Climate change toll on Canadians' health to cost hundreds of billions of dollars: report
Beyond its environmental threat, climate change is endangering public health in Canada in ways that will have significant human and financial costs, a new report says.
The report, which was released Wednesday by the Canadian Institute for Climate Choices (CICC), estimates that the impact of climate change on health in Canada will add up to hundreds of billions of dollars, while drastically increasing hospitalizations and premature deaths due to weather-related issues, based on their current numbers.
Ryan Ness, the CICC's director of adaptation, told CTVNews.ca that without immediate action, climate change will also leave Canada with a "public health crisis," the consequences of which will disproportionately be borne by those who are already grappling with an outsized share of health inequities.
- Sign up here to receive The Climate Barometer, delivering climate and environmental news to your inbox every week
One study in 2016 found that the gap in the risk of premature death in a poor Canadian woman and a wealthy Canadian woman had widened by 40 per cent over the preceding 25 years.
"This isn't a technical or environmental crisis. It's a crisis of equity, and making sure that everybody has a fair chance," Ness said via telephone on Tuesday.
The consequences of a warming world are expected to impact human health in many ways, from an increase in food-borne illnesses to longer and more severe allergy seasons. The CICC's report focuses on three specific threats: warmer temperatures, degraded air quality, and increased prevalence of Lyme disease.
On Lyme disease, scientists are already ringing alarm bells over an increasing number of cases, which they say are caused by warmer winters making it easier for disease-carrying ticks to survive in urban areas.
Health Canada reported 2,636 cases of Lyme disease in 2019, 11 times the number from 10 years earlier. The CICC report projects that number to rise to 8,500 cases per year by the middle of the century, with associated annual costs to the health-care system of $3 million.
While that figure is relatively small, the report calculates the overall impact of climate change on health to be much larger. It says direct costs to the health-care system will run into the billions with the economic loss reaching the tens of billions. Premature deaths, mental health impacts, and blows to Canadians' quality of life – increasing food insecurity in the North, for example – will drive up the price tag even further.
In the worst-case scenario, lost productivity alone is estimated to cost the Canadian economy nearly $15 billion per year by the end of the century, with the increase in extreme heat days during summertime causing a reduction in working hours equivalent to the loss of 62,000 full-time jobs. Industries in which the majority of the work is done outdoors or in hard-to-cool spaces will be the most heavily affected.
Under the best-case scenario, meanwhile, the report estimates that heat-related hospitalization rates will double by the year 2100.
Ian Culbert, who wrote the report's foreword and is the executive director of the Canadian Public Health Association, says the report shows that the federal government's push to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050 will also bring health benefits for Canadians.
That's important, he said, because while the public often prefers to push governments into action on issues it sees as more urgent than climate change, the calculus changes when it's linked to individual health.
"It's really part of that bigger picture of changing our societal expectations of governments, so that the necessary investments and policy changes can be made," Culbert told CTVNews.ca via telephone on Tuesday.
"We know from research we've had, when people start associating the health effects of climate change to climate change, then it takes on a new meaning, and a new importance."
The COVID-19 pandemic illustrates this, Culbert said, with Canadians attaching new value to public health professionals now that their work has a more significant impact on day-to-day life.
The report offers four recommendations to governments, all around the themes of explicitly considering the health impacts of climate change when making decisions and funding more research into the effects of climate change on Canadians' health.
Ness said that he would like to see governments address both the "symptoms" of climate change – the worse air quality, longer heat waves, et cetera – and the root causes that make it more difficult for some Canadians to achieve good health in any environment, such as income security and lack of housing.
Heat waves, for example, already have disproportionate health effects on the elderly, those who have pre-existing conditions and those who cannot afford air conditioning or proper ventilation. If heat waves increase in frequency, as is expected to happen, Ness said it will be those groups "bearing the brunt" even more in the future.
"Preparing for climate change does require thinking beyond just specific kinds of impacts, and not just building seawalls for rising sea levels or building those cooling centres for hot days," he said.
"It's about making sure people have those resources they need to be resilient, to take care of themselves and others in an increasingly unfriendly climate."