The term ‘climate change’ evokes a range of emotions including fear, anger, guilt and sadness.
It can be a conversation stopper and too often, is politically divisive. The depth of the problem can feel overwhelming and exhausting. It’s simply easier to deny or disregard the existence of climate change. Regardless of whether or not we like it, a collective crisis exists and a layered response is required.
Humanity has become dependent on oil and gas. Increased usage is resulting in undesirable consequences such as climate change. The science is conclusive: our reliance on fossil fuels is negatively affecting the planet’s capacity for maintaining equilibrium. Weather patterns are changing and biodiversity is diminishing. Ultimately, humans will continue to feel these impacts. In fact, the World Health Organization acknowledges climate change as the biggest human health risk of the 21st century.
If humans have developed a type of addiction to fossil fuels, could a harm reduction response be helpful in tackling the climate crisis?
Harm reduction offers a practical way forward as one tier of a multilevel response to a health crisis. The approach is action-oriented and collaborative, whereby individuals and communities create solutions specific to their context. For example, harm reduction has been instrumental in addressing the deadly overdose crisis in British Columbia and reducing health harms associated with substance use. Overdose prevention sites and naloxone kits continue to save innumerable lives. Similarly, needle exchange programs help to reduce the transmission of blood-borne infections such as HIV and hepatitis C.
Opponents fear the distribution of clean needles for injection drug use will further enable risky behaviours, and insist that treatment for addiction is the only way forward. However, harm reduction recognizes the complexity in the human experience. It does not require abstaining from substance use or a rapid change in behaviour. Instead, the focus is on providing immediate safety measures with the hopes of supporting the individual and encouraging future well-being. In this sense, harm reduction is both optimistic and non-judgemental.
Complete abstinence from fossil fuels is unattainable in the short term. Carbon and methane emissions are a product of humans navigating the world, heating homes and providing sustenance for the past century. Industry continues to capitalize on this dependence and increase profits at the expense of planetary health. Dismantling the economic and operational structures embedded in the burning of fossil fuels will require time.
However, similar to the overdose crisis, the climate crisis also requires immediate action. The adoption of a harm reduction philosophy across governments would see a phasing out of fossil fuel subsidies and robust implementation of carbon pricing. Industry would become obliged to adjust their business model and engage in meaningful decarbonization. It is at these levels where the biggest change can occur.
At the same time, individuals can practise harm reduction every day. For example, we can reduce reliance on gasoline-powered cars by choosing alternative transportation such as walking, riding a bicycle or busing. Additionally, we can minimize food waste or reduce meat consumption, even if by just one meal a week.
Hippocrates, the ancient Greek physician and father of medicine once said, “make a habit of two things: to help; or at least to do no harm.” The humanistic ideology of harm reduction transcends time and context. Making the collective changes necessary to fully address climate change will be a long road, but small significant steps are vitally important. What if we awake each day with a conviction for harm reduction as a guiding light?
Megan Tomlinson, RN, BScN , is a member of the Canadian Association of Nurses for the Environment https://cane-aiie.ca