Fighting climate change just part of being a doctor, says Yellowknife physician in Saskatoon

Dr. Courtney Howard, an emergency room physician in Yellowknife, spends half her time fighting climate change, which she says is a public health crisis.

Doctor calls climate change a public health crisis that needs urgent treatment

Steam rises from the Neurath and Niederaussem coal-fired power plants in Bergheim, Germany, Europe's largest carbon dioxide source. ((SASCHA STEINBACH/EPA-EFE))

Dr. Courtney Howard, an emergency room physician in Yellowknife, spends half her time fighting climate change, which she says is a public health crisis.

As the planet warms, our risks of becoming sick increase, Howard said, due to things like Lyme disease spreading north and droughts displacing hundreds of thousands of people.

Dr. Courtney Howard (The Canadian Medical Association)

Canadians are feeling climate change first hand.

"There's wildfires in the west, the drought here and the severe cold this winter, tornadoes in Ottawa, heat-related deaths in Quebec," Howard told Leisha Grebinski on CBC's Saskatoon Morning.

"I feel like climate change is landing with Canadians in a new way in their bodies. It's not just a CO2 chemical on a graph anymore."

Firefighters battle the Camp Fire as it tears through Paradise, Calif., in November, 2018. (Noah Berger/Associated Press)

Howard is in Saskatoon this week for a conference at the University of Saskatchewan called Planetary Health.

She said she hopes other health professionals will follow suit and spend more time fighting climate change.

Howard said solutions to cut greenhouse gases also make people healthier.

"Phasing out coal will decrease air pollution, and that means decreasing asthma and decreased health-care costs," she said.

A move to a more plant-based diet, as recommended in the latest Canada Food Guide, can also reduce a person's carbon footprint.

"So working on climate change is really the best way to improve health of both my patients right now, for my own children, for all the patients we will see in later and later generations and for people around the world," Howard said.

A drier than usual summer meant a smaller harvest for some southern Alberta farmers in 2018. (Dave Gilson/CBC)

Howard said she gets better feedback from people when they speak of climate change in terms of their own health.

"I find that when people start viewing it as a health problem it totally changes the conversation," she said.

Earlier in her career Howard worked for Doctors Without Borders on a pediatric malnutrition project in the Horn of Africa in Djibouti. She said it changed her thinking.

"Living in Canada and working here as [an emergency doctor], I had never had a child die under my care as an attending position,`she said.

That changed in Africa where she saw quite a few children die.

She decided "to do everything I can when I get back to Canada to prevent further similar deaths."

Howard, who belongs to the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment, said Saskatchewan has a big role to play because of our vast farmland coupled with agricultural expertise.

"There is so much Saskatchewan can do to stabilize the world food supply as we move forward."

With files from CBC's Saskatoon Morning

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