How public-health groups are leading the way on climate action

Across Ontario, public-health organizations are on the front lines of the battle against climate change — and they’re trying to get parents to join in
By Brianna Sharpe - Published on Sep 19, 2019
Fridays for the Future organizes a weekly rally outside Guelph’s city hall. (facebook.com/Fridays for Future Guelph)

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This story is part of Covering Climate Now, a global collaboration of more than 220 news outlets to strengthen coverage of the climate story.

For many people, Fridays simply represent the end of a long workweek — maybe an occasion for a patio or pizza. But for Meghan Lewis, of Guelph, they’re a time when she can use her voice to promote climate justice. She helps organize the city’s Fridays for the Future group, which meets weekly at 1 p.m. outside city hall, holding handmade signs and hosting speakers. Lewis believes that political action is critical to creating a better future for her children, but she also acknowledges that, as a mother to a three-month-old, a three-year-old and a five-year-old, ”I only have so much time in the day to write emails to politicians and businesses.”

Luckily, many of Lewis’s daily habits that promote climate health — walking more, using cloth diapers, eating a plant-based diet — are also good for her family’s health. It was with parents such as Lewis in mind that the non-profit Ontario Public Health Association launched the Make It Better initiative in early August. Designed to reach both parents and health-care providers, the online resource aims to “make it better for Ontario’s children by protecting them from the health impacts of climate change.”

“We know that the [World Health Organization] describes climate change as the greatest threat to global health in the 21st century,” says Melanie Sanderson, the initiative’s project coordinator. She says the idea began coming together about a year ago, when OPHA was trying “to find a way to bring to light those really tangible health impacts that people are already experiencing in their communities but aren’t talking about and making the link back to climate change.” With help from the Registered Nurses Association, the Ontario branch of the Canadian Institute of Public Health Inspectors, and Asthma Canada, the campaign launched on August 9.

“I can’t imagine a stronger voice than parents to say we need to take action,” says Helen Doyle, chair of OPHA’s environmental-health working group. “Our children are our greatest resource and our greatest pleasure.”

The campaign focuses on asthma, heat-related illnesses, and Lyme disease, providing information about their links to climate change and steps that families can put into practice. People are invited to sign a pledge indicating that they will stay informed, share what they know, and support action on climate change in order to protect Ontario’s children. “This not hopeless,” Doyle says. “There are solutions.”

Much of OPHA’s work involves encouraging parents to get involved in local initiatives and talk with others who want to help. “Maybe you’re having coffee with friends, and you start with one issue that’s important to you,” Doyle says. “Once you get engaged at that level, you’ll see how your actions can be brought to the municipal or provincial level.”

Kim Perrotta, director of climate health and policy for the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment, says that many effective climate actions start small. For example, when CAPE was working toward the phase-out of Ontario’s coal plants, Perrotta says, it “really focused on the air-quality benefits that were local and that would be fairly immediate.” And how issues are framed matters, she notes: studies show that the public is “more likely to change their behavior around fossil fuel use, for example, if they know it’s going to have a health co-benefit for their family.”

Non-profits such as OPHA and CAPE aren’t the only public-health organizations tackling climate change — public and municipal health units are taking action as well. Ontario Public Health Standards require that all boards of health consider climate change in their local assessments of health risks and follow the 2018 Healthy Environments and Climate Change Guidelines. Some units, such as the Simcoe-Muskoka District Health Unit, have gone beyond these requirements and created more detailed and comprehensive climate-based health practices: it has developed both a health-vulnerability assessment that identifies areas of risk, informs policies, and sets direction, and a climate-action plan that aims to reduce climate-related health risks and inequity by 2028 through policy influence, collaboration, and the reorientation of health practices.

“We’re playing on this edge of whether the Earth will be habitable by the end of the century,” says Charles Gardner, the unit’s medical officer of health. But the present moment, he emphasizes, “is both a crisis and an opportunity for a more equitable world.”

The SMDHU assessment points out that one of the many reasons children are so vulnerable in the face of climate change is that they rely on adults to care for them, whether by getting them out safely in an emergency or keeping them safe from UV exposure. For Lewis, a parent’s worry can become an opportunity to create a healthier community. “When you’re concerned about other beings that you brought here and are going to outlive you,” she says, “you feel more of a duty to protect their home.”

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