In October 2020, Science magazine ran an article titled “Dust Bowl 2.0? Rising Great Plains dust levels raise concerns.”
In it, author Roland Pease described a recent storm front that swept up a wall of dust stretching from eastern Colorado into Nebraska and Kansas. It was reminiscent of the devastating conditions of the 1930s Dust Bowl, when farmers repeatedly saw topsoil turn to dust and blow away.
“Better get used to it,” Pease wrote. “According to a new study, dust storms on the Great Plains have become more common and more intense in the past 20 years, because of more frequent droughts in the region and an expansion of croplands.”
More than just affecting food supply, the phenomenon was also a direct health hazard. The super-fine dust particles were able to penetrate vulnerable lung cells, causing lung and heart disease.
All over the world, climate change is doing more than just causing environmental damage and making people sweat. It’s also making them sick. And Canada is no different.
Do people generally understand that climate change is a health hazard?
“They don’t. They really don’t,” said Dr. Courtney Howard, an emergency room physician in Yellowknife.
Howard is past-president of the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment (CAPE) and has spoken frequently on the link between climate change and health — including in a Tedx Talk in Montreal four years ago.
“What makes the work rewarding is that it doesn’t take long,” she said in a recent phone interview. “I’ve given variations on that talk now to multiple ministers, innumerable doctors and community groups, and you watch the penny drop. You watch the light bulbs go on.”
People’s attitudes change, she said.
“Making that connection between climate change and health is super important, because multiple studies replicated across countries have shown that preventing climate change as a health issue is the best way to motivate populations to take action.”
Howard says the direness of climate change first hit her about 10 years ago.
“When my daughter was nine months old, and Bill McKibbon’s 'Terrifying New Math' (Rolling Stone, July 19, 2012) came out, and it made clear the carbon budget that we have to work with for the first time … I finished the article in a fetal position around my daughter. And that led to a good three or four months of pretty profound grief as I considered what felt like a diagnosis.”
It was the same sort of revelation as when her mother got cancer, she says.
“Every new report on climate change used to feel like a punch in the gut. But because I’ve done the grieving, now they’re just information.”
A simple illustration of how climate change affects health is the impact it has on urban areas during heat waves.
When the town of Lytton, B.C., went up in flames last week, it followed a record-breaking heat wave, or “heat dome,” that caused dozens of deaths throughout the region.
Heat waves can be much more devastating in cities because the brick and asphalt intensify the heat.
“It makes for a nicer community if we dig up some of the tarmac and have trees there instead. People’s house prices go up, levels of well-being go up, and when a heat wave arrives, it’s much less hot,” Howard says.
Green areas can also act as a sort of “sponge” for flood waters and help reduce the effect of air pollution.
“If we can shift people onto their bikes, shift people onto the buses, shift people into electric vehicles, that means less kids with asthma in the emergency department, and that’s better for everyone,” Howard says.
Perhaps the most alarming threat posed by climate change is its impact on food production and distribution.
The dust bowl in the U.S. and wildfires in California and Canada are much more than local events. They have an impact on everyone because many of them are primarily food-exporting regions.
“The net food exporters will have challenges eventually because of climate change,” said Dr. Atanu Sarkar, a specialist in environmental and occupational medicine at Memorial University.
“That is an immediate, direct effect of climate change. More uncertainty, more problems in the food baskets of the world,” he said in a recent phone interview.
“Already, we are paying so much for the food.”
Extreme winds and snowfall can also affect food security on the island part of this province.
“If there are no ferries, there is no food, and you will see the shelves empty,” Sarkar said.
That’s one of the reasons Sarkar joined a local initiative called the Food Producers Forum. It’s a network of farmers, fishermen and foragers in the province who are tired of the status quo and constant lip service paid to food security in the province.
Instead, they’re doing something about it.
Saturday: Less talk, more action
Peter Jackson, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Telegram