PICS Lecture – Climate Change and Health Impacts

The Pacific Institute for Climate Solutions hosts free monthly lectures from many academic disciplines that focus on climate change. This lecture by Michael Bower from UBC and Tim Takaro from SFU focuses on the intersection of climate change and health impacts.

The World Health Organization estimates that climate change causes 150,000 deaths a year (2000). The health impacts of climate change are direct and indirect. Direct impacts include temperatures, and indirect ones include asthma, infectious diseases, malnutrition, mental health, etc.

Climate change impacts in Canada include extreme weather, air quality, the spread of infectious diseases, and increased population from migration, drought, and sea level rise. Canada will also see an uneven distribution of impacts, with some areas being less able to adapt, like rural areas ability to adapt. Luckily we have good infrastructure and public health systems so we will see a narrower range of climate impact compared to the rest of the world.

In Canada, we’re especially susceptible to wildfires and their associated smoke, which has particulate emissions that cause respiratory issues even places a few hundred kms away. Other impacts will be increased levels of smog, longer ragweed and allergy seasons, and poorer air quality.

So what does this have to do with planning? We have to think about land use in fire-prone areas, preventing forest fires, and consider whether new population growth should be in smoke-prone areas. We can also create clean air shelters in a manner similar to earthquake or extreme heat shelters, as well as prepare water systems for more water borne illnesses. We have been getting boil water advisories, for example, due to water turbidity from extreme weather events.

We, in Vancouver, will also have to prepare for migrating populations. Many of the world’s largest population centers are prone to sea level rise. The Stern Report anticipates that 150-200 million people will be displaced by 2050 and they will be heading to places (“in the over developed world”) that are seeing lesser impacts, like the Pacific Northwest, even though we will be suffering from forest fires, snow pack and glacier decline, which causes water shortages, less productive streams and rivers (food), and less water for hydroelectric plants or cooling nuclear plants.

Another thing for planners to consider is the health impacts of climate policy. For example, biomass and diesel emit fewer carbon emissions than gasoline; however, they produce more particulates. The WHO estimates that poor air quality kills 800,000 deaths a year (The biggest killer in the world -2 million deaths- is household solid fuel use, which means using biomass as a fuel for indoor cooking. Not common in Canada, but widespread in the Global South, the particulates cause cancers and respiratory illnesses. Furthermore, partculate emissions from burning biomass contribute to planetary warming, as the particles are black and absorb heat.) So, well intended policies may have unintended consequences.

Finally, planning for public health results in immediate wellness benefits for whole communities of people. Further, climate change concerns pave the way to improving public health and vice versa- specifically in relation to local food production/food access, vegetarianism/good diet/ healthy weight, and active transportation/physical activity.

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