decrease greenhouse gas emissions 40-70% by 2050 in order to prevent catastrophic warming.  Thankfully, only about 5% of Canada’s GDP is due to oil and gas: we have options.  A UN study shows Canada can reduce emissions by nearly 90% by 2050 through energy efficiency, decarbonizing our electricity supply and replacing fossil fuels with electricity for heat and transport — all while growing our GDP by 200%. Research at Stanford has shown that the entire world could be powered by wind, water and solar by 2030. 

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