The science of adapting to climate change

In the face of a changing climate, Canadians must learn to adapt to protect their health and their communities. Even as we take efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, changes in climate will continue to affect our lives and health. Knowledge of the impacts of climate change and the options for adapting has increased greatly over the last 20 years, thanks to experts and scientists who continue to work on this key issue.

In 2021, Health Canada will publish a scientific assessment report entitled Health of Canadians in a Changing Climate: Advancing our Knowledge for Action, as we continue to advance our understanding of risks to specific populations and the health system—and of the most effective measures to protect Canadians.

Emerging areas of focus

Climate change can create or exacerbate several health issues in Canadian communities. The new report will highlight various aspects, but here is a sneak peek at some interesting themes.

Not everyone experiences the impacts of climate change in the same way. A number of populations are currently bearing disproportionate health impacts from climate change. Some people are more physiologically sensitive, more at risk, or lack the resources to adapt adequately. For example:

  • People living in poverty often have limited resources to respond or cope with health risks associated with climate change, for example challenges with accessing transportation to get protection during extreme events like floods;
  • Indigenous populations in remote or northern areas are seeing their cultures and livelihoods seriously impacted; and
  • Seniors and people with chronic illnesses may be more susceptible to heat illness, because of certain medications they are taking for example.

“We find that populations across Canada do not all have the same access to healthy food, for example,” explains Rebekka Schnitter, Policy Analyst in the Climate Change and Innovation Bureau of Health Canada.

“Climate change is contributing to the changing distribution, availability, and quality of species that make up traditional diets for many Indigenous Peoples, contributing to an increased reliance on foods imported into the community,” she adds. “This has already been observed, and is particularly concerning, for communities of the North, where the cost of food is already quite high, and climate change can create even more issues in transporting the food into those communities.”

A full chapter on the impacts of climate change on the health of Indigenous Peoples by the National Collaborating Centre on Indigenous Health will appear in the assessment report Health Canada is leading.

Additionally, there is increasing interest in how climate change can affect food security and food safety. In Canada, the food system could be vulnerable to climate change, which could limit access for some to healthy food and lead to the emergence or worsening of food-borne diseases. On a global level, studiesFootnote 1 suggest that food prices will increase as average temperatures increase.

Researchers also examined variations in vulnerability between communities. Those who experience poverty or are disadvantaged will most likely feel the disproportionate consequences of climate change.

“We found that adaptation outcomes are not always equitable. In some cases, adaptation measures may benefit only part of the population, while inadvertently causing adverse implications for others,” says Schnitter.

For example, during a heat wave, health authorities recommend using air conditioning, but not everyone can afford an air conditioner or the energy required for using it.

As well, waste energy associated with running air conditioners can increase the outdoor air temperature, which increases the vulnerability of individuals who don’t have access to air conditioning or who work outdoors.

“It’s not to say that we shouldn’t use these adaptation measures, but we should consider these vulnerable populations and ensure health equity is considered,” cautions Schnitter.

Finally, there has been a growing link between mental health and climate change in recent years. Impacts on mental can stem from specific events like extreme weather events, or be generalized, like eco-anxiety, where people feel distress over the environmental upheaval caused by climate change. Mental health issues are a growing risk for many people, including youth, people experiencing health inequities, and people frequently exposed to traumatic events or experiences in their occupations, including first responders and health care providers. Although climate change can cause anxiety, Health Canada’s assessment will also highlight the potential of some adaptation measures to support and protect wellbeing in a changing climate.

Finding solutions

“There are several opportunities to explore adaptation measures, including infrastructure planning, training for health professionals, surveillance and monitoring, and emergency preparedness to make our health systems more resilient,” explains Dr. Peter Berry, Senior Policy Analyst in the Climate Change and Innovation Bureau of Health Canada.

Through Health Canada’s HealthADAPT program, partners across Canada are conducting their own climate change and health assessments. Results will provide great examples of different approaches for understanding risk, how to engage people on the issue, and how to best prepare Canadians and their health systems – diverse learnings that can be applied across Canada.

Peter says he’s excited to know that health authorities from local to national levels are starting to ramp up efforts to prepare for climate change. “They are doing their own assessments and raising public awareness about risks. There are also a number of partnerships outside the health sector. Many are sharing best practices to protect people from floods, heat waves, and vector-borne diseases.”

Look out for the Health of Canadians in a Changing Climate report in 2021. In the meantime, check out the Canada in a Changing Climate: Advancing our Knowledge for Action report, published in 2019. The report explores how and why Canada’s climate has changed and what changes are projected for the future. It sets the stage for this new knowledge focusing on health.