Comment: Listen to your doctors: We need a debate on our health emergency

A commentary by a family ­doctor in Vancouver who is a member of the board of directors of the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment.

The past many months have emphasized again and again that we are dealing with an unpredictable emergency. As physicians, we have seen it in our family practices, our emergency rooms, in the deteriorating ­mental health of our patients.

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It might sound like I am writing about COVID-19 — and I would never undermine the COVID crisis. But an even greater crisis is also here: the climate emergency. And in this election season, we need a national debate on this crisis.

In British Columbia, 569 people died from heat alone in June and July, and we can only imagine the scale of associated illnesses.

Wildfire smoke from a severe wildfire season causes COPD and asthma exacerbations, heart attacks and strokes, on top of the mental distress caused by evacuations and losing homes. And the climate crisis is only going to get more unpredictable and more severe in the decades to come.

The recent report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change tells us that emissions need to drop to net-zero by 2050 — and then go into net negative — so that we only reach 1.5 degrees of warming by the end of this century.

Without this rapid action, we are likely to hit and surpass 1.5 degrees much sooner with much more dramatic changes than we see today.

We — and our leaders — still have time to address the climate crisis. But for too long we have seen political leaders entrapped by the fossil-fuel industry, despite knowing the severe health risks of climate change.

We have seen the fossil-fuel industry deliberately obfuscate to ensure their ongoing ­dominance, and we have seen political leaders too often ­agreeing to fossil-fuel development and subsidies.

So what is different this year from the election two years ago, six years ago, 10 years ago?

The climate crisis is polling at the top of Canadians’ concerns, despite the many other serious issues we are contending with. We are already eating into a decade in which we need to drop domestic emissions by 60 per cent to meet our fair share of emissions reductions, alongside substantial international support for reductions elsewhere.

The International Energy Agency called for an end to fossil-fuel development; and the IPCC, which will paint only the most certain, most conservative picture of the crisis, has told us that we are on a truly dangerous path.

But — the prescription for change is also completely clear and, if well planned and ­implemented, has the potential to improve our lives and make us healthier.

Active and public transportation in cities gets us moving and reduces emissions. Zero-­emission vehicles, where and when individual transportation is needed, help our kids and ­people living near highways breathe better.

Transition plans for oil and gas workers into good, safe, well-paid jobs that enable them to be near their families ensure that no one is trapped in a dangerous, polluting, failing industry. Support for Indigenous-led transitions in Indigenous communities currently dependent on oil and gas is the least our government can do as new burial grounds are overturned, COVID-19 rages in First Nations and boil-water advisories continue.

These changes will make Canada better while reducing emissions. And every fraction of a degree of warming avoided means lives saved.

People like David Suzuki, Margaret Atwood, Stephen Lewis and Michael Ondaatje have called for a climate emergency debate because they understand the urgent nature of our situation. They realize that we have to act fast if we are to fight this climate emergency in a credible way.

A national debate will send a clear sign to political parties and to people in Canada that we are in an emergency, and it will force political leaders to account for their current largely insufficient and irresponsible plans to tackle the climate crisis.

It might even prompt a deeper evaluation of these plans and additional promises made, which we will then hold leaders accountable for once elected.

We are already late to hold this debate. Do we need four more summers like this one to get us to the point of holding political leaders accountable for this crisis?

Your doctors say: We don’t.

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