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Canadian Public Health Association

Climate change: From embryo to end of life

Helena Murcelle Nadem

L’information ci-bas est disponible en anglais seulement. 

Intergenerational equity involves the distribution of health throughout time, placing emphasis in ensuring the well-being of current and future generations of populations (Summer & Smith, 2014). Intergenerational equity refers to all generations having the right to access the benefits of the same natural and cultural resources as prior generations, thus placing responsibility on the present generation to assist with conserving the planet and distributing health and wellbeing overtime (Summers & Smith, 2014; Venn, 2019). By fostering this goal, intergenerational equity utilizes a social justice approach to suggest that current generations have a duty to protect the diversity in resources, environments, and allowing future generations to equitably benefit from the environment (Summers & Smith, 2014; Venn, 2019). By forming a deep-rooted partnership across generations, intergenerational equity is relevant to ecological sustainability goals and actions (Summers & Smith, 20140). 

“Climate change is a threat multiplier for children’s physical and mental health. It exacerbates existing disparities in children’s health that are a direct product of poverty and structural racism” (Chalupka et al., 2020). The ongoing battle of the climate change crisis has continued to impose devastating consequences for us all. Children and youth are most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, where a significant amount of vulnerability rests with their immature physiological defense systems and their direct contacts with the physical environment (Sanson, Wachs, Koller, & Salmela-Aro, 2018). Further, children in developing nations (which account for 85% of children in the world) will endure the greatest consequences of climate change impacts (Chalupka et al. 2020). Both sudden and long-term climate change impacts can introduce a variety of harms (indirect and direct) to a child, including exposure to environmental toxins, infectious, gastrointestinal, and parasitic diseases, heat-related illnesses fatalities, and injuries (Sheffield & Landrigan, 2010). There has been research supporting evidence of connections with climate impacts causing posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, anxiety, sleep problems, cognitive deficits, as well as learning problems among children (Garcia & Sheehan, 2016; Majeed & Lee, 2017). Further, children may face obstacles with feelings of distress, anger, grief, loss of identity, feelings of hopelessness, higher rates of suicide, aggression, and violence (Clayton et al. 2017). Climate change generally speaking, may go beyond the bounds of childhood, to pre-birth, where bodies may be exposed to environmental stressors, which in turn can affect the embryo (Gislason et al. 2021). “The vulnerability of any group is a function of its sensitivity to climate change-related health risks, its exposure to those risks, and its capacity for responding to or coping with climate variability and change.” (Chalupka et al., 2020). A multitude of factors can affect the ways in which some populations are affected, this can include low-income communities lacking the resources necessary to respond to extreme weather events. The elderly community tend to associate happiness with their original living place, where social connections and sense of identity are formulated (Longino, 1994). Interruptions to living places from the climate crisis may result in dislocations. Older persons have a sensitive relationship to changes amongst their external environment including exposures with noxious agents, toxins, and infectious agents (Carnes et al. 2014). 

There is clear evidence of the lethal impacts climate change effects are imposing today, tomorrow, and for future generations. Older adults feel a moral obligation for future youth’s well-being (Puaschunder, 2020). Ecological determinants of health (EDoH) are a vital component to the climate crisis. Water systems, agricultural systems, and more natural resources are directly connected to global environmental changes (pollution, biodiversity loss, etc., Gislason et al. 2021). An eco-social lens acknowledges a holistic nature of public health and showcases the harsh implications for the basic determinants of health (Gislason et al. 2021). An eco-social lens, where both social and ecological components are recognized as essential to children and future generations well-being, can be adopted to develop appropriate public health interventions that address concerns of climate change. Building upon children’s agency and encouraging both creative and resilient solutions through participatory actions are additional approaches that can take place (Gislason et al., 2021). Protecting, advocating, and engaging collaboratively with equity-deserving communities is vital. Mitigation efforts towards a sustainable future for our land and communities are imperative, and possible.

Helena Murcelle Nadem 
Faculty of Health Sciences, Simon Fraser University


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