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Bringing Displacement into the Health-Climate Change Nexus

Illustration of the physiological pathways of human heat strain. (Source: the Lancet, 2021)

Climate change is already affecting the health of people all over the world. Climate change affects the social and environmental determinants of health like clean air, safe drinking water, and sufficient food and shelter. Numerous scientific assessments and related studies from national to local levels have shown that the health risks of climate change are increasing and that they are posing an ever-more serious threat to different communities, with the potential to cause displacement in both the short and long-term.

Major Resources on Health and Climate Change

Tracing Climate Impacts on Health to Displacement

The impacts of climate change on human health are both significant and extremely varied. “First-order” impacts, such as extreme heat or flooding, can be easy to spot, but there are innumerable, insidious ways that human health can be affected. The table below explains some of the high-level impacts of climate change, and how they relate to human health, both at an individual and societal level.

In the simplest possible terms, each of these impacts can be a driver of displacement. Whether this displacement is short-term, long-term, or permanent depends significantly on the resilience and adaptive capacity of the community facing the impacts.

Human health-related impacts of climate change, their causes, and societal outcomes. (Source: National Institute of Environmental Health Services, 2022)

Impacts and Threats in Canada

In Canada, groups most at-risk of climate change and health-related displacement include many groups that are already experiencing socio-economic vulnerability or marginalization of some kind. At a community scale, many on-reserve Indigenous communities are already being affected, and these impacts are likely to increase in the future.

Diagram of health impacts in cities in the Canadian context. (Source: Ingenium)

Indigenous people already often live in geographic regions already experiencing significant climate change impacts. Some places on Canada’s northern coastline like Tuktoyaktuk, in the Northwest Territories, or Inuit communities in Newfoundland and Labrador are considering "managed retreat" or other drastic adaptation measures. People who live there have a distinctive way of life which is very tied to the land and sea. These northern regions of the country will continue to experience high temporal and spatial variability of coastal processes like sea level rise, shoreline permafrost melt, and other coastal geological and ecological forms of instability from temperature rises. These changes could exacerbate existing social and economic challenges, leading to food insecurity, internal displacement in communities, loss of life, disease spread, and mental health impacts.

On an individual level, vulnerable people who live with different health issues can be affected by climate change in a wide variety of ways. Warming temperatures from ideal conditions can spread ticks that carry Lyme disease in many parts of Canada that could raise cases to as many as 8,500 annually by the mid-century. Heat waves can also cause heat-related deaths for the elderly, those living with various cardiovascular conditions, and those who do not have access to any meaningful form of cooling. Such mental illnesses like depression would cost the government $34 billion per year and $17 billion per year for people who have anxiety. Even for people already actively receiving medical care within hospitals, for example, the vulnerability of these facilities to climate change is stark: only about 20% of health authorities have assessed the vulnerability of health facilities and roughly 8% of health centers are located in flood risk zones.

The new St Paul’s Hospital in Vancouver’s False Creek Flats is part of the next generation of healthcare facilities and underwent significant climate vulnerability and other resilience studies as part of its development. (Source: Providence Health)

What can Canada do to prepare?

Canada has a lot of work to do when it comes to the health impacts of climate change. When the Government of Canada released the National Adaptation Strategy in 2022, its action plan included four overarching objectives on health and well-being, including:

  1. Health systems have the expertise, knowledge, and resources needed to identify climate change-related risks and take equitable, evidence-based action to protect health.

  2. Health authorities have identified the extent to which climate change is impacting health and have established methods for tracking future health impacts and evaluating progress toward protecting health and reducing risks.

  3. People are protected from urgent climate-related health risks such as extreme heat, infectious diseases, foodborne hazards and impacts to traditional foods, poor mental health outcomes, and others.

  4. Climate action across all sectors promotes good health and prioritizes measures that have multiple benefits (e.g., protecting health and improving environmental sustainability).

To ensure that these are effectively delivered, the Plan lays out five “critical actions,” which unfortunately are mostly restatements of ongoing work. They include work on Health Canada’s heat program, including the Heat Alert and Response System (HARS), and other guidance. HealthADAPT, which is a technical support hub for health adaptation planning; new funding and technical support through the Climate Change and Health Adaptation Program for First Nations and Inuit Communities; the Climate Change Research and Knowledge Mobilization Initiative; and the Infectious Disease and Climate Change Program (IDCCP).

Thematic areas of action, including health and well-being, within Canada’s National Adaptation Strategy (Source: Government of Canada)

While the Adaptation Strategy does set a high-level course for where Canada can improve its resilience and protect the health and livelihood of people, there is considerably more to be done than what is already at stake. Given that healthcare is a provincial responsibility, engagement and interface with each provincial and territorial government will be critical.

As the Canadian Climate Institute put it most recently in their report, The Health Costs of Climate Change, it is absolutely critical that all levels of government coordinate and invest immediately to protect against the health impacts of climate change. More specifically, the Canadian Public Health Association also released a national policy brief on health and climate change this year, advocated for even further and more comprehensive action, bringing in the media, academia, and nonprofit stakeholders to build a robust national adaptation ecosystem that is both capacious and literate about climate change threats to health.

Adding a displacement dimension to all of this will be crucial, as well. As CDPI said in our 2021 report, Climate Change Displacement Mapping the issue in British Columbia, “the intersections between climate change and human mobility are complex. Human mobility is not only an inevitable part of social change, but in a dynamic climate, it can be an adaptive strategy beneficial to people and places.” The challenge will be to mitigate the health-related impacts of climate change, ideally preventing as much displacement as possible, while still creating space for climate-related mobility as an autonomous adaptation action.

Additional Resources:

Written by CDPI Researcher Olivia Karp, with editorial support from George Benson.

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