Opinion: Ignoring climate change is bad for Albertans’ health

Joe Vipond and Kim Perrotta argue the time to act on climate change and to protect Albertans is now.

climate change
Several peer-reviewed studies have found that climate change has, in fact, increased the frequency and intensity of wildfires, and will dramatically continue to do so as the climate crisis worsens. @Raptor_Chick/Twitter photo.

By Joe Vipond and Kim Perrotta 

This article was published by the Edmonton Journal on June 7, 2019.

Premier Jason Kenney was very proud of his government’s decision to cut the carbon tax last week but given the week of climate calamity we have just experienced in Alberta, we really need to think about what this policy reversal means for the health of Albertans.

Over the last week, thousands of residents from northern communities in Alberta were evacuated from their homes because of climate-exacerbated wildfires. These people may be separated from their loved ones. They may be worried about time lost from work or school, about their homes, their land, their pets and their families. Studies have shown that these situations can be extremely stressful and that they can produce ongoing anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, and depression among evacuees.

At the same, millions of Albertans were exposed to extremely high levels of air pollution as smoke from wildfires blanketed their communities. Edmonton, a city with a population just shy of one million, had Air Quality Health Index (AQHI) readings of 7 to 10-plus last week with a peak of 72 at one point. We need to understand the implications of these readings. AQHI readings of 7 are considered “high risk,” while readings of 10 are considered “very high risk,” and 72 is totally off the chart.

High levels of air pollution are harmful for everybody. Nobody is immune, whether you voted for the NDP or the UCP, whether you are rich or poor. But they are particularly dangerous for very young children, elderly people and those with pre-existing health conditions such as asthma, COPD, heart disease and diabetes. People end up in emergency rooms, hospital wards, and graves.

The premier inferred last week that climate change doesn’t cause forest fires and stated that “carbon taxes don’t fight forest fires in B.C. or Alberta” but neither of those statements reflect the science. Several peer-reviewed studies have found that climate change has, in fact, increased the frequency and intensity of wildfires, and will dramatically continue to do so as the climate crisis worsens. In addition, many studies have demonstrated that carbon pricing does reduce greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to climate change, which would, over time have an impact on the wildfire situation in Canada.

Climate change is fuelling wildfires which present a significant risk to the health and well-being of Albertans. There are solutions to climate change and many of them will produce immediate health benefits for Albertans. Wind turbines and solar panels eliminate air pollution as do electric vehicles, energy retrofits for homes and businesses, and bike lanes. Carbon taxes are an effective and cost-efficient way to change behaviour and shift the economy away from fossil fuels.

At a time like this — with the world on fire — we need our leaders to acknowledge the role that climate change plays in extreme-weather events and wildfires. We need to listen to the experts on the economy — economists — who have identified carbon taxes as the cheapest, most efficient way to fight climate change. And, we need to utilize the other policies in our toolkit that are needed to keep global warming below 1.5 degrees including methane-reduction regulations, energy-efficiency programs, renewable-energy targets, and an accelerated phase-out of coal plants.

The time to act is now: with Alberta policies to protect Albertans — young and old — from further harm.

Kim Perrotta is executive director of the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment (CAPE). Dr. Joe Vipond is an emergency physician in Calgary and a member of CAPE’s board.

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