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Editorial on Climate Change and Health Promotion

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I Introduction

After a winter of record high and record low temperatures, we are experiencing an unprecedented amount of media coverage on the topic of climate change. A couple of weeks ago, The Toronto Star ran a provocative editorial from Keith Stewart (1), manager of the World Wildlife Fund's Campaign called a "A credible climate plan for Ontario." In it, he lays out a practical, step-wise approach to climate change that bears a remarkable resemblance to successful health promotion strategies. As an antidote to feeling overwhelmed by the enormity, severity, and rapidity of global warming, it might be helpful to unpack Mr. Stewart's proposal from a health promotion perspective.

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II Five Ways to Tackle Global Warming

Stewart argues that, "Once we commit to Kyoto and longer-term pollution reduction targets, there are some basic ways Ontario can tackle global warming," and offers five ways to do it. The first suggestion will be familiar to those who have worked so hard and so successfully to change public policy on smoking. Mr. Stewart writes, "The Ontario government must create policies aimed at reducing energy use, such as regulations that dramatically increase energy efficiency standards for buildings, appliances and equipment; promote education programs; and provide economic incentives to rapidly improve existing stock. This is the cheapest, fastest and cleanest solution to our energy needs." In other words, as important as it is to turn down your thermostat (or provide smoking cessation programs) we must change social policy to have a societal impact.

Like many before, Stewart asserts that "We are indeed 'addicted' to fossil fuels" and that coal is one of the dirtiest. The required response is to "switch off coal by 2009." As a society we need to enter a methadone program for energy consumption and "switch onto Ontario's abundant sources of clean, low-impact energy from the wind, sun, small-scale hydro, geothermal and sustainable bio-energy." He also points to  alternatives such as our "largely untapped potential to generate electricity from industrial and commercial waste heat."

Step three is to "design our cities to be energy efficient." No doubt our colleagues in health community coalitions will agree with the argument for "fast, effective and affordable public transit" and "pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure that is safe and convenient." Furthermore, Mr. Stewart and WWF are right in step with those who would tackle the obesity epidemic through the social determinants of fitness. Fitness proponents know that, for most people, exercise will be more successful and more sustainable if it is easy, accessible, and can be built into our daily lives.

In step four, Mr. Stewart and the WWF demand that we "stop subsidizing the things we don't want, such as dirty energy from Ontario coal power plants. We must bring the prices of products and services into line with their true costs--including environmental and health costs--so that climate-friendly behaviour is rewarded." Health promoters have made this argument for decades: just think of junk food in the school cafeteria.

Step five: "protect the carbon stored in our forests and soils." Measures to achieve this, according to the WWF, include to protect "large tracts of boreal forest, ensuring truly sustainable forestry management, and requiring soil-building agricultural practices will avoid massive greenhouse gas releases. Recent reports show that global warming threatens to undermine the health and viability of Ontario's forest ecosystems, so we must avoid additional stresses." In other words, we need to nurture the conditions that promote health and avoid those that harm it. Health promoters regularly apply these prevention principles in any number of settings from workplaces to schools to homes.

Mr. Stewart makes another familiar prevention argument when he says, "given that our energy use is already much more wasteful than other industrialized countries like Germany, the U.K. and Japan that use half the energy per dollar of output that Canada does, many of the solutions will save us money as we burn less fossil fuel in more efficient homes, power plants, vehicles and workplaces. It will be a win-win scenario when we act and the quicker we act, the more we will benefit." He is not the first to argue that upstream approaches stand to save costs in the long term.

Also like health promoters, Mr. Stewart is practical, realistic, and compassionate. He argues that since climate change has already begun, we need to engage in a kind of harm reduction with "programs to improve public infrastructure and protect vulnerable members of our society against heat waves and to provide transition programs for affected workers and communities."

In the final paragraph of his editorial, Mr. Stewart refers to the public's response to polling on the environment. "When those pesky pollsters call, people are taking the time to say how concerned they are about global warming, how frustrated they are with government bickering, how upset they are with industries that seek to evade pollution controls, and how anxious they are to do something, anything, if only they had some help with what and how." Then he says, "We know that politicians read the polls, especially in the lead up to an election." He is not the first or the last to suggest political action in response to a major health issue!

And to that end, WWF uses another familiar health promotion strategy: coalition building. The end of the article notes the support of the following organizations: Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment, David Suzuki Foundation, Environmental Defence, Forest Ethics, Greenpeace-Canada, Ontario Clean Air Alliance, Ontario Nature, Pembina Institute, Registered Nurses' Association of Ontario, Sierra Club of Canada-Ontario chapter, Sierra Legal Defence Fund, Wildlands League and WWF-Canada.

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III Conclusion

Mr. Stewart cautions "No one is saying this will be easy." As health promoters, we don't need a solution to be easy. For decades, we have been prepared to take on poverty and social justice as determinants of health. Clearly, we are prepared to take on the big issues.

So the next time you are feeling overwhelmed by the challenge of climate change, remember that as health promoters, regardless of the sector you work in, you already have the tools and experience to make a difference.

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IV References

1 Keith Stewart. "A credible climate plan for Ontario." Toronto Star, March 12, 2007.