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Nurses sound the alarm on climate change, again

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Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment President Courtney Howard speaks yesterday in Fredericton as University of Saskatchewan professor Wanda Martin listens. Photo: David J. Climenhaga

Whatever will Jason Kenney's $30-million "war room" do about people like the nurses and physicians around the world growing increasingly troubled by the health impacts of climate change?

They are, after all, members of two professions most trusted by Canadians according to survey after survey going back almost to the beginning of public opinion polling.

What's more, they're not just theoretically concerned any more, they're actually doing stuff -- which is the kind of thing that really gets up the new Alberta premier's nose, with his strategy of not exactly denying climate change, just throwing roadblocks in the way of effective action to do anything about it.

Where something's already been done, of course, such as the carbon tax implemented by Alberta's former NDP government, Kenney can be counted on to eliminate it.

So, presumably, it can't be considered a positive development from the premier's perspective that divesting investments in pollution-creating fossil-fuel corporations is increasingly sounding to medical professionals worried about the health impacts of global climate change like an idea whose time has come.

Isn't this just the kind of thing Kenney's planned Calgary war room is supposed to bully and sue into silence and submission?

Alas for the current Alberta government, it sounds as if that could turn out to be an uphill fight. This morning, June 4, in Fredericton, the Canadian Federation of Nurses Unions released a discussion paper on climate change that urges nurses to get ready for an onslaught of health impacts as well as to do what they can to turn back the tide of rising global temperatures.

About 1,000 nurses from across Canada in town for the CFNU's biennial convention heard from one of the paper's authors, Dr. Wanda Martin of the University of Saskatchewan, and from Dr. Courtney Howard, president of the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment. Both noted a need to promote the divestment of shares in high-emissions sectors from investment plans.

Indeed, Howard was a leader of the successful campaign in 2015 to get the Canadian Medical Association to divest fossil-fuel holdings. In 2016, the CMA announced it had completed divestment of its own organizational fund from fossil fuels. It set up a fossil-fuel-free investment fund that physicians are also encouraged to use for their own savings.

From food security to the impact for wildfire smoke, medical professionals are starting to treat the global climate crisis as a global health crisis -- in the words of Martin, a registered nurse with a PhD, "the biggest health crisis of the 21st century."

Howard, an emergency room physician in Yellowknife, described climate change as "an urgent new frontier for humanitarianism."

Worse, from the perspective of Kenney and his United Conservative Party, the paper released by CFNU this morning calls on nurses to help educate their patients and the public about climate science, urge federal and provincial action to reduce and eliminate greenhouse gas emissions, and demand Canada meet its obligations under the Paris Agreement.

To critics who advise such medical professionals to stay in their lane, they have an easy answer: the health impacts of extreme weather events, drought, famine and refugee migration are right in their lane.

The paper -- Climate Change and Health: It's time for nurses to act -- connects the dots between the emerging climate crisis and health care, said CFNU president Linda Silas.

"Canada's nurses can prepare their health care communities to help patients during the coming climate crisis," she said in a public statement. "But this paper also provides nurses with a blueprint on how to become strong advocates for a sustainable and healthy future for our planet."

"As the paper says, it's our duty as nurses, citizens and parents to move quickly in response to this catastrophic threat," Silas explained.

A "catastrophic threat." Jason Kenney's going to hate that. But, really, what can he or his war room do about it? Like climate change, nurses and doctors worrying about the health impacts of the planet's rising temperatures is a global phenomenon.

David Climenhaga, author of the Alberta Diary blog, is a journalist, author, journalism teacher, poet and trade union communicator who has worked in senior writing and editing positions with The Globe and Mail and the Calgary Herald. This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, AlbertaPolitics.ca.​

Photo: David J. Climenhaga

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