Opinion: From a summertime of sadness to a symphony of actors

By Jane McArthur | Opinion | November 7th 2023 | Published by the National Observer

The experiences of the summer of 2023 were a tipping point for many. The harsh realities of the climate crisis became personal for people who may have previously believed they would be spared, at least for the foreseeable future.

For my neighbour, it was the days that the toxic wildfire smoke filled the air in our southwestern Ontario neighbourhood that made it real and personal. A family member whose basement filled with water in the recent “once-in-a-century rainstorm” is dealing with the challenges of insurance amid the influx of claims related to increasing flooding events. Members of my community have come together to form a group out of concern for the growing loss of old trees in the region due to a variety of factors, including multiple recent tornadoes.

Formerly skeptical and unconcerned people are rising out of their summer experiences to draw connections from their personal lives to the urgency of the global climate and biodiversity crises. They are recognizing how the political has become personal and vice versa. For others, particularly people in Africa, low-lying nations in the Pacific and Indigenous Peoples in the Global North, they have already long been on the front lines of this lived reality.

In the wake of these events, Canada’s leading health associations, representing hundreds of thousands of health professionals, issued a call to federal Health Minister Mark Holland. In an open letter, they argued that we need to treat the climate crisis as a health emergency and a perpetuation of the problem of environmental injustice.

The effects of environmental crises are not felt equally.

Individuals live within families, communities, ecosystems and planetary-level conditions, therefore health and well-being are influenced by multiple factors. Some people are made more vulnerable. Biological, social, economic and political factors can all have effects. Children, pregnant people and their fetuses, people with disabilities, racialized peoples, Indigenous Peoples and low-income people are among those at greater risk. For that reason, systems-level approaches — as distinct from focusing solely on individual behaviour modifications or personal responsibility — are necessary to move through the current environmental crises with better health and illness prevention, equity and environmental justice as goals.

While ordinary people are connecting the dots and recognizing personal and political linkages, environmental, health and justice organizations and policymakers are working to address these urgent problems. Encouraging conversations are underway and various policy levers are being adopted.

From the December 2022 adoption of the global biodiversity framework to the June 2023 royal assent of Bill S-5 to update the Canadian Environmental Protection Act, Canada’s climate change National Adaptation Strategy announced in June 2023, the September 2023 release of the Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee on Plastic Pollution’s “zero draft” global plastics treaty, campaigns and legal actions against fossil fuel companies for their harmful advertising and greenwashed messages and the anticipated passage of Bill C-226, creating Canada’s first environmental racism law and an environmental justice strategy, there is reason to be hopeful that solutions are being delivered.

Still, there is more to do.

If governments at all levels are to effectively address the problems of hazardous environmental conditions from climate change, biodiversity loss and toxic exposures, they must connect the dots between the issues. Solutions must address the interconnectedness.

A connect-the-dots exercise reveals fossil fuel and petrochemical chemical industries are responsible for high levels of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. GHGs lead to warmer temperatures. The resulting extreme weather and climate change amplify the release of chemicals into the environment, including through flooding, wildfires and infrastructure changes creating increased exposure to toxic substances.

Climate change exacerbates the human health and justice impacts of air and other pollution sources, hindering our ability to adapt. Toxic chemical exposures from fossil fuel-related activities increase the vulnerability of communities to climate change effects.

The combination of toxic pollution, climate change and biodiversity loss is putting our social and economic well-being and planetary health at risk. Scientists tell us that the Earth’s life support systems are so damaged that we are now “well outside the safe operating space for humanity.”

To address these issues, solutions must incorporate climate change mitigation and adaptation, ending fossil fuel subsidies and expansion, environmental justice strategies, effective implementation and enforcement of the legal right to a healthy environment.

We need to decolonize public health through repairing, restoring, and centring Indigenous communities and their right to self-determination, applying Indigenous knowledge, rethinking land use, nature-based solutions and sustainable agriculture, protecting fresh water and oceans and species at risk and the reduction of the creation of pollution and use of hazardous chemicals.

As a collaborator on a recent webinar so eloquently put it, success will require “a symphony of actors.” With that sentiment in mind, it is not only governments that must act on the knowledge of the interconnections, but we as individuals — along with our families, neighbours and community groups in concert with advocacy organizations — must also push decision-makers with that understanding.

In short, our hopes must lie in a suite of collaborative measures, by a symphony of actors to trigger the positive responses to the 2023 tipping point. Our personal and planetary health depends on it.

Photo by freepik.com