A family physician in Nelson, B.C. gained global recognition last year as the first doctor thought to have diagnosed a patient with ‘climate change.’ Symptoms related to heat exhaustion, dehydration, and smoke inhalation during a period of extreme heat and wildfires led Dr. Kyle Merritt to articulate the clinical relevance of planetary health.
The conceptualization of planetary health within academia and health sciences is transforming the lens from which human health is understood. Prior to the Lancet’s publication in 2015, western medicine and health care institutions predominately compartmentalized human health, treating it as separate from the natural world.
On the other hand, planetary health acknowledges the interconnectedness of all living things. The concept conveys how biodiversity loss, air pollution, land degradation, ocean acidification and climate change can significantly impact human health.
Similar to the human body maintaining homeostasis, planet Earth is thought to have boundaries for maintaining equilibrium. When planetary boundaries are crossed, individual health is impacted.
The innate knowledge of an insuperable bond between the natural world and human health is not new – it has been foundational to indigenous ways of knowing and holistic healers throughout time.
Nonetheless, planetary health as a concept is invoking deep reflection within the health sciences profession and prompting meaningful action.
It is estimated the health care sector in Canada contributes 4.6 per cent of the country’s total greenhouse gas emissions. Sadly, health care waste reached new highs in recent years. Personal protective equipment (PPE) waste is thought to have increased five to sixfold during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. Hospital waste deemed a biohazard risk is incinerated which releases pollutants such as dioxin, a toxin known to be harmful to human health and the ecosystem.
Faced with an ethical and professional duty to take action, leadership is emerging from within the health sector. At the recent COP26, Canada signed a commitment to establishing a “climate-resilient and low-carbon, sustainable health system.” Countries have been tasked with assessing their health system’s capacity for meeting the demands related to climate change, such as extreme weather events and increased need for health services. Furthermore, there is an expectation for countries to submit plans aimed at building resiliency and decarbonization of health systems.
The call to action is being heard at the bedside and beyond. As nurses, we are forming green teams to minimize health care waste, advocating for the protection of natural ecosystems and educating our politicians on the health implications related to the climate crisis. The Comox Valley Nursing for Health and the Environment recently evolved by expanding membership throughout the province and reidentifying as the Canadian Association of Nurses for the Environment BC Committee (CANE BC). This evolution will allow for wider collaboration and increase resources for nurses keen to be part of the climate crisis solution.
Climate change is often portrayed through the lens of political difference and economic risk. We must be clear – it is also a human health and social justice issue. Once unimaginable, the impacts of climate change are manifesting much faster than initially predicted. The Canadian Public Health Association views climate change as this century’s greatest threat to human health.
In British Columbia, we have witnessed first-hand the loss of human lives and impact on overall well-being when faced with unprecedented heat waves and floods. Without a shadow of a doubt, we know we need to stop burning fossil fuels as soon as possible. The health system and those who work within it have an integral role in shifting to a paradigm whereby planetary health is understood as a determinant of individual health.
Megan Tomlinson, R.N., is a member of the Canadian Association of Nurses for the Environment https://cane-aiie.ca