Content & Feature Photo Via Junxion
“Here in Yellowknife, we’re over 2º warmer than we were in the 1940s. My patient population is already affected by the changing climate—the ice is more dangerous to travel on, so people fall through; caribou herds are dwindling; permafrost is heaving and making buildings less stable; and we spent the whole summer of 2014 cloaked in wildfire smoke.”
Climate change is here. And Dr. Courtney Howard’s patients are feeling the effects: “As you can imagine, change this rapid is stressful, particularly because many aboriginal people in the north still live very close to the land. It has real effects on culture and on people’s way of life.”
Dr. Howard is working on a Health Canada-funded study focused on the impacts of wildfire smoke, under the leadership of Dr. James Orbinski.
Originally from North Vancouver, Canada, Courtney is an emergency doctor who lives and practices in Yellowknife, in Canada’s Northwest Territories. She volunteers a significant amount of her time as lead of Climate-Health for the Board of the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment (CAPE), Canada’s only national physicians’ organization that has a focus on protecting human health by protecting the environment.
Is climate change the “greatest global threat to human health?”
In 2009, The Lancet Commission called climate change “the greatest global threat to health in the 21st century.” Since then, the World Health Organization (WHO) has taken the same view. In 2015, the second Lancet Commission on Climate-health pointed out that taking action to address the effects of climate change could represent the greatest global health opportunity of the 21st century. So CAPE decided a few years ago that climate change and health would be their priority.
“We’ve been pushing hard to raise the profile of this issue within the Canadian medical community—speaking at medical conferences, bringing motions forward at annual general meetings—and we are seeing a major shift to the kind of leadership we need. For example, last year, the Canadian Medical Association committed to divesting from fossil fuels, and at the upcoming CMA General Council climate change and health is one of the main themes. I have also just heard that MD-Financial, the CMA’s investment arm, is launching the fossil-free funds that were a focus of a motion last year. The progress is very exciting.”
Courtney’s motivation came from spending six months working on a Doctors Without Borders project in Djibouti. She worked with children with severe malnutrition, many of whom were suffering from respiratory diseases, life-threatening diarrhea, or tuberculosis. Many of them didn’t survive. “Pediatric death is something we rarely deal with in our Canadian medical world. There’s nothing more humbling than losing a pediatric patient—particularly when the mother thanks you for the care you’ve provided, even though you were not able to save her child.” It generated a very intense desire for Courtney to change the situation and those kind of outcomes.
The influence of Terrifying New Math
After moving back to Canada and having her first child, Courtney was already starting to connect the dots about climate change and health. Then she read Bill McKibben’s Terrifying New Math—while she was curled up around her six month old. It became clear to her that this isn’t a situation that only affects children in the developing world. “We are in such a critical time window—we need to transition briskly to a low-carbon society and create resiliency within communities and health systems to buffer the impacts of the effects of climate change that we cannot now avoid. This work allows me to work towards positive health outcomes for little ones like those I was resuscitating in Africa, children in the High Arctic whom I serve as an emergency physician… and my own children. Seems like a high yield place to exert energy.”
Courtney aspires to a future where work on climate change and health would be fully integrated into medical training and continuing medical education, and where physicians and other health workers would be integrated into policymaking to help communities generate a healthy response to climate change.
“Doctors don’t get trained in social media!” So interdisciplinary links are essential to effectiveness.
“We know the solution needs to be multi-disciplinary and we need to act quickly. There’s evidence that framing climate change as a human health issue is one of the best ways to motivate people to take action. But doctors don’t get trained in social media, membership engagement or campaign strategy! So we’re lucky to be able to attend conferences like Social Change Institute and make some of those interdisciplinary links—so we can all be more effective.”
Dr. Howard has her finger on the pulse of a vital narrative, and is setting a shining, personal example of right action in the face of real need.
Dr. Howard’s deep and empathetic commitment to her patients, her own family, and her profession is one of the many stories that will inspire attendees at Social Change Institute, June 15 – 19 at Hollyhock.