Trevor Hancock: Climate change poses severe health risks

Climate change is the “biggest global-health threat of the 21st century,” according to a 2009 commission on health and medical issues established by The Lancet, one of the world’s leading medical journals.

In this, the commission is not alone. Many other public-health and environmental groups have made the same point. The most recent report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change states with very high confidence that, as a result of climate change, there is a “greater risk of injury, disease and death due to more intense heat waves and fires [and] increased risks of food- and water-borne diseases.”

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The panel says climate change is responsible for 400,000 deaths a year through diminished food production and diseases, and that this could rise to 700,000 annual deaths by 2030.

Additionally, worker productivity will diminish, especially among outdoor labourers and agricultural workers. The economic losses due to heat-induced lost productivity could be very large; one study found that by 2050, 30 million work-years could be lost annually just in the East Asia region.

Moreover, the extraction, processing and use of fossil fuels have many other adverse health effects, in particular large numbers of disability days and premature deaths from heart and lung diseases due to air pollution.

The study found that 4.5 million deaths annually are linked to air pollution, hazardous occupations and cancer associated with our carbon-intensive energy system. This could rise to six million deaths by 2030.

In the longer term, if we do not stop climate change, the next generations will also have to deal with massive disruptions of food production and water supply that are likely to create huge numbers of eco-refugees, with large social and economic consequences. This is why the international consensus is that global warming needs to be kept to no more than two degrees C if severe effects are to be avoided.

Which brings me to the carbon budget and Canada’s energy policy. It has been estimated that to keep global warming to less than two degrees C, no more than about a trillion tonnes of carbon can be added to the atmosphere. We are already past the halfway mark, and if current trends persist, will pass the trillion-tonne mark in the 2040s.

If the total resource base of fossil fuel were burned, we would be way past that threshold, leading to suggestions that about 80 per cent of global fossil fuel reserves should not be burned.

A recent report suggests that in Canada, even with carbon capture and storage technologies in place, 74 per cent of oil reserves (and 99 per cent of “unconventional oil,” i.e. Alberta’s oilsands), 71 per cent of unconventional gas reserves (i.e. fracking) and 75 per cent of coal is “unburnable.”

This unburnable carbon is a “stranded asset,” in that while it might appear on the books, it is actually worthless, since it can’t be extracted and used. This represents a major liability for the fossil-fuel industry and its investors, notably pension funds.

Which explains why prudent investors are beginning to divest from fossil fuels, and why faculty members and students at the University of Victoria and the University of British Columbia, for example, have voted to divest their pension funds. In September 2014, the Global Divest/Invest Coalition announced that people and organizations representing more than $50 billion in assets have pledged to divest from fossil fuels over the next five years.

If the federal and B.C. governments have heard of these concerns, they are clearly untroubled by them. Our governments have staked their economic policy firmly on fossil-fuel energy exports and seem disinclined to change. They are intent on taking Canada down a path that leads to a major ecological and health crisis globally and a major economic crisis in Canada.

Fossil-fuel divestment will not only have economic benefits and environmental benefits, it will have important health benefits. Wise governments will protect our health by getting ahead of the curve, shifting tax credits and other subsidies away from fossil fuels and into conservation, renewable and clean energy technologies.


Dr. Trevor Hancock is a professor and senior scholar at the University of Victoria’s school of public health and social policy.

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