Climate change: a public health issue?

March 4, 2016
Geneviève Talbot, Research and Advocacy officer

On February 12, I had the opportunity of attending a public conference on the implications of COP21 for Canada and Québec that was organized by the Institut de l’environnement, du développement durable et de l’économie circulaire (EDDEC). I admit that I went in with some pre-conceived ideas, expecting that market solutions would once again be presented as the only answer for a just transition to a low carbon economy. It feels as it is almost impossible for solutions to be proposed outside of this ideological straitjacket. How can a problem that was in essence created by the market and its unbridled quest for growth be solved by this very same ideology?

However, I was pleasantly surprised by what was raised during the discussions. Although issues about the carbon market were addressed in detail, other avenues were presented, one of which really interested me: considering the fight against climate change in terms of public health. A presentation by Pierre-Olivier Pineau, professor at HEC Montréal and holder of the Chair in Energy Sector Management, caught my attention when he said that we should consider our relationship to oil as an addiction.

Imagine for a moment if we tackled the causes of climate change with the same energy, creativity and resources that have been mobilized to combat smoking! This would require an increase in public health messages about the harmful effects of our addiction to oil and other fossil fuels, alarming pictures showing the impact of hydrocarbons, prohibitive laws on the use and waste of these energies, the end of public subsidies to this sector and the levying of high taxes on all fossil fuels (oil, coal, etc.). It would also mean ending subsidies and other forms of financial support aimed at developing the hydrocarbon sector and backing the development of infrastructure that would facilitate their access to international markets. Wouldn’t that be great? Perhaps, if we viewed our dependency on oil as a kind of addiction, we could finally put a stop to our greenhouse gas emissions (GHG)?

Considering the fight against climate change in terms of public health would require a shift towards giving more power to the state and ensuring that the notion of the “common good” – our common home – is present in the different strategies put in place. This involves “regulations” and “public policies” and could also mean, as was suggested by Pierre-Olivier Pineault, the implementation of legislative barriers to limit the purchase of SUVs (sports utility vehicles), for example.

For the Global South, considering climate change as a public health issue and not just as a talking point about a country's economic growth, calls for a powerful rebirth of the state as the regulator of economic policies. The Philippines, which is already suffering from the impacts of climate change, clearly illustrates the strengths and weaknesses of this approach. Since 2009, the Filipino government has adopted a complex legislative framework that includes adaptation to climate change and GHG emission reduction initiatives through energy efficiency and renewable energy development. Such objectives, even for a country like the Philippines, will only be attainable with the technical and financial support of developed countries, such as Canada, a nation that is among the biggest emitters of GHGs in the world.

Considering our relationship with oil, and more generally the impacts of climate change, in terms of addiction, and not of economic development, offers a different perspective that enables us to explore and propose new and strong solutions in the fight against climate change that are efficient and coherent.