The continuing warming of the global climate is one of the greatest threats to human health in the 21st century and physicians must step up and help lead in the search for solutions. That was the stark warning delivered by Dr. James Orbinski to delegates and observers attending the Canadian Medical Association (CMA) annual meeting in Vancouver.
Dr. Orbinski — former President of Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders, Research Chair in Global Health at the Dalla Lana School of Public Health and professor of both medicine and political science at the University of Toronto — stressed that the threat is no longer arguable and that mitigating the effects of climate change requires action on many fronts.
"This is a problem of the commons, of the global commons and people need to understand that, while there are individual impacts, it's not just individual action that is going to mitigate or reduce the impact of climate change," said Dr. Orbinski. "It actually requires collective action in order for there to be meaningful efforts to mitigate climate change."
Dr. Orbinski highlighted the multiple policy domains touched by climate change, including mass transit, urban planning, design, energy and health care systems.
Instances of extreme drought were highlighted as a critical consequence of climate change. He also pointed to recent large forest fires in Fort McMurray this year and in Yellowknife in 2014 as sentinel events showing that Canada is far from immune to the effects of climate change.
Another issue is the emergence and re-emergence of infectious diseases such as malaria. The massive increases of malaria in various parts of the world are being brought on by changes in climate and ecosystems, which then impact the vector patterns of diseases such as malaria.
Dr. Orbinski also stressed that climate change leads to increased conflict and migration, particularly in developing countries. "Is climate change a variable in the emergence of violent conflict? The answer is unequivocally yes and the answer is that we're seeing already the impact of climate change as a variable in a cascade of causality."
With these challenges in mind, Dr. Orbinski urged physicians generally, and the CMA specifically, "to step up and to step out" to advocate for solutions.
"Health professionals have a critical role to play to ensure that the serious health impacts of climate change are understood by governments and individuals," he said. "We have to see the effects of our actions differently and we must take responsibility for our actions. It is profound and it is unacceptable."