That’s according to a new report published on Wednesday titled the Lancet Countdown, which found climate change will increasingly impact the health of humans around the world and threaten to overwhelm healthcare systems unless action is taken to mitigate global warming.
The threats to human health are “multiplying and intensifying due to climate change,” said Dr. Ian Hamilton, executive director of the Lancet Countdown, in a press release.
“And unless we change course, our health care systems are at risk of being overwhelmed in the future,” he said.
And Canada is “not immune,” said Dr. Finola Hackett, a resident physician in rural family medicine at the University of Calgary, Lethbridge, who co-authored the report said. She noted that the country is warming at two times the global average.
“Extreme heat and overall heat has been linked to many health problems,” she explained.
“We know that when it is extremely hot, people tend to die more, so there’s an increase in mortality from different causes — heart diseases or pulmonary diseases.”
Canada has seen an increase in mortality rates for people over 65 in the last 20 years because of extreme heat, she said.
Over the last two decades, heat-related deaths in older people aged 65 and higher have increased globally by 53.7 per cent, for a total of 296,000 deaths in 2018, according to the Lancet report.
But, older people aren’t the only ones at a higher risk.
Hackett said Indigenous peoples, those experiencing poverty and racialized Canadians are also at an increased risk of experiencing negative health impacts due to climate change.
What’s more, Dr. Claudel Pétrin-Desrosiers, a family doctor based in Montreal who also co-authored the report, said while Canada is already feeling the health impacts of climate change, “they will increase as the years go by.”
Climate change, COVID-19 and the spread of infectious diseases
While it is “too early” to know whether climate change impacted the spread of the novel coronavirus, Hackett said, in general, the “changing relationships between humans and the environment related to industrial activities can spur the emergence of infectious diseases.”
“And we’ve seen that in other cases, whether that be changes related to mosquito-borne disease vectors (or) things like Lyme disease,” she said.
“So we do know that there is that relationship with other diseases, but it’s too early to see concrete data linking that with COVID.”
However, Hackett said that “changing our relationship with the environment can help to mitigate risk of future outbreaks.”
According to the Lancet report, the “suitability for disease transmission increased globally” as a result of climate change.
Climate change is leading to more suitable conditions for the spread of several vector-borne diseases including dengue fever, malaria, and vibrio bacteria, the report said.
In July, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) released a joint report which identified climate change and six other factors that are driving the increasing emergence of zoonotic diseases like COVID-19.
Zoonotic diseases are those which jump from animals or insects to the human population.
“The science is clear that if we keep exploiting wildlife and destroying our ecosystems, then we can expect to see a steady stream of these diseases jumping from animals to humans in the years ahead,” UNEP Executive Director Inger Andersen said in a statement.
Andersen said in order to prevent future outbreaks, we must “become much more deliberate about protecting our natural environment.”
Economic, health advantages of tackling climate change
According to the Lancet report, health care systems around the world do not have the capacity to deal with the growing health impacts of climate change and are at risk of being overwhelmed.
And, only 51 of 101 countries surveyed said they had a national health and climate change strategy or plan.
However, two-thirds (67 per cent) of global cities surveyed said they expect climate change will “seriously compromise their public health assets and infrastructure.”
The report’s authors said if we limit global warming to “well below 2 C” the world would see health and economic benefits.
Hackett said if Canada takes action now to make the health care system more resilient and the economy more sustainable, it will “pay dividends in the future in terms of preventing some of these health outcomes from climate change.”
Pétrin-Desrosiers echoed Hackett’s remarks, saying addressing climate change is a “powerful way to reduce future health risks and potential health crises.”
“It’s a triple-win situation here,” she said. “We have the potential to create better public health, protect the environment and have a sustainable economy.”
Pétrin-Desrosiers said Canada should seize the opportunity and make an investment now that “would align with a just and sustainable transition toward a low carbon economy.”
“We are somehow in a privileged situation, and I think the best gift we could give to the world and to ourselves and to our health, would be to respect that, (and) meet our commitments to the Paris Agreement and that we decrease our emission of gas in the atmosphere,” she said.
Hackett said this is also Canada’s chance to be a leader on the world stage.
“I think that (in) Canada, (we) feel these impacts more acutely because of the rate of warming, but we have a lot of resources to tackle it and so we can actually be a leader,” she said.
“We haven’t yet taken that step on the world stage as much as we could, but this is our chance to be a leader, improve the health of our own people and show an example for the rest of the world.”