Courtney Howard on doctors' climate change letter to Trudeau

This week in Paris, Yellowknife physician Courtney Howard hand-delivered to Canada's environment minister a letter calling on the government to take action on climate change to protect the health of Canadians. CBC spoke with Howard about climate change and health.

'Health ... can provide a unifying key to unlock some of the disagreements and get people on the same page'

Courtney Howard, right, presents a letter on behalf of more than 150 Canadian doctors and medical students to Catherine McKenna, Canada's minister of Environment and Climate Change at the COP 21 conference in Paris. (Courtney Howard/Twitter)

A Yellowknife physician hand-delivered to Canada's environment minister a letter calling on the government to take action on climate change to protect the health of Canadians.

Dr. Courtney Howard is among the more than 150 Canadian doctors and medical students who wrote the open letter to Canada's prime minister. They're calling on Justin Trudeau to make health part of the discussion at the COP 21 climate change conference in Paris and make sure health is integrated in all national planning involving climate mitigation and adaptation.

CBC News spoke with Howard while she was in Paris this week. This interview has been edited and condensed.

Q. What is this letter calling on the government and leaders to do?

We are wanting the Canadian government to make sure that they incorporate thoughts of health into all of their climates policies both in Paris and when they go home, because the [World Health Organization] has said that climate change is the biggest threat to health of the 21st century. It's also said that this agreement may be the most important health agreement of our time, which is quite the statement. Health is really central to this and can provide a unifying key to unlock some of the disagreements and get people on the same page. We wanted to make sure the Canadian government was really well aware of that and knew that their medical community was on board.

Q. Can you give me an example of how you would hope that health would be written into the climate agreement reached in Paris?

There's different ways of reducing emissions and some of them also have immediate health benefits and so that's a real thing we'd like people to prioritize. Things like phasing out coal-fired power plants are really good bang for the buck from a decreasing emissions and decreasing air pollution standpoint because the WHO has said that air pollution is associated with one out of every eight deaths worldwide and coal-fired power plants produce a lot of air pollution. So when we look at how are we going to reduce our emissions and where are we going to exert our energy, if we start with those types of thing where we decrease emissions and also decrease asthmatic exacerbations and respiratory deaths as well as decreasing some of the health care costs associated with treating those, it can make the cost of decreasing emissions balance out more quickly.

Q. How is the letter and your recommendations being received by government?

I was able to present it to [Minister of Environment and Climate Change] Catherine McKenna in person. She was really receptive to that. The liberal government seems really motivated on this file. She said in her address to the Canadians who were there to meet her that she was counting on Canadians to help her and her government enact their plan and meet the target. I think it's well received by the decision makers.

Q. Do you have a sense that these concerns are making it to the negotiation table?

I'm here mostly to co-ordinate with the Global Climate and Health Alliance and they have very strong connections to the World Health Organization and both of those groups are working hard inside COP to get the text inserted. We've definitely got our fingers crossed. There's an unprecedented number of medical people here representing thousands of hospitals and medical personnel worldwide. I don't know if it will end up where we want it to be but it will be a lot stronger than it has been in the past.

Q. What kinds of conversations are you having?

It's definitely been very interesting to get a sense of where everybody's at. I've been mostly hanging out with the medical people as well as spending a fair bit of time at the aboriginal pavilion. They've had these incredible presentations, some of them science-based where indigenous people around the world have partnered with scientists to really log what's happening.

Q. Are there tools you might bring back that would apply to territorial policy?

I've been able to connect with [Dene National Chief] Bill Erasmus and [Dene Nation Elder's Council chair] Francois Paulette quite a few times while I've been here so I think I might be in the unique position of being a physician here with members of our patient population, which is just really cool. We're hopefully going to have an interview together with the Global Climate and Health Alliance Saturday just to talk about some of the issues around climate change and health and aboriginal populations in the North.

Something that I've really taken away has been the importance of marrying the traditional knowledge to the scientific studies. There's massive value in the aboriginal traditional knowledge itself because it connotes some of the quantitative stuff and it's also more of a value-driven approach as well as a qualitative approach that's tough to capture in a scientific study and there were some presentations there that were trying to do both. It made me feel really good about the study we're doing into the wildfires that we had in 2014 because our project is trying to capture both how many asthma exacerbations we had and also through video interviews, including with aboriginal people and our aboriginal communities, what it meant to their lives in terms of ability to go out on the land and pick berries and fish and that kind of thing. It's given me a sense that we're on the right track and we should continue to do more of that.

And in terms of power generation, the Acting on Climate Change: Solutions from Canadian Scholars project says that in Canada it's possible to decrease emissions by 80 per cent by mid-century through moving to 100 per cent renewable energy, so how can we do that in the North? How can we combine solar technology with different storage possibilities?

It's given me the sense that that's where the world is moving because it's hard in Canada sometimes to get that feeling. We've been out of the flow for a while. It's been good to get a sense of the momentum that the world is feeling right now.