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Climate change a significant threat to public health, CMA members hear

James Orbinski, of MSF and Dignitas International, delivers a keynote address on the health consequences of climate change in Vancouver on Monday.


Climate change is the "greatest global health threat of the 21st century," so it is incumbent that physicians take a stand to protect their patients, one of the world's leading human-rights advocates says.

"Responding to climate change is not just a scientific or technological issue," James Orbinski, a founding member of both Médecins sans frontières (Doctors Without Borders) and Dignitas International, told the general council of the Canadian Medical Association in Vancouver on Monday.

"It's time for the CMA to step up and step out, to be genuinely courageous on climate change," he said.

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Cindy Forbes, president of the CMA, said the message was heard loudly and clearly by physicians.

"We heard clearly about the absolutely critical need for action to address the very real and growing effects of climate change," she said.

"As a nation and as a planet, we cannot ignore climate change."

Dr. Forbes said the CMA has a long-standing concern about the impact of climate change on health both globally and domestically but, given the seriousness of the issue, needs to do more.

She said a lot of work is already being done by Canadian physicians but the CMA "is committed to finding the best way to support efforts that are taking place from coast-to-coast-to-coast."

Dr. Orbinski presented delegates with a grim catalogue of the health impacts of climate change, including a rise in infectious disease, drought and rising water levels that cause mass displacement, and even violent conflict.

But, worst of all he said, "climate change is a threat that magnifies other threats."

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Dr. Orbinski cited the example of the Darfur region of Sudan, where tensions between farmers and herders over disappearing pasture and evaporating water holes have degenerated into violent clashes and civil war.

"You will do anything to feed your children, even if it means going to war," he said.

Darfur is often described as the world's first climate-change war, but there could be many more to come, Dr. Orbinski warned.

He noted that the world is in the midst of an unprecedented refugee crisis – with 60 million people worldwide displaced – and increasingly those mass movements are driven by drought and climate change.

For example, 29 million people are now on food assistance in southern Africa. "The No. 1 health issue there is no longer AIDS; it's drought."

Dr. Orbinski, who currently holds the research chair in global health at the Balsillie School of International Affairs in Waterloo, Ont., said that while climate change disproportionally affects developing countries, especially the poor and marginalized, even wealthy countries such as Canada are not immune from the devastation wrought by climate change.

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"The rate of increase in temperature in Canada is two times higher than the global average," he said, and that will have dramatic impacts, especially in the Far North and the country's coastal regions.

"There are real questions about the viability of Vancouver as a city due to rising sea levels in the coming decades," Dr. Orbinski said.

A study published in 2008 by the Canadian Medical Association estimated that 21,000 Canadians die prematurely each year due to air pollution. (Worldwide, there are eight million preventable deaths attributed to bad air.)

The rise of carbon dioxide emissions, caused largely by the burning of fossil fuels, is one of the principal drivers of climate change.

With the global population increasing by one billion people every 13 years, "we're going to see massive increases in CO2 emissions unless we take radical action," Dr. Orbinski said.

The Canadian Medical Association, which represents the country's 83,000 physicians, is holding its 149th annual general council meeting in Vancouver this week.

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