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  • Writer's pictureThink Upstream

Public health offers potent climate solutions

The spectre of climate change-fueled disasters looms large over the coming federal election, yet the health equity promise of a Green New Deal is shining through the storm clouds. 

An aerial view of a forest covered in fog.

Alex Paterson

Right on cue, Western Canada is once again covered in smoke from forest fires, historic flooding is plaguing Eastern Canada, and tornado clusters are touching down across North America. Climate chaos on schedule.

It may feel intractable, but it really isn’t. We have a choice and a route forward. People from the public health sector have an important contribution to offer in defining evidence-led solutions to climate change.

The problem

Looking at a health problem from an upstream public health perspective requires us to address the source of a problem, not simply the downstream symptoms. If we apply this model to the surge in flooding and forest fires witnessed across Canada, it means we need to focus on stopping climate change from getting worse. The continued production of fossil fuels, and our reliance on them, is the upstream cause of a worsening chaotic climate. It is the primary determinant of climate health. It’s also determining the health of individual citizens who have lost their homes and livelihoods to climate disasters.

If we accept this premise, the oil sands need to be shut down as soon as possible. It means no more pipelines are built or enlarged. It means we cancel all possible new liquified natural gas projects and ban hydraulic fracturing. These are the sources of the illness. If we are to treat this like a public health and safety emergency, we must treat the source.

The challenge

Transitioning the economy off fossil fuels done wrong could harm population health.

We have an opportunity to build on our success in improving population health in Canada. Our mission should be to ensure the health equity of Canadians is improved in the transition process. At the same time, we need to get the ball rolling with enough momentum to succeed in limiting warming to less than 1.5 degrees. To achieve both of these goals, Canadians should be locked into a climate and energy plan by the end of the next federal government’s mandate. And we need every province and territory on board.

We need this to happen at the same time that our economic anxiety is going through the roof.

Canadians working in the skilled trades and resource sectors are worried the government won't actually support them if fossil fuel industries are shut down.

That’s a legitimate fear. We know that income determines health, it's a key social determinant of health.

The government currently doesn’t have adequate social security programming in place to protect people. Our income security regime, and employment insurance in particular, is not set up for a massive energy transition. It doesn’t inspire confidence in workers and pensioners fearing they need to give up on an industry they’ve banked on. Luckily, we could build a non-partisan consensus by focusing on the social determinants of health as guiding lights in a just transition.

That makes this election the most important election we’ve ever had on climate change. The ballot box question on climate change shouldn’t be: carbon tax or not? The question should be: public health or not?

The solution

That’s where a Green New Deal comes into play.

It’s the talk of the town among progressive young people. It has been fought for by the Sunrise movement. It has been popularized by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and other social justice Democrats in the U.S. The Green New Deal is a plan for massive, sustained, and coordinated support for climate action and social equity by the federal government. It’s modelled after Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal, which was used to stimulate the U.S. economy during the Great Depression. It’s been taken up by progressive movements in Canada who work on equity and the social determinants of health. It’s a green keynesian strategy in Canada. The Green New Deal is also a public health solution to climate change. It is a guarantee of good work and income as we adapt to climate change. Done right, it can also guarantee everyone a socially adequate and climate safe home. The Green New Deal provides an intervention in the labour market to align it with our climate goals. The most important aspects of the deal is a plan for the next 30 years of the Canadian labour market.

It’s a commitment to develop a roadmap for the income security and training programs that are required to martial all of Canada’s trades and construction workers into development consistent with our climate plan.

It requires our labour force be focused on caring and nurturing, renewable energy development, home retrofitting, and ecosystem clean up. This isn’t a task where the private sector is equipped to lead on its own. This is the reason we have governments in the first place. It requires an element of central planning not seen since the reconstruction after the world wars.

Government can’t just get out of the way, instead it has to lead.

Ultimately, climate change is an existential test of the systems we’ve set up for ourselves and our own ingenuity in the face of a rapidly shifting world. I’m confident we can meet that challenge, especially if public health advocates do what we do best and advance the upstream evidence on the changes required to maintain population health and eliminate emissions at the same time. The Green New Deal presents a timely opportunity for us to demonstrate our unique ability to contribute to population-level systems change. It gives us an opportunity to not just point out the problem, but to design the solutions.


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