By Sasha Létourneau with Gabe Lam and the Environmental Advocacy in Medicine group

“When the health effects of tobacco became known, the CMA quickly changed its investments. In times of climate change, health organizations around the world are divesting in fossil fuels.”  – Courtney Howard, Emergency Medicine physician and President of the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment

We (Canadians) are addicted to fossil fuels. There. I said it. Isn’t admitting it supposed to be the first step? Much like a smoker with a 20 pack-year history, humans stand on the brink of irreversible damage to that which sustains us, having to make the choice as to whether to quit or continue down a destructive path.

When I first started medical school, I took a history from a man who had been diagnosed with lung cancer after a 50 pack-year history of smoking. I was quite astonished when he admitted he had been shocked by the diagnosis. How is that possible? I thought, thinking back on all the anti-smoking ads I’d grown up with in school, and the terrifying pictures of black lungs and rotted teeth I’d seen on cigarette packages strewn on the sidewalk. How did he somehow ignore all the signs around him? These are questions I hope my children never have to ask my generation about climate change.

Continuing down the fossil fuel-burning track we are on today is easy in that the ramifications of our actions are not yet apparent in most of our everyday lives. Despite the fact that CO2 levels have risen far beyond where they have ever been in the past 400,000 years,1 we are only just starting to experience the effects of climate change. And much like COPD or lung cancer, the threats of climate change most likely to impact Canadians seem just far enough away that they are still only a hazy blur. Yet, like a smoker who is only just starting to experience the first signs of shortness of breath, we too have reached a tipping point and we need to act as soon as possible.

Studies have shown that among the top most important reasons Canadians begin the extremely difficult process of smoking cessation is their concern for their personal health.2,3 If health care professionals so adamantly advocate for smoking cessation to prevent our patients from its long-term health consequences, should we not, for the same reason, also advocate for cessation of fossil fuel dependency? And how do we convince a society (and, quite frankly ourselves) that this issue needs to be addressed now?

We’ve seen a number of recent examples that climate change is starting to threaten human health, including climate-related natural disasters like cyclone Idai which claimed hundreds of lives in Mozambique in March 2019. Touching a bit closer to home, the extreme temperatures of the Quebec heat wave in the summer of 2018 took the lives of more than 90 Canadians. And even closer to Kingston, many of us have watched with horror the footage of the recent flooding in the Ottawa River that has displaced hundreds of Canadians from their homes. I, personally, might even decry the number of lectures Queen’s Medicine students endure on Lyme disease as a direct result of climate change facilitating the spread of this tick-borne infectious disease.4

But most of us fossil-fuel “addicts” are already convinced that we need to begin to transition away from our weighty reliance on fossil fuels. So now comes the hardest part – beginning the process of actually quitting. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released a report in 2018 telling us that, in order to ensure global temperatures remain below 1.5˚C above pre-industrial levels, we need to significantly curb our fossil fuel use by the year 2030 and achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. Why is this 1.5˚C cap so important? While 1.5˚C is still higher than current temperatures, keeping global temperatures at or below this level is humans’ best chance of mitigating further catastrophic events, including land loss from rising ocean levels, extreme heat waves, drought, increased ocean acidity and both land and ocean biodiversity loss. These climate events will inevitably threaten human health, food security, water security, job security, economic growth and physical safety from war and climate disasters.5

Unfortunately, (as far as I know) there is no magical solution and no promise that this transition will be immediate or smooth. And, like a smoker trying to quit, it is probably not realistic for us to quit cold turkey – we still are years away from being in any way independent of fossil fuels. We also need to ensure we enact a just transition for our fellow Canadians currently working in the fossil fuels industry. But if we never start the transition, if we never grasp hold of the “greatest global health opportunity of the 21st century” – tackling climate change – we will never know if we could have succeeded.6

If you’ve reached this point in the article, you may be wondering: what can I, a lowly Queen’s student/faculty/alumnus, contribute to the struggle against climate change? What can one single Canadian do? Luckily, the answer is: a lot! In this article, I’ll present you with a few ways you can start to engage as a climate advocate.

One avenue that our medical student group, Environmental Advocacy in Medicine, has undertaken is working with the Queen’s Backing Action on Climate Change (QBACC) group to ask that Queen’s divest from fossil fuel companies. We are joining them to ask that Queen’s:

  1. Freeze fossil fuel investment immediately
  2. Fully divest the Queen’s Endowment and Investment funds by 2025

QBACC needs support from students, faculty and alumni. A mass divestment movement can stigmatize and delegitimize fossil fuel use and the profiting corporations in the court of public opinion, a strategy that has also been crucial in combating smoking culture and destabilizing tobacco companies. The list of organizations calling for divestment is long and growing with new players being added every day, including commitments from the Canadian Medical Association, McGill University, Oxford University, the RockFeller Brothers Fund, the British Medical Association, New York City’s pension fund, the country of Ireland and many more. This movement on Queen’s campus has been growing since the first formal request for divestment of Queen’s funds from fossil fuels was rejected by the Board of Trustees in 2014. A diverse basis of support that includes a broad community of current and future health professionals will be imperative when QBACC approaches the Board of Trustees at their annual meeting in 2020.

If this cause speaks to you, ways you can support it are:

1. Becoming informed about divestment by reading a bit more about their campaign here: https://drive.google.com/drive/folders/17PDgVGUXaLyefEp_IwzD4JZ2OANh0qsh?usp=sharing

2. Signing and/or personalizing a letter to the Board of Trustees stating your support of the divestment campaign at Queen’s University (here: https://drive.google.com/open?id=1wDYfBT5h005XyudA-ac32fSIEU_Y6QUc)

3. Signing QBACC’s support forms:

If that’s not enough for you or you are still not sure about divestment, here are some other ways you can choose a cause, join an advocacy group and work to have your voice heard:

1. Become informed about climate change by:

  • signing up for the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment newsletter here, or
  • reading CAPE’s Climate Change Toolkit for Health Professionals here.

2. Or, better yet, join CAPE’s team (if you are a physician) here.

3. Support the Queen’s Environmental Advocacy in Medicine effort to increase climate change education in the curriculum by including information on climate change in your teaching material (contact us for more information at: queensenvironmed@gmail.com)

4. Talk to your fellow students and colleagues about their thoughts on climate change!

We are that patient with the 20-pack-year history leaving the doctor’s office, having been told the risks of letting the status quo take its course. We stand at the edge of a frightening precipice in human history, where our actions (or inaction) today will determine the world our children and grandchildren get to live in. But like that patient, we are fortunate.  We know the importance of taking action and we have a timeline during which to do so. It is now up to us whether we seize the “greatest global health opportunity of the 21st century.”6

References:

1. NASA. (2019, May 3). Graphic: The Relentless Rise Of Carbon Dioxide. Climate Change: Vital Signs Of the Planet. Retrieved from: https://climate.nasa.gov/climate_resources/24/graphic-the-relentless-rise-of-carbon-dioxide/

2. Wellman, R. J., O’Loughlin, J., O’Loughlin, E. K., Dugas, E. N., Montreuil, A., & Dutczak, H. (2018). Reasons for quitting smoking in young adult cigarette smokers. Addictive Behaviors, 77, 28-33. doi:10.1016/j.addbeh.2017.09.010

3. Kasza, K. A., Hyland, A. J., Borland, R., McNeill, A., Fong, G. T., Carpenter, M. J., . . . Cummings, K. M. (2017). Cross-country comparison of smokers’ reasons for thinking about quitting over time: Findings from the international tobacco control four country survey (ITC-4C), 2002–2015. Tobacco Control, 26(6), 641-648. doi:10.1136/tobaccocontrol-2016-053299

4. Brownstein, J. S., Holford, T. R., & Fish, D. (2005). Effect of Climate Change on Lyme Disease Risk in North America. EcoHealth2(1), 38–46. doi:10.1007/s10393-004-0139-x

5. https://www.ipcc.ch/sr15/

6. Watts, N., MA, Adger, W. N., Prof, Agnolucci, P., PhD, Blackstock, J., PhD, Byass, P., Prof, Cai, W., PhD, . . . Stockholm Resilience Centre. (2015). Health and climate change: Policy responses to protect public health.Lancet, the, 386(10006), 1861-1914. doi:10.1016/S0140-6736(15)60854-6

Links:

1. Link to “Investing in a Sustainable Future” document prepared by QBACC: https://drive.google.com/drive/folders/17PDgVGUXaLyefEp_IwzD4JZ2OANh0qsh?usp=sharing

2. Link to letter of support faculty/alumni can edit and send to QBACC: https://drive.google.com/open?id=1wDYfBT5h005XyudA-ac32fSIEU_Y6QUc

3. QBACC faculty support form: https://www.qbacc.org/divestment-petition

4. QBACC alumni support form: https://docs.google.com/forms/d/1onGYQBJAiDpPK0r7TbLqf1V0lj_sAWSCEYS_TkQdeMI/viewform?edit_requested=true

5. Sign-up for CAPE newsletter: https://cape.ca/media/blog/

6. Link to Climate Change Toolkit for Health Professionals: https://cape.ca/campaigns/climate-health-policy/climate-change-toolkit-for-health-professionals/

7. Sign-up for CAPE membership: https://cape.ca/become-a-member/

If you are a Queen’s UGME student who would like to submit a column for consideration as a guest blog, email me at theresa.suart@queensu.ca