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Canadian doctors divest from fossil fuels

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The Lancet, the world's leading medical journals, diagnosed climate change as "the biggest global health threat of the twenty-first century," and prescribed tackling climate change as "the greatest global health opportunity." Following this medical advice, the Canadian Medical Association (CMA) voted today to divest from fossil fuels, invest in renewable energy, and to advocate for a price on carbon.

Fossil fuels kill

According to the CMA's 2008 report "No Breathing Room: National Illness Costs of Air Pollution," every year air pollution across Canada sends 620,000 people to their doctor, 92,000 people to the emergency room, 11,000 people into a hospital bed and 21,0000 people to their graves. These numbers (which don’t include traffic accidents from the lack of accessible mass transit) and their costs (including $8 billion in financial costs) are steadily rising.

The health impacts of pollution are not evenly distributed, but disproportionately affect Indigenous communities around which oil developments are concentrated -- as well as the workers within these industries. Last year's study "Environmental and Human Health Implications of Athabasca Oil Sands" found that "cancer occurrence increased significantly with participant employment in the Oil Sands and with the increased consumption of traditional foods and locally caught fish."

As chief of the Mikisew Cree Nation, Steve Courtoreille, explained, “The reality is our people are dying.” Domestic refineries for tar sands are not a solution: Aamjiwnaang First Nation is surrounded by refineries, and a health survey found that 40 per cent of people require an inhaler, 22 per cent of children have asthma, 26 per cent of adults have severe and chronic headahces, and 39 per cent of women have had a miscarriage or still birth -- which has also altered the sex ratio of new births.

Indigenous communities are leading the way to a just transition, exposing the health impacts and environmental racism of the oil economy and advocating for change. Recently members of the Lubicon Cree First Nation installed solar panels to provide electricity to their health centre. As Melina Laboucan-Massimo explained to Vice News,

"It will probably be one of the biggest solar installations in northern Alberta, especially in the tar sands....It's right in the community, so young people can see that we don't just have to generate power and electricity from fossil fuels, that we can power it from the sun....You know, this is basically a demonstration of the type of technology that exists in the world now, and that we should be utilizing, instead of solely relying on extractive industries like the tar sands....I hope that by having projects like this, in the northern part of Alberta, that the Alberta government will take note of it, seeing that communities are going ahead without them, that communities really want to see this, and that they're willing to put their support and money into this."

First do no harm: divest

The growing divestment movement can help magnify these community-led initiatives. Last year the British Medical Association voted to divest from fossil fuel companies. As the editorial in the British Medical Journal, "Climate Change and Human Survival," explained, climate change will result in

"increased scarcity of food and fresh water; extreme weather events; rise in sea levels; loss of biodiversity; areas becoming uninhabitable; and mass human migration, conflict and violence....This is an emergency. Immediate and transformative action is needed at every level: individual, local, and national; personal, political, and financial. Countries must set aside differences and work together as a global community for the common good, and in a way that is equitable and sensitive to particular challenges of the poorest countries and most vulnerable communities....If we are to avoid catastrophic climate change and bequeath a sustainable planet worth living on, we must push, as individuals and as a profession, for a transformed, sustainable, and fair world."

This year the International Federation of Medical Students' Associations -- representing a million future physicians -- called for divestment: "Continued investment in the fossil fuel industry violates health workers’ obligations to do no harm and grants the industry the social licence to explore and exploit still further reserves, resulting in catastrophic global warming."

Taking this climate emergency seriously, emergency physician Dr. Courtney Howard and the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment spearheaded a campaign for the Canadian Medical Association to follow their British counterparts and divest. As she explained recently, "We're looking to ask the CMA to divest its reserves from fossil fuels and to invest in renewable energy as a bit of an informational sign post for Canadians that Canadian physicians do view climate change as a human health issue and prioritize climate action."

The CMA has $1.77 million invested in the energy sector, which can now go to renewables. The CMA passed a number of motions related to climate change, including to "divest its reserves of investment in energy companies whose primary business relies upon fossil fuels," to explore investment opportunities in renewable energy and to promote the health effects of a price on carbon.

Dr. Howard explained the direct benefits of climate health for her patients, and the importance of the CMA’s divestment: "As a Northern doctor, working for action on climate-health is one of the most important things I can do for my patients. We are seeing respiratory effects from forest fire smoke, decreased stability of ice roads and changes in the landscape. I am so happy that Canada's doctors have taken such clear steps to demonstrate to Canadians that climate change is a health issue that requires urgent action."

Climate action, during the election and beyond

As The Lancet Climate Commission explain in their recent video, "Whether we respond to climate change, turning the threat it poses into an opportunity to improve public health is no longer a question of scientific evidence or technological capability. It is now entirely a matter of political commitment."

But the political establishment is revealing its lack of commitment by refusing to acknowledge the evidence, refusing to invest in a just transition and raging against those who suggest we do -- like Linda McQuaig who stated the simple fact that tar sands need to stay in the ground to meet climate targets.

As Amir Khadir, Member of the National Assembly for Québec solidaire responded in Le Devoir, 

"A brilliant journalist from the Toronto Star, Linda McQuaig, who is running for the NDP in Toronto, put her finger on the problem. During a televised debate, she reminded us of a fact of scientific consensus: a large quantity of tar sands have to stay underground if Canada wishes to attain its goals in fighting against climate change. This simple statement of fact set off a media storm where all the party leaders, including Thomas Mulcair, distanced themselves from this position....What is sorely missing in this campaign is a global vision, a desirable, viable and achievable solution to the endless exploitation of hydrocarbons."

But the backlash has failed in its attempt to silence the climate justice movement, and there is instead increasing pressure on parties from coast to coast, encouraging politicians to speak out. As Winnipeg South Centre NDP candidate Matt Henderson said a few days ago, "At what point do we as a society say, OK, that's enough, let's leave stuff in the ground, and we won't be bullied by people who say, 'Well, we're gonna lose jobs,' because I think we can be really, really innovative and creative in terms of how we create energy." Again, the facts are on the side of climate justice -- as the money invested in tar sands could create far more climate jobs.

In addition to meeting climate targets and creating more jobs, the CMA motion makes clear that we also have to keep the oil in the soil to meet health targets. From solar-powered communities to divesting doctors, there’s a growing movement demanding and implementing action on climate change -- which we should amplify during this election campaign and beyond. 

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