Dubai climate talks focus on health as Canadian doctors warn patients already seeing impacts

A group of Canadian doctors are in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, this week at COP28 to raise awareness about the impacts climate change is having on the health of patients and the overall health-care system.

The closure of the Yellowknife, Hay River and Fort Smith hospitals this summer for several weeks in the Northwest Territories is the latest example of how climate change can impact medical services, said Dr. Courtney Howard, an emergency room physician in Yellowknife.

“Our entire hospital needed to evacuate this summer. So that 100-bed hospital required a military operation for us to relocate those patients with the help of people from multiple provinces in a health-care system that’s already under strain,” she said, in an interview with CBC News at the UN climate summit in Dubai.

“We can see that it’s not only impacting health, but in fact, the health systems we all depend on for our health care,” she said.

Climate change is increasing the risk and frequency of extreme weather events around the globe, scientists have said.

Courtney Howard is an emergency room physician in Yellowknife and a member of the Global Climate and Health Alliance. She is in Dubai attending the COP28 climate summit. (Kyle Bakx/CBC)

Health is Sunday’s official theme at the annual UN climate summit. It’s the first time in the 28-year history of the conference to have a specific day dedicated to health with speeches and events exploring topics ranging from air pollution and food scarcity to how public health can become resilient to climate change.

“The reality is the climate crisis and the health crisis are one and the same. Totally connected and totally converging at this moment in time,” said John Kerry, the U.S. Special Presidential Envoy for Climate, while on stage at the summit.

‘I come here because I’m scared’

This past summer was one of the worst years in Alberta for wildfires and the impact on people’s health was noticeable, said Dr. Joe Vipond, a Calgary emergency room physician and a member of the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment.

“It’s described to me like you cannot physically get enough air into your lungs,” said Vipond, about patients with asthma and other respiratory conditions.

“I frequently have people come in who, it’s not like the worst smoke day, but they were exposed to smoke over the last month and they’ve never recovered their baseline respiratory health,” he said.

A man is pictured wearing a mask.
Calgary emergency room physician Dr. Joe Vipond is in Dubai for the COP28 climate summit. (Kyle Bakx/CBC)

Some physicians are asking for more training to properly consult patients about air quality and the mental health problems related to climate change.

Temperature records were broken in Alberta during parts of the spring and summer.

A heat dome in Alberta was responsible for 66 deaths in 2021, while the same type of weather event contributed to more than 600 deaths in British Columbia in 2022.

“I come here because I’m scared. I mean, this year was one of the worst in memory,” said Vipond.

Countries pledge to protect health

In Dubai, more than 120 countries, including Canada, have signed a declaration acknowledging people’s health needs to be protected from the impacts of climate change. The pledge commits them to addressing climate-related health impacts such as extreme heat and air pollution.

In addition, about $1 billion US in funding was also announced toward climate and health initiatives from organizations like the Asian Development Bank, Global Fund and Rockefeller Foundation.

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Canada’s health-care system is impacted by the strain of increased admissions and environmental threats, said Dr. Kathleen Ross, president of the Canadian Medical Association (CMA), which is pushing for the federal government to create a climate and health secretariat. 

“It’s now recognized as the greatest threat to human health of our 21st century. So it is time that we openly name it and start looking at all the [necessary] changes,” said Ross, in an interview with CBC News on the sidelines of the UN event.

There are many ways to improve the resiliency of the health-care system, Ross said, while also finding ways to reduce its carbon footprint, such as lowering emissions caused from producing pharmaceuticals and heating and cooling medical facilities, and even changing how anesthetic gases and inhalers are used.

“Canada has some of the oldest health infrastructure in the developed world and we need to think about how we’re going to modernize,” she said.

The health-care system accounts for nearly five per cent of the country’s total greenhouse gas emissions, according to the CMA.

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