Canada’s health systems under strain from climate change: new policy brief
Climate change will continue to have devastating impacts on health and human lives, further straining health systems and nullifying any possibility for adaptation, unless ambitious climate action is urgently undertaken, warns a new policy brief by the Canadian Medical Association, the Canadian Nurses Association, and the Canadian Public Health Association.
The need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions has never been more urgent. An accelerated shift away from fossil fuels towards renewable energy, extreme weather events (such as wildfires) emergency management, and sustainable food systems are all key opportunities to improve health for all, now, and into the future.
Published today, the Policy Brief for Canada draws from the 2023 Report of the Lancet Countdown on health and climate change, a multi-disciplinary collaboration monitoring the links between health and climate change. It brings togethers lead researchers from 52 academic institutions and UN agencies in every continent, publishing annual updates of its findings to provide decision-makers with high-quality evidence-based recommendations.
The Policy Brief for Canada highlights three key areas where Canada can make the biggest difference to reduce the ever-growing impact of climate change on health:
Divest from and phase out fossil fuels, invest heavily in renewable energy and supporting infrastructure and make sustainable sources of energy readily accessible to all people in Canada.
- Eliminate all direct and indirect fossil fuels subsidies.
- Redirect that financial support to healthy, renewable energy infrastructure.
- Remove the influence of the fossil fuel industry from policy-making.
- Increase support for sustainable housing.
Increase cross-sectoral and cross-jurisdictional coordination of extreme weather event emergency management.
- Improve emergency response systems for extreme weather events by adopting an approach based on resilience, Traditional Knowledge and preparedness.
- Move from a culture of fire suppression to instead support resilient forest ecosystems.
- Create secretariats to coordinate health-system responsibilities and implement low-carbon health-system initiatives.
- Develop better practices for communicating health risks associated with air quality indexes.
- Ensure adequate deployment of mental and physical health resources for affected populations.
Support healthy, sustainable eating that is accessible, affordable and culturally appropriate.
- Integrate emissions data in nutrition labelling nationwide.
- Create policies, processes and programs that support organic, sustainable food production.
- Invest in a food loss and waste agreement to reduce emissions and financial losses.
- Encourage hospitals to sign onto the Cool Food Pledge.
- Increase nutrition support programs for low-income households.
- Support Indigenous food sovereignty.
The Policy Brief for Canada was co-authored by Finola Hackett, MD, CCFP, Claudel Pétrin-Desrosiers, MD, CCFP, Maya R. Kalogirou PhD, RN, and Chris G. Buse, PhD.
“As a family physician, I see my patients’ health increasingly impacted by wildfire-smoke, and I worry about the community’s health in years to come. Fortunately, there are concrete policy steps to improve extreme weather resilience. We need to urgently reduce emissions to avoid a climate-health crisis. There are win-win solutions, such as the nutritional benefits of a planetary health diet; it has a low carbon footprint and can be more affordable for families struggling with the rising cost-of-living.”
Finola Hackett, MD, CCFP
“With the unprecedented wildfires that ravaged the country in the summer of 2023, the urgency of adapting to climate change is clearer than ever. Extreme weather events, increasingly co-existing simultaneously, pose increasing challenges to our infrastructures, including our healthcare systems. Climate action can protect everyone's health, including the health of future generations. Policy-makers must seize the opportunity today to implement sustainable policies that can make the difference between life and death.”
Claudel Pétrin-Desrosiers, MD, CCFP
“As a Registered Nurse, it is my professional duty to promote and support human health. If Canadians care about their health and the health of future generations, then we must work together to address the climate crisis urgently. We need to tackle climate change head-on and support high levels of human health by reducing emissions and transitioning away from fossil fuels. When we create policies that support the integration of the planetary health diet into schools and hospitals, we reduce emissions and ensure Canadians can access healthy, plant-rich foods. Climate change is an “everybody problem,” and that means we all must work together towards a healthy, sustainable future that leaves no one behind.”
Maya R. Kalogirou, PhD, RN
“Climate change is THE defining issue for our already strained health system. But we cannot do the important work of mitigating and adapting alone. As Canada emerges from the worst fire season on record, we have opportunities to enhance emergency preparedness planning, build health system capacity, and support public health actors in pursuing ‘whole-of-society’ solutions to this crisis.”
Chris G. Buse, PhD, Assistant Professor, Simon Fraser University
“Climate change has always been a health issue. The situation is getting more dire and we must act with urgency. In the past few months, we have seen the serious health effects of wildfires and severe flooding across Canada. At the CMA we know that communicating the health impacts of the climate crisis is key to driving change. We need a clear strategy to develop better environmental practices, and this Policy Brief for Canada names solutions to guide us forward. We strongly urge governments and policymakers to collaborate on making sustainable, evidence-based choices to slow the impact of climate change today and into the future. Slow action is akin to no action.”
Dr. Kathleen Ross, President, Canadian Medical Association
“Climate change is a health crisis. Urgent action is needed as increasing climate events continue to impact health and human lives. In 2023, Canada experienced the worst wildfire season and various other extreme weather events, causing loss of life, damage to infrastructure, financial burden, health challenges, and strain on our overwhelmed health system. Health systems across Canada will continue to suffer if climate change is not appropriately addressed. Increased research funding is needed to continue to better understand the impacts of climate change on the health care system.”
Dr. Sylvain Brousseau, President, Canadian Nurses Association
“For the sake of our planet and the well-being of future generations, we must recognize that climate action is not just an environmental imperative, but a public health necessity. The rising temperatures, extreme weather events, and environmental degradation caused by climate change pose a clear and present danger to our health. It's time for us to unite in the pursuit of a healthier, more sustainable world, where the prescription is clear: urgent climate action is the remedy we need to safeguard our collective well-being.”
Ian Culbert, Executive Director, Canadian Public Health Association
About the Lancet Countdown
The Lancet Countdown: Tracking Progress on Health and Climate Change is a multi-disciplinary collaboration monitoring the links between health and climate change. It brings togethers lead researchers from 52 academic institutions and UN agencies in every continent, publishing annual updates of its findings to provide decision-makers with high-quality evidence-based recommendations. For its 2023 assessment, visit https://www.lancetcountdown.org/.
About the Canadian Medical Association
The Canadian Medical Association leads a national movement with physicians who believe in a better future of health. Our ambition is a sustainable, accessible health system where patients are partners, a culture of medicine that elevates equity, diversity and wellbeing, and supportive communities where everyone has the chance to be healthy. We drive change through advocacy, giving and knowledge sharing – guided by values of collaboration and inclusion.
About the Canadian Nurses Association
The Canadian Nurses Association is the national and global professional voice of Canadian nursing. Our mission is to advance the nursing profession to improve health outcomes in Canada’s publicly funded, not-for-profit health system. CNA is the only national association that speaks for all types of nurses across all 13 provinces and territories. We represent nurses that are unionized and non-unionized, retired nurses, nursing students, and all categories of nurses (registered nurses, nurse practitioners, licensed and registered practical nurses, and registered psychiatric nurses).