Protecting public health should drive climate policy

Members of the Canadian military rescue a homeowner stranded by flood waters near Fredericton in April 2019. It was the second record-breaking flood along the Wolastow (St. John River) in New Brunswick in two years.

Atlantic premiers and New England Governors were set to meet Sept. 8-10 in Saint John and climate change was on the agenda. As it happened, the meeting was cancelled due to anticipated extreme weather from Hurricane Dorian bearing down on the Atlantic region. 

Fittingly, on the agenda for the since-cancelled meeting was energy grid modernization and climate change adaptation and disaster mitigation.  The focus of our regional political leaders, unfortunately, was likely to be limited to emergency response, wires, pipes and spillways. This focus, while important, misses the need to bring health and community service professionals to the table as part of our response to climate change because extreme weather harms health and well-being

Coping with extreme events like spring and winter flooding, wildfires, heat waves, ice and windstorms, and the power outages that go with these events, affects our physical and mental health.  Acute, or extreme, events are becoming more intense because of human-caused climate breakdown due to global heating. A changing climate is also associated with chronic concerns such as increasing exposure to smog, ticks causing Lyme disease or ragweed worsening allergic reactions. Making the link between climate breakdown and physical and mental health is important because it affects the environmental and social determinants of health and can undermine government strategies to improve well-being.

The record-breaking flood of April 2019 in New Brunswick.

Protecting Canadians’ physical and mental health should be at the core of Canada’s climate emergency response strategies. Our thinking emerges from health research showing that income and vulnerability — as measured by factors such as food security, employment and working conditions, housing and homelessness, children and at-risk persons, Indigenous people, health status and access to health services, social support networks, and coping capacity and skills — are variables influencing people’s capacity to deal with changing breakdown. Recent research by the Conservation Council of New Brunswick, using 2019 Canadian Climate Atlas data and 2017 provincial community health profiles, highlights the need to tailor health protection and promotion responses to local needs. Consider:

  • Almost 20 per cent of the New Brunswick population is over 65 years old, three per cent higher than the national average in 2011. Northern communities exceed the provincial average at 22 to 24 per cent. More seniors in the Edmundston and Saint John areas live alone than the provincial average of 24 per cent, while the Sussex, St. Stephen and Saint John areas have more senior women living alone than the provincial average.  Seniors can be less mobile, manage multiple chronic health issues, cope with deteriorating sight and hearing, may be less socially connected, and/or manage on lower incomes. An older person, perhaps with asthma or diabetes, may be less able to manage health risks during a heat wave or smog event, and may be less mobile during an extreme event such as flooding.  
  • Low incomes and food insecurity go hand-in-hand. Communities in the St. Stephen (16%), Moncton (14%), Campbellton (13%), Woodstock (13%), Sackville (13%), and Saint John (11%) areas are above the provincial average of nine per cent of households experiencing food insecurity. If you are a single mother living on low income, in an under-insulated home with no air conditioning, you are more at risk from extreme heat and extreme weather events and have limited food on hand. You might not have a vehicle to leave home, or you may have fewer social contacts to reach out to for help if the power goes out.  

Community-appropriate strategies need to account for projected changes to climate and to health conditions to protect the most marginalized and vulnerable, and to maximize opportunities to advance protection from extreme events and achieve goals for healthy aging and population wellness.  

The good news is that responding to climate breakdown in an integrated and coordinated way has many co-benefits that can make us healthier.  Local food self-sufficiency, for example, has potential benefits for food security, particularly if climate breakdown disrupts global food production, and food imports to locations such as New Brunswick become more expensive. Higher costs for food, especially fruits and vegetables, is a concern because only about half of New Brunswickers eat five or more servings of fruit and vegetables per day. 

Flooding along the Wolastoq (St. John) River in Fredericton in April 2019. Photo: James West for the Conservation Council

A more active lifestyle can reduce reliance on gasoline-powered vehicles and increase physical activity, which in turn can help reduce chronic diseases and mental health issues associated with inactivity. More green space in our communities can keep us cool on hot days, create places for us to walk and play, and improve our mental health and well-being

A clean electricity and transportation system cuts greenhouse gases, as well as air quality pollution, which affects asthma and heart and lung health. Phasing out coal electricity in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick by 2030 would avoid 125 premature deaths, 12,100 asthma episodes and 81,000 days of breathing difficulty for people in these two provinces, among other benefits.

Community design can increase active living, reduce reliance on personal vehicles, and add urban forest and gardening spaces. More active lifestyles and healthier diets lower global heating and air pollution and help improve mental health and well-being. 

Flooding in Fredericton, April 2019. Photo: James West for the Conservation Council

The Conservation Council reviewed almost 60 New Brunswick community climate-change risk assessment and climate adaptation plans, finding a strong focus on infrastructure but little consideration of the need to prepare for the health and well-being effects of climate breakdown. We propose that Atlantic premiers and New England governors:  

  1. Maximize the potential to secure health and climate change co-benefits by making physical and mental health protection and promotion a driving force behind climate change mitigation and adaptation plans and implementation strategies. Integrate and coordinate climate action strategies with federal and provincial (or state) strategies aimed at improving wellness and aging and commit to tracking and reporting on climate change-related health and well-being indicators to monitor progress over time. 
  2. Protect communities and households from the acute and chronic physical and mental health effects of climate change by accelerating implementation of regulations and investments in infrastructure to minimize flood risk, protect seniors from extreme heat, and the population from Lyme (and other vector-borne) disease. 
  3. Secure air quality and greenhouse gas (carbon pollution) reductions by staying focused on clean electricity and electrification of the regional economy over the next 10 years. Provinces like New Brunswick must phase out coal, oil and natural gas from electricity production in favour of non-emitting sources by 2030. 
  4. Ban the sale of internal combustion engine vehicles by 2025. 
  5. Comply, if not already doing so (like New Brunswick) with federal carbon pricing requirements and ensure carbon pricing revenue funds provincial investments in programs and incentives to help New Brunswickers and small- and medium-sized businesses reduce their carbon pollution footprint.
  6. Accelerate investments in community planning that emphasizes active transportation, community green space and gardening. 
  7. Regulate, if not already doing so (like New Brunswick) energy-efficiency-performance targets of at least two per cent a year to lower electricity demand and improve the quality of our homes and buildings, requiring net-zero home building standards by 2025. 
  8. Enhance forest restoration and diversification and expand green spaces in urban environments to moderate heat.

Everyone cares about their health and well-being and the health and well-being of their families and communities. People are increasingly worried and anxious about extreme events due to climate breakdown.  If premiers and governors make health and well-being, the motivation for responding to the climate emergency we could secure health and climate change co-benefits and build social consensus for climate action. 

Louise Comeau has 30 years’ experience analyzing and developing climate change policy. She is a consultant for the Conservation Council of New Brunswick and a researcher at the University of New Brunswick

Lois Corbett has more than 30 years experience developing public policy on environmental issues. She is the Executive Director of the Conservation Council of New Brunswick.

Versions of this article originally appeared in Policy Options on Aug. 12 and the New Brunswick Telegraph-Journal, Fredericton Daily Gleaner and Moncton Times & Transcript on Sept. 8.