Opinion: Connecting the dots on climate and health

By Jane McArthur and Anjali Helferty | Opinion | November 23rd 2021 | Published by the National Observer

Try to remember the last time you did a connect-the-dots puzzle. You were probably a child.

Crayon in hand, you look at the page and see a seemingly random scattering of dots that bear no relationship to each other. On faith, you press the coloured wax into the number 1, drawing lines in numbered sequence. Slowly but surely, a picture emerges.

Adults today are invited to keep up the fun with these activities. Marketing pitches for adult connect-the-dots puzzles argue the exercise boosts your problem-solving skills, allowing you to be a forward thinker and innovator. We think those game promoters are onto something.

Too often, we falter in critical problem-solving by failing to see the bigger picture. We suffer from siloed thinking, seeing variables as independent instead of interdependent and fundamentally connected.

To address this shortcoming, evidenced in seeing climate change, toxic exposures, and environmental racism as separate phenomena, it’s time to get out our crayons, connect the dots, and bring the bigger picture of planetary health into view.

The Lancet’s manifesto for public health draws a planetary health picture by noting the need for action at all levels of society. The manifesto aims to transform public health through collective action. The vision is “a planet that nourishes and sustains the diversity of life with which we coexist and on which we depend.” It prescribes broad social movement action from the personal to the community, national, regional, global, and planetary level.

The planetary framework for thinking and action is like a connect-the-dots puzzle, linking the health of the planet with human health. Understanding positive health outcomes as the result of shared responsibilities within a global context requires governance that has the capacity to address multiple problems with interconnected solutions.

The climate emergency commands solutions by way of swift action. Governments must dramatically reduce CO2 and greenhouse gas emissions through integrated policy measures. Emissions reductions are partly actionable by ending investments and subsidies to fossil fuel production, reported to be $78 billion around the world last year.

And where are some of the dots that people must connect in order to get a clearer picture of the threat the climate crisis poses?

Oil and gas: News from COP26 that Canada joined international commitments to end fossil fuel finance by the end of 2022 is welcome. As is Quebec’s alliance to phase out oil and gas production. Over 30,000 people signed a petition to the Trudeau government to end the export of thermal coal, which is associated with asthma, cancer, brain damage, and premature death. Another bold move would be to ban the advertisement of fossil fuels.

Plastics: Connecting the dots, we see plastics and oil are the same industry. According to a report from the European Environment Agency, plastics and other petrochemicals will be the largest driver of the growth in the demand for oil, using the most energy globally, and creating significant amounts of CO2 emissions. Tagged as the new coal, plastics contribute to harms already experienced by vulnerable populations, including children, women, racialized and Indigenous peoples. To address the disproportionate devastation created by fossil fuel companies in the biggest emitting nations, environmental justice advocates, including Uganda’s Vanessa Nakate, call for ”polluter pays laws.”

A more robust Canadian Environmental Protection Act (CEPA): Plastics were recently listed as toxic under the CEPA. This has profound potential given Big Oil has its future financial hopes pinned on plastics. Ongoing pushback from the plastics industry is expected since CEPA will be a tool the government can use to control and regulate plastics with significant implications for petrochemical industry activity.

The primary purpose of CEPA is to contribute to sustainable development through pollution prevention and provide the legislative basis for a range of federal environmental and health protection programs, including activities related to air and water pollution, hazardous waste, toxic substances, and it is the primary legislation for greenhouse gas emissions.

Problematically, CEPA, Canada’s cornerstone environmental legislation, is very outdated, last tweaked in 1999 and in dire need of reform. To address climate change, toxics, and ecological injustices, we need the government to introduce a solid bill to reform CEPA and work to pass this by summer 2022.

We can’t allow our communities to be used as science labs. Governments must take the approach that progress in climate and environmental health, economies and justice are the same goals and achievable with interconnected strategies.

It is not defensible to see solutions to these problems as incommensurable with economic “progress”. Access to a healthy environment is a human right recently declared by the UN, serving as a call to action for all nations to take bold steps.

Our ability to connect these dots may be the key to our future health and our very survival.

Jane McArthur, PhD, is toxics campaign director with the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment (CAPE). A longtime community-based occupational and environmental health researcher and advocate, McArthur’s recent dissertation research was an investigation with highly exposed women workers where breast cancer diagnoses far exceed expected rates.

Anjali Helferty is executive director of the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment. She spent much of her 20s in leadership roles in youth climate activism in Canada and the United States. Anjali completed a master’s in organizational change management in 2013, and a PhD in adult education and community development in 2020, focused on settler climate activists and solidarity with Indigenous peoples.

Photo by Ali Kazal / Unsplash