Canada must urgently invest in research into the health impacts of climate change

The federal budget allocated a lot of money to trying to tackle the causes of climate change, but it glaringly missed the opportunity to support research that would help address the impacts of climate change on human health.

Those impacts are already significant and worsening every day.

According to the World Health Organization, climate change will cause approximately 250,000 additional deaths from malnutrition and heat stress every year between 2030 and 2050. Meanwhile, United Nations Secretary General António Guterres has called a recent report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change an “atlas to human suffering” because of its prediction of the accelerating impact of climate change on people.

While the impacts on health will fall heaviest on low-income countries, Canada must also be prepared for the effects on our population and health-care systems. Some of the health vulnerabilities related to climate change in Canada will stem from extreme weather, heat stress, reduced air and water quality, and food insecurity.

Last summer, nearly 600 Canadians died in British Columbia during an extreme heat event. Then wildfires decimated entire communities and the resulting smoke made it dangerous for some people to leave their homes. Chronic lung diseases are the fourth leading cause of death in Canada, and environmental changes and the related increased incidence of wildfires places people with these diseases at elevated risk. Even people without lung diseases are negatively impacted.

In Canada’s Arctic, the loss of permafrost is making homes unhabitable. This loss of housing supply will compound another challenge — the persistence of tuberculosis in northern communities as people increasingly move to close-quarter, congregate living shelters.

Climate change will also increase the incidence of noncommunicable diseases such as diabetes and cardiovascular diseases, because it will exacerbate food insecurity and poor nutrition and diet as a result of certain foods — including fresh produce — becoming more scarce and harder to access in regions like Canada’s North.

As air and water quality diminish due to an increase of pollutants, the brain health of children is being adversely affected. Such increases in pollution could be linked to the increase of pediatric stroke we have recently experienced in Canada.

How do we protect our most vulnerable as extreme heat events continue? What we can we do to protect and promote lung and brain health as air quality continues to deteriorate? How can we slow the increase of nutrition-related noncommunicable diseases if food insecurity increases?

Each of the challenges that stem directly from climate change have solutions based in scientific discovery and innovation. That’s why a pressing and necessary solution is for Canada to invest more in research.

Canada’s research ecosystem is chronically underfunded. The first step the federal government should take is to increase funding to our research councils as recommended in the Fundamental Science Review.

Because the challenges created by climate change are crosscutting and intersectional, solutions must also be interdisciplinary. Canada needs more funding directed not just at health, but also at related fields in the natural and social sciences.

We must also remedy the more specific challenge of a lack of funding for early-career researchers — our next generation of bold thinkers. Early-career researchers are often those driving the most innovative, cutting-edge scientific discoveries with the prospect of making significant impact on sustaining and improving health.

The first five years of a young academic scientist’s career are pivotal. Failure to provide effective support at this stage means that either their research will not advance as far or as fast as it could or that other countries offering more lucrative researchers’ packages will draw our top talent away.

Canada has no permanent health research funding streams that exclusively target those early in their careers. Early-career researchers — who often have young families and little to no staff — are forced to compete for funding dollars with established researchers, who have teams working alongside them. This is no way to approach the greatest challenge of our time.

We need to attack climate change from every conceivable angle. Two significant steps the federal government needs to take today are increasing overall funding to Canada’s research ecosystem and creating targeted funding for our most creative, early-career researchers in health and biomedical sciences. The recent federal budget was a missed opportunity on both fronts.

The longer we wait to invest in research, the longer we imperil our planet. Not just for those here today, but for the generations that will come after us.

Nomazulu Dlamini, Jeremy Hirota, Gareth Lim and Kate Weinberger are early-career researchers and former Banting Research Foundation awardees.

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