As I have noted before, in the famous words of Rudolf Virchow in 1848: “Politics is but medicine writ large,” although as a public-health physician I prefer to say health, not medicine.
A prime example of the truth of this statement can be seen if we consider the Leap Manifesto that was discussed at the recent federal NDP convention.
I look at documents such as this from a health perspective, and from that perspective, the manifesto is a smart and sensible set of proposals to create a healthier future; in fact, it reads more like the Green Party’s platform. But it has not been received well by much of the NDP establishment.
In a recent column in this paper, Les Leyne described it as “a radical plan to re-tool the entire Canadian economy, minus the fossil fuel part,” and indeed it is. He then pointed to NDP politicians and labour leaders from Alberta and B.C., who in one way or another dismissed the manifesto as being anti-resource development and anti-jobs.
In a subsequent letter to the editor, one notable former B.C. NDP cabinet minister, Paul Ramsey, dismissed the manifesto on the grounds of its “ideological and environmental purity” and being “rigidly committed to extreme positions.” He prefers his party to “move towards the centre” because “that’s where the votes are.”
But at this pivotal moment, we need clear and inspirational leadership, not a move to the mushy middle, a position we already see Justin Trudeau rushing to occupy with his call for both meeting our climate change obligations and building pipelines and supporting the Alberta oilsands.
Rather appropriately, Ramsey’s letter appeared beneath a commentary by Larissa Stendie, the Sierra Club B.C.’s climate and energy campaigner, that could have been lifted straight from the Leap Manifesto. In it, she wrote: “It’s dangerous and irresponsible to claim climate-change leadership while continuing to build fossil-fuel infrastructure.”
Because the inconvenient truth — as former U.S. vice-president Al Gore called it — is that you can’t have your cake and eat it. The science on this is very clear; if we burn all the fossil fuels we know we have, we will trigger disastrous climate change.
We need to keep something like 80 per cent of the fossil fuels we have identified in the ground, especially coal. A 2015 article in Nature suggested 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.
As it is, we are unlikely to keep warming under the two degrees that the Paris Accord commits us to. This will have serious health consequences — so much so that this month the American College of Physicians issued an urgent call to action on climate. Noting that “climate change will have devastating consequences for public and individual health unless aggressive, global action is taken now to curb greenhouse gas emissions,” this major medical organization urged physicians to “help combat climate change by advocating for effective climate-change adaptation and mitigation policies.”
So it is sad to see key NDP stalwarts fail to face up to the facts, instead joining much of the rest of the Canadian political, corporate and union establishment in ignoring the new reality rather than championing it. They do not represent a path to a healthier future.
We need to devise and implement an energy policy and create an energy system that is good for people and the planet. As Stendie notes, such a system is feasible and indeed is a healthier option than our present fossil-fuel-based system.
Those health benefits include not only avoiding the health impacts of climate change, but also reduced death and disease from heart and lung disease related to air pollution. Moreover, numerous studies have shown that investments in clean energy produce more jobs and that these jobs are more widely dispersed.
Only fossils defend fossil fuels; the inspirational leaders of tomorrow can see beyond fossil fuels to a cleaner, greener, healthier future. It’s a leap we need to make.
Dr. Trevor Hancock is a professor and senior scholar at the University of Victoria’s school of public health and social policy.