Our overuse of fossil fuels continues to compromise our future.
It seems that every day the media is filled with shocking evidence of climate change: Heat records are being broken in Australia while bush fires ravage the country as never before; Labrador’s permafrost is melting; and ocean levels continue to rise, threatening low-lying islands and coasts.
York University researchers warn us that the climate change crisis is about to become a health crisis.
“It’s been called by the World Health Organization the defining public health challenge of our century,” says Steven Hoffman, professor and director of York University’s Global Strategy Lab. “That’s a good assessment of it. What makes it overwhelming is that climate change is both caused by and impacts everything we do in our human civilization.”
York biology professor Dawn Bazely has devoted her 30-year academic career to understanding invasive plant species. Observing how the climate changes is essential to her work.
She says that as climate change warms the globe, northern countries like Canada are seeing plant and insect species for the first time. “Because anywhere there is a warming trend, we’re going to see diseases that dominate tropical and subtropical areas become able to expand into other regions.” That’s why, she adds, we are seeing more West Nile virus (carried by mosquitoes) and Lyme Disease (carried by ticks) in Canada.
Sheila Colla warns that a declining bee population will have serious impacts on our health. Colla, assistant professor in York’s Faculty of Environmental Studies, has noted significant reductions in the number of bumblebees, native to Canada.
She emphasizes that all bee species are susceptible to changes in weather caused by climate change. An early or late spring, for example, can change the growth of the fruits, vegetables and flowers that bees pollinate. This affects their ability to reproduce. Without bees, we have less food and, thus, fewer sources of nutrition.
“A third of our food is pollinated by animals, mostly bees,” Colla explains. She adds that bees pollinate a huge variety of crops and, most importantly, they pollinate foods that are antioxidants, like tomatoes, berries, kale and lettuce.
Unlike honeybees, bumblebees don’t make honey – but they are extremely good pollinators, notes Colla. “You need more than one type of bee to pollinate our crops and for us to have a diet that has variety and lots of vitamins… We clearly need to save all our pollinators.”
For York post-doctoral researcher and documentary filmmaker Mark Terry, the reality of climate change and its damage on living species can be seen, shockingly, at the north and south poles.
When he took a crew to Antarctica to shoot The Antarctica Challenge: A Global Warning in 2010, he filmed seals blinded by increased ultraviolet rays from the sun and penguins wandering away from their traditional coastal homes into the interior, on a desperate search for food. That’s because their primary food – krill, a crustacean found in Antarctic waters – is dying off due to warmer ocean temperatures.
Malawi, in southeast Africa, brings the disparity of climate change into sharp focus. It’s one of the poorest countries in the world, with an economy is based on agriculture. Maize – known as corn in North America – is the principal food crop. But the maize crop yield has dropped recently by as much as 34 per cent.
“Maize requires a certain amount of sunlight and precipitation,” says James Orbinski, director of York’s Dahdaleh Institute for Global Health Research (DIGHR) and former international president of Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders). “With climate change, Malawi now has prolonged periods of dryness. The Southern Region of Africa is amid its worst drought in 100 years. The famed Victoria Falls is running at a trickle, and taps are drying up. More than 45 million people are on food assistance because of crop failures. This is due to climate change.”
Orbinski points to a cruel irony: “The countries and regions that are most affected by climate change are the poorest and least developed regions. They are the least resilient and have the least flexible social, political and infrastructural systems. The irony is that they are the ones least responsible for greenhouse gas emissions.”
Is there hope for easing what could be a global health disaster? York researchers are optimistic – if we act now.
Bazely says it begins with sharing knowledge. “How we can equip local people everywhere and academics outside of the global north? How can we make the research and knowledge widely available? I’m very interested in open access and getting taxpayer-funded research out from behind the barriers of the university library systems. So many academics and researchers and people in the Global South just don’t have access to knowledge tucked behind expensive paywalls.”
For Orbinski, the priority is “seeing the symbiotic relationship between our biosphere and human civilizations that defines Planetary Health. It is also developing tools, technologies and policies that help communities adapt the new reality of the health impacts of climate change. We are actively working on these at the DIGHR.”
Hoffman likens the global action we must take on climate change to the action taken to combat pandemics. “Infectious diseases spread across borders. Viruses don’t carry passports. And as a result, if we’re serious about protecting our health from the next pandemic, we need to be thinking and acting globally in exactly the same way as we need to be thinking globally and acting globally about climate change.”
Terry urges us to help young people embrace activism aimed at halting climate change. In his post-doctoral work with the Dahdaleh Institute, Terry is teaching a course geared toward documentary filmmaking and environmental activism. He has also led a team of his own students during a “Fridays for Future” climate strike in Toronto and hosted a group of Indigenous students from Tuktoyaktuk at COP 25 in Madrid in December 2019.
“Students are the ones who will lead us into the reforms needed to maintain a healthy planet. That’s why Greta Thunberg’s work has been so important. She’s done a remarkable job at raising awareness. I believe our goal now, at universities, is to provide students with the knowledge and tools they will need to keep up the fight.”
To learn more about Steven Hoffman, visit his profile page. To read more on Dawn Bazely, see her lab. To read more about Sheila Colla’s research, visit her Faculty profile page. For more on Mark Terry, visit his profile page. To learn more about James Orbinski, see his profile.
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Paul Fraumeni is an award-winning freelance writer, who has specialized in covering university research for more than 20 years. To learn more, visit his website.