Global Warming Health Notes

Tomorrow, Wednesday May 28, 2014 Ottawa's city council considers the Air Quality and Climate Change Management Plan 2014 that passed Environment Council last week. In the runup to that meeting we saw the following Op-Ed in the Ottawa Citizen:

The City of Ottawa should approve its new climate change management plan and get on with implementing it. Our health depends on it.

Climate change has already enabled ticks carrying Lyme disease to expand north into our region and the number of confirmed Lyme disease cases in Canada is increasing by hundreds every year. Similarly, mosquitos that spread West Nile virus survive better as our climate warms. Across Ontario, confirmed cases of West Nile virus have increased from single instances just four or five years ago to hundreds of cases per year.

More freezing rain and winter thaws mean slipperier walking... [more at the Citizen] This follows Ecology Ottawa's Sick of Climate Change event written up by Gaye Taylor:

On the evening of April 29th, 2014,  concerned citizens from across Ottawa gathered at the University of Ottawa to listen to ,and participate in, the panel discussion Sick of Climate Change? Local Health in a Warming World. The product of collaboration between Ecology Ottawa and  the University of Ottawa Centre on Governance, and moderated by Mitchell Beer of Smarter Shift, the event was very worth-while, with panellists Councillor Diane Holmes, Chair, Ottawa Board of Health; Dr. John Stone, Adjunct Professor, Carleton University and Lead Author for the IPCC Working Group II Report; Dr. Curtis Lavoie, Emergency Physician, CHEO; and Alice Hutton, former Community Health Planner, Centretown Community Health Centre, bringing their considerable experience to bear on the question of the local health impacts of climate change.

Councillor Holmes kicked off the discussion with her emphatic reminder that “climate change is not a distant threat” and the “society [has an] obligation to act” to mitigate human health effects that are “real and numerous.” Ms. Holmes went on to briefly, but effectively, catalogue the range of these effects, most particularly temperature extremes, the increase in vector-borne diseases, and also of severe storms. Holmes’ overall point that we must both mitigate and adapt to climate change was well expressed in her insistence that our response to heat waves must include a comprehensive greening of the city (Ie. no more asphalt!) and the careful mapping of heat islands especially as these intersect with vulnerable populations like the elderly, the asthmatic, the disabled, and the very young.

Dr. Stone spoke next, and began with the arresting observation that while climate change has been, for quite some time now, a “threat multiplier”---that is, acting to reinforce pre-existing stressors like war, economic downturns, and food shortages, it is fast becoming a very major threat unto itself.  He reinforced his point by taking his listeners back to the European heat waves of 2003 (France) and 2010 (Russia).  Whereas at the turn of the 20th century such extreme heat events might occur every 100 years, we are now on track for such killing temperatures once a decade, and even more frequently as the globe continues to warm. Confirming how both heat waves had devastated the European agricultural sector, Dr. Stone identified malnutrition as the greatest health threat posed by climate change because corn and rice, essential food staples both, are particularly vulnerable to extreme temperatures. In periods of extended high heat, their kernels just don’t set. Dr. Stone concluded by observing that only countries with good public health systems will be equipped to deal with the fall-out from faltering agricultural systems.

Ms. Hutton’s news that the Canadian public health system is itself significantly strengthened by the presence of community health centres thus came as a relief to the audience whose members were likely feeling rather depressed by this point. Emphasizing how each centre  knows its resident population well---especially those made vulnerable by age, disability, or isolation---Ms. Hutton confirmed that community health centres are already, and will remain, on the front lines of helping citizens to cope with the health effects of climate change, building resilience, advocating for the voiceless, helping the needy and empowering residents to work together towards solutions. As Ms. Hutton confirmed in concluding, while despair is an understandable response to climate change, it is debilitating. Hope, on the other hand, is a great energizer.

As the founder and head of CHEO’s Green Team, the final speaker of the evening, Dr. Curtis Lavoie is no stranger to hope, or optimism. As he made emphatically clear, anyone seeking to shrink the massive carbon footprint of a health institution like CHEO needs to keep the positive in view: the tri-fold imperatives of patient health, financial costs, and staff well-being have together created monumental levels of consumption (mostly through procurement) and shocking amounts of toxic waste. Although the inertia in the system is huge, Dr. Lavoie was able to report small, but significant steps forward: the elimination of that entirely useless strip of paper used on examining tables to “protect” the patients from germs, for example.  Reflecting on the impacts that climate change will have on hospitals, however, Dr. Lavoie was anything but sanguine. Adept at using humour as a tool of persuasion, he noted that our best bet is to avoid getting sick! But as he noted in concluding, what we really need to do is work on changing the system. To weather the onslaught of climate change, hospitals will need to be “green, resilient, and adaptable.” CHEO is a marvellous hospital, but it is none of the above, with its gobsmacking carbon footprint, ballooning costs, hyper-specialization, and high tech equipment--- a god-send until high temperatures cause system failure. The icing on the cake is that the high level care that hospitals like CHEO provide require stable economies, a stability that will grow more and more tenuous as climate change takes stronger hold.

The evening wound down with the audience being given the opportunity to comment on what had been said. Unsurprisingly, the mood was pretty sombre, with several attendees asking panelists point-blank about the probability of worst-case climate change scenarios coming to pass. Responses varied but over-all the message was clear: as Councillor Holmes made clear in her opening comments: we are in deep trouble, but must remain “steadfast” and recognize the “imperative to work together.” Kudos to her and her fine co-panelists, to Ecology Ottawa, the University of Ottawa Centre on Governance, and to all involved in organizing this highly informative, and ultimately inspiring, event.

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