Trevor Hancock: The deepest challenge to our health in 2020

Regular readers of this column will know that my main concern is with the deeper factors that underlie our state of health and that my main focus is on three inter-related sets of issues: Human-created ecological changes that undermine our health, social injustice that leads to large inequalities in health, and an economic system that is not fit for purpose in the 21st century.

But what underpins them — and what is therefore the most profound challenge to the health of the population both locally and globally — is a morally bankrupt corporate, commercial and political system of governance. The focus of the system is on the pursuit of growth and profit and the accumulation of obscene amounts of wealth, regardless of the health, social and ecological consequences for others.

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The marketing of tobacco remains the poster child for this — a product that, when used as intended, is guaranteed to kill and sicken millions of people, and exert its malign influence for decades. Yet the industry continues to sell its products around the world, immorally using marketing practices elsewhere that are not allowed in high-income countries.

It exemplifies how corporations are prepared to distort and obfuscate the evidence and hide what they know, and how political leaders are willing to turn a blind eye to the evidence as long as possible and generally have to be dragged kicking and screaming into taking effective action.

All these factors — immoral marketing, distortion of the science and political ignorance of the evidence — have been adopted by the fossil-fuel industry and were on display at the recent failed UN COP-25 climate-change summit in Madrid.

In fact, noted Canadian energy expert Martin Bush, while the World Health Organization had in recent years banned the tobacco industry and its lobbyists from the process of establishing rules to govern the industry, that was not the case in Madrid, where “the fossil-fuel backed contingent was huge, well-funded and hosted non-stop social events.”

The only crumb of comfort was that for the first time — yes, you read that correctly, for the first time — the conference statement actually referred to fossil fuels. Astonishingly, noted Catherine Abreu, executive director of Climate Action Network Canada and Jamie Henn, strategic communications director of 350.org: “The 2015 Paris Climate Agreement ran 16 pages, but didn’t mention the words ‘fossil fuels,’ ‘coal,’ ‘oil,’ or ‘gas’ once.”

When it comes to political ignorance, the obstructionist practices of the United States, Brazil, Saudi Arabia, Russia, India, China and others were clear. But no better example is on display than Scott Morrison, the prime minister of Australia, who continues to plan for and celebrate increased fossil-fuel exports even as his country burns and its Barrier Reef decays.

Of course, this has nothing to do with the fact that “the corporate and fossil-fuel industry’s powerful trade associations” in the U.S. spent more than $1 billion between 2008 and 2017 “to convince the American public that its products are beneficial and necessary,” according to a report from the Climate Investigations Centre.

In Europe, the Guardian reported recently: “The five biggest oil and gas companies, and their industry groups, have spent at least £251m [$472 million Cdn] lobbying the European Union over climate policies since 2010.”

Meanwhile, here in Canada, the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives reported in November 2019 that in the seven years between January 2011 and January 2018, “the fossil fuel industry in Canada recorded 11,452 lobbying contacts with government officials.”

This was far more than the forestry, automotive and renewable energy industries and five times more than environmental NGOs. Moreover, under Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, the lobbying has shifted from a focus on politicians to senior government bureaucrats so that “key government institutions and actors become integrated with private firms and interest groups that together co-produce regulation and policy.”

The danger of this shift in focus is that “the influence of industry actors — like those in the fossil fuel sector — are likely to far outlast election cycles.”

If the health of Canadians and the rest of the world’s population is to be protected and indeed improved in the 21st century, we have to replace this morally bankrupt system with one founded on ethical principles of social justice, ecological sustainability and human well-being.

thancock@uvic.ca

Dr. Trevor Hancock is a retired professor and senior scholar at the University of Victoria’s School of Public Health and Social Policy.

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