What’s the carbon footprint of a medical test?

How Canadian physicians can prepare for the impact of the climate crisis on health care

What’s the carbon footprint of a medical test?

The greatest threat to health across the globe is the climate crisis.

This is the position taken by the World Health Organization (WHO) and Canada is, of course, not spared of this fact. The effects of the crisis include damage to the physical and mental health of millions of Canadian patients. This can stem from the spread of Lyme disease, uptick in heat-related deaths after prolonged heat waves, extended pollen season triggering asthma complications, lung damage from wildfires, and psychological harm from flooding and increasing climate anxiety, among other things.

How the climate crisis disproportionately impacts patients in marginalized communities

The health impacts of the climate crisis are also disproportionately felt by marginalized communities.

The Varsity spoke to Dr. Samantha Green, a board member of the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment (CAPE), an assistant professor at the Dalla Lana School of Public Health, and a family physician who works with marginalized communities downtown.

People living in poverty, racialized individuals, and Indigenous peoples are most affected, noted Green. Their vulnerability is a product of historical social conditions, such as economic inequality, racism, colonialism, and systematic oppression.

She explained, “It’s all about whether you have access to resources to, for example, repair your home when it gets flooded or to access foods when there is increasing food insecurity.”

One example from her own practice is that “with heat waves, especially with people living in poverty, it can be hard to cope. You can’t afford an air conditioner… and if you’re socially isolated, or if there’s mobility issues and you can’t make it to an air conditioned environment, then it’s really hard.”

The impact of the climate crisis on the health care system

The climate crisis, however, not only impacts people, but also impacts health care institutions by damaging systems and limiting access to critical resources.

The Varsity spoke to George Kitching, a medical student at Western University, who explained it further.

“After the hurricane in Puerto Rico, there was a shortage in normal saline because that was the major production site… for Canada,” he said. Kitching explained that it’s difficult to ensure that the health care system is robust against impacts due to the climate crisis, both in Canada and around the world.

The intersection of the climate crisis and medical education

Despite the climate crisis being clearly relevant for medical education, “medical schools have not adequately addressed the urgent need for training,” according to a University of Toronto-affiliated article in The Lancet, co-authored by Kitching.

The Canadian Federation of Medical Students created a task force called HEART — standing for the Health and Environment Adaptive Response Task Force — in 2016 in order to help medical students to raise awareness around the issue of environmental impacts on health.

In response to the crisis, as reporting by Kitching and his co-authors, HEART has developed a set of core curricular competencies to be included in curriculum of medical schools across Canada to integrate planetary health education in the undergraduate medical programs.

The task force also conducted a national survey of medical schools, identifying strengths and areas for improvement for planetary health teaching in undergraduate medical programs. It’s the first evaluation of its kind in Canada, and a report of its findings and recommendations was recently published.

Kitching, who is also a member of HEART, explained that the task force “sent it out to deans at most schools. The ask was to meet with students at each school to chart a path forward to address some of the critiques and some of the suggestions that we had in the report… The next step for HEART as a task force is to support local students at each to use the report to push their faculty and deans to incorporate further training.”

However, one of the biggest pushbacks they face is that the medical curriculum is already packed, and to add one thing, another thing must be taken out in return, according to the co-authors.

To tackle this, the report recommends integrating planetary health teaching into existing lectures, for example, by including air pollution with respiratory health teaching. The report also recommends case studies to help focus on the disproportionate impact to marginalized communities.

Thinking about health care and the climate crisis

The health care industry both affects, and is affected by, the climate crisis.

A 2018 study concluded that the health care sector in Canada was responsible for 4.6 per cent of the nation’s carbon dioxide equivalents, which is a measure of environmental impact, and estimated that it resulted in 23,000 years of life lost due to illness, disability, or premature death.

The study advocated for health care professionals to adopt more sustainable practices. For example, the National Health Service Centre in the United Kingdom calculates carbon footprints of various health care activities like staff transport and waste disposal.

Health care professionals should also be trained to think more sustainably without compromising patient care, according to the report.

“We need to be learning not only about the efficacy of medications we prescribe [and] also their cost, [but] also their climate costs and environmental costs,” said Green.

The destructive impact of the climate crisis on children’s health

Our youngest are more susceptible to disasters, linked diseases, say U of T researchers

The destructive impact of the climate crisis on children’s health

The climate crisis threatens our existence in many different ways, and researchers have argued that children are most vulnerable to its destructive effects. Worldwide, children are estimated to bear 88 per cent of the burden of the diseases that have been linked to the climate crisis, and those in low-income families are affected the most, according to a University of Toronto-affiliated article published in Pediatrics.

The mechanisms for impact on children

The effects of the climate crisis on children’s health can be extremely serious. For example, early exposure to air pollution can lead to neurodevelopmental abnormalities and respiratory diseases. This is worsened by the fact that children breathe more air per kilogram of body weight than adults, and consequently ingest higher doses of pollutants.

During heat waves, which are becoming increasingly common, children are especially prone to heat exhaustion and heat strokes, as they don’t sweat as much as adults, and are less likely to recognize the signs of heat exhaustion. Infants have also been found to be much more vulnerable to heat-related deaths due to their immature thermoregulatory systems.

Moreover, experiencing environmental natural disasters related to the climate crisis, such as floods and forest fires, can be traumatic for children. This stress can take a serious toll on their mental and physical health, leading to conditions such as heart disease and a higher risk of depression. Floods have also been linked to outbreaks of infectious diarrheal diseases, and extreme weather can hinder access to health care.

The long-term effects of these changes on children

In a 2019 editorial in Archives of Disease in Childhood, Dr. Zulfiqar Ahmed Bhutta, the director of research at the Centre for Global Child Health at the Hospital for Sick Children; Dr. Ashley Aimone, a past fellow of the Centre for Global Child Health; and Dr. Saeed Akhtar, the director of the Institute of Food Science & Nutrition at the Bahauddin Zakariya University in Pakistan, explored what pediatricians can do to lessen the adverse impact that the climate crisis can have on children.

In an interview with The Varsity, Bhutta explained that one of the lesser-discussed consequences of the climate crisis that especially harms children is conflict for natural resources. This can be seen in a drought in Syria that escalated the ongoing war. Similarly, water sources are frequent targets in the ongoing conflict in Yemen.

Bhutta also noted that the impact of the climate crisis on children’s health is much more pronounced because some effects can actually be lifelong.

“We know now that very early exposure to air pollution in children not only can lead to a propensity to develop respiratory illnesses like asthma or even [a] higher risk of developing pneumonia,” he said, “but it could also impact long-term outcomes in terms of the risk of chronic obstructive respiratory diseases and things that can influence their health well into adult life.”

How pediatricians can prepare for the climate crisis

According to Bhutta, there are three main ways in which pediatricians can help alleviate the impact of the climate crisis on children’s health. The first is by modelling environmentally conscious behaviours and being mindful of their consumption. The second is to advocate for more research into the climate crisis’ effects on children’s health, and the third is to educate the public and work with governments to implement policies that will combat the climate crisis — “translating research to practice,” as worded in the editorial.

Bhutta said that regarding Canadian policy specifically, the implementation of public health policies to reduce the health effects of the climate crisis ultimately depend on the policies that impact climate change directly.

Bhutta also noted that the actions we can take in Canada are applicable to the rest of the world — such as taking into consideration the potential environmental impacts of “everything that we do” in terms of the use of public land. Bhutta added that should Canada decide to “walk the talk,” we could set an example for other countries to follow.

Plastic, paper, or tote — your choice could save or destroy the planet!

Who is really at fault for our increasing carbon footprint — the consumer or the market?

Plastic, paper, or tote — your choice could save or destroy the planet!

The case for personal responsibility in the face of the climate crisis has gained a significant amount of mainstream attention over the last few years. However, it is the concept of eco-conscious consumerism, as opposed to scientific solutions to the crisis, that plays into personal consumer guilt. And this leaves many of us feeling responsible for the demise of our planet, despite our attempts to change our habits for the better.

This sense of guilt that has finally gotten the best of us mundane consumers has, subsequently, made the word ‘sustainability’ a part of everyone’s vocabulary. It has manifested itself into a buzzword — which now defines a whole new subset of the market that targets the “smart consumer” who seeks an improved environment. But with this new wave of sustainability, what really becomes of the purchasing habits of people, and how does capitalism play into this seemingly anti-capitalist fad?

Eco-consciousness has emerged as something that can be reached through purchasing alone. Suggesting that by buying the right coffee cup, or ethically sourced cocoa, or swapping a plastic carrier bag for a tote bag, a consumer is actually able to ethically participate in the capitalist system that has gotten us into the crisis in the first place. There is an obvious contradiction within the whole sustainability sector of the market; it reveals that we are all succumbing to the illusion of the collective good because there is actually a limitation on taking part in active sustainability.

From sleek metal straws to reusable cutlery sets, these products aim to replace their easily disposable counterparts and play into the popularized idea of environmental sustainability and the need for individual environmental consciousness. Though the use of such products does promote a lifestyle that focuses on mindful consumption, the harmful culture of consumption remains, because companies and brands have started to capitalize on the concept of mindful living.

Although we do have a certain amount of personal accountability for the crisis, solutions that depend on individual contributions to eventually lead to massive collective effort cannot be the salvation of humanity’s frighteningly growing carbon footprint.

We would like to believe that using a KeepCup when we stop at Starbucks before class, or a Baggu when we go to Shoppers Drug Mart will not only make us feel good as conscious consumers, but that it will also contribute to the ultimate end of the plastic bag and coffee cup industry. Frankly, a single reusable cup or bag will not end deforestation or save the turtles, but small ripples do at times turn into big waves of change. This dilemma is exactly what makes sustainability and ethical consumerism a difficult practice to navigate when we are constantly being sold the solution from the creators of the problem. 

Simply put, consumerism functions on the idea that we, the consumers, will always be needing, wanting, and purchasing new things. Therefore, the market plays into this want and will inevitably provide us with the things that we need, but it continues to reinforce the misleading notion that we are in control of our choices as consumers.

This interesting cycle of constant need for things plays more perfectly into the issue of sustainability than one would expect, and it only takes one of many examples to demonstrate this. A Google search of the term “zero-waste” pulls up at least a link or two to online stores and retail outlets that market for essentials that will supposedly help solve our ever-growing over-consumption.

In the end, choosing to compromise convenience for the sake of a less waste-infested Earth or a clearer conscience is the least that can be done when the biggest contributors — read: manufacturing-dependent companies — choose not to. A balanced and sustainable solution to the cycle of seemingly futile efforts will always require the compromise of comfort.

How the ‘fractal carbon trap’ calls for change in policymaking around the climate crisis

U of T political science professors explain how fossil-fuel reliance perpetuates itself

How the ‘fractal carbon trap’ calls for change in policymaking around the climate crisis

What is the fractal carbon trap, and how can the concept guide policy in reducing reliance on fossil fuels? Dr. Steven Bernstein and Matthew Hoffmann, professors at U of T’s Department of Political Science, published a paper in Nature Climate Change on how their concept can guide decarbonization.

The fractal carbon trap is a two-part metaphor which explains the difficulties of introducing sustainable technologies into society. The term ‘fractal’ refers to the complex nature of the carbon system. The ‘trap’ is created by the fractal nature of the system. When it comes to changing the system, there is a threshold point in the reduction of fossil-fuel use that must be crossed. Below that threshold point, any beneficial changes will be swallowed by the re-assertive forces of the system — this is the trap. However, above that threshold point, beneficial changes will be amplified by the systemic forces.

A local example of the fractal carbon trap at work is the Ontario government’s cancellation of the electric vehicle rebate program. Incentivizing the use of electric vehicles was a way of interrupting the system, but the political ideologies and economic concerns of those in power pushed back against earlier progress.

This paper is an introduction to their much larger project on analyzing climate politics and decarbonization, which is the reduction of fossil-fuel dependence. Bernstein and Hoffmann explained to The Varsity what the trap is and what needs to be done in order to change the future of climate politics.

Why there is no singular, effective decarbonization policy

The concept of the trap helps to address limitations on the road to decarbonization — that is, the process of minimizing the role of fossil energy in the fractal. When it comes to big-picture climate politics — those on an international scale — Bernstein argued that the problem lies not with the trap itself, but rather with the framework in which the climate crisis is often thought of.

Much like a mathematical fractal, the carbon fractal has many levels and layers which can be exploited to further decarbonization. However, as long as policymakers and governments are hung up on collective problem-solving, climate action will continue to be bogged down. Leveraging the multilevel nature of the fractal metaphor allows for many possible positive interventions to push climate action over the threshold.

With all this in mind, it’s only natural to wonder what a good policy would look like. There is no singular, agreed-upon policy plan for the climate crisis and, upon reading this paper, it becomes evident that the expectation of such is unrealistic.

Hoffmann argued that “the key to success is thinking about the interdependencies across the domestic and global, between local and national, and thinking about how you can generate or catalyze broad transformation.”

“The reciprocity ideas, the worrying about enforcement and monitoring is a holdover from the older way of thinking about the way climate politics works as a global collective problem.” Understanding how to successfully protect and implement individual policies is equally as important as setting goals for overarching policy plans.

One of the main things that Hoffman and Bernstein’s project will attempt to answer is the question of whether or not the threshold point for the fractal carbon system is too high —  that is, if it’s even possible to reach the point of positive reinforcement. In terms of this concern, both Bernstein and Hoffmann are generally optimistic about the progress being made to surpass that threshold point as more climate policies, such as  the carbon tax, become more common.

As more people like Bernstein and Hoffmann work at the problem, the tides may be able to shift, and the way the climate crisis is thought of may transform to help break free of the trap.

“The time we have left is very short”: systems and people need to combat climate crisis, says professor

Professor Danny Harvey on individual action at Science for Peace event

“The time we have left is very short”: systems and people need to combat climate crisis, says professor

Though the bulk of the damaging effects of the climate crisis are decades away, it is already “an emergency,” said Dr. Danny Harvey, a professor of geography at the University of Toronto, in a keynote speech.

“The time we have left is very short,” he continued, “compared to the time required to take the actions needed to avert otherwise inevitable catastrophic consequences.”

Harvey was speaking at a forum held by Science for Peace on January 14. The event was free and open to the public, attracting almost 200 attendees to Innis Town Hall.

What society needs to stabilize carbon dioxide concentrations

Discussing solutions to the crisis, Harvey said, “We have to change the entire energy system. And not just that, we have to change social norms and values and the way people think, and that’s perhaps even harder… In fact, in many respects, it’s already too late.”

Displaying graphs of industrial carbon dioxide emissions in the past decades, Harvey pointed out that despite discussions of regulations and solutions, emission levels have maintained a steep and steady increase.

Harvey spoke about the need to stabilize carbon dioxide concentrations and, ultimately, the climate. He discussed the need to decrease net emissions to zero in order to keep warming to below two degrees. According to the International Panel on Climate Change, this must occur by 2050. While a zero fossil fuel emission target will likely not be reached for a long time, negative emissions, such as reforestation, building up soil carbon, or directing capture and sequestration of carbon dioxide can be used to compensate for emissions.

Reduced costs and advancements in wind and solar energy will also help the transition from fossil fuels to clean energy. According to Harvey, major reforms of the electricity system are required to completely adopt clean energy. From an engineering standpoint, the required technology is well on its way, and the changes may be attainable within 30 or 40 years.

Harvey also pointed out the need to change our current economy and industrial production process, but noted that this will be a complicated process that will also require behavioural shifts away from current mindsets of consumption and unlimited growth.

The importance of individual action

Whereas issues of energy and the economy largely involve systemic changes, individual action is also crucial, according to Harvey.

Diets, in particular, account for a significant fraction of global emissions, he explained. A 2018 research study has shown that meat consumption is disproportionately responsible for these emissions, compared to other sources of food.

Sustainable solutions such as clean energy still require resources — thus, our individual decisions to reduce consumption, purchase products to last in the long term, and use resources efficiently, should work in conjunction with systemic changes, and further reduce our environmental impact.

Fighting climate crisis denial in class

Dr. Dan Weaver on spending the Global Climate Strike answering questions in the classroom

Fighting climate crisis denial in class

Thousands of climate activists, including University of Toronto students, skipped their lectures to rally at Queen’s Park during the Global Climate Strike on September 27, demanding government action against the climate crisis.

But what happened to the U of T students who went to their lectures and classes?

Dr. Dan Weaver, an assistant professor at the Department of Physical & Environmental Sciences at UTSC, recalled teaching a first-year class that day in a Twitter thread in December.

For the students who attended, he turned his lecture into a question-and-answer period to address climate crisis denial.

Climate crisis denial refers to being doubtful of the overwhelming scientific consensus and implications of the climate crisis. A recent survey by The Angus Reid Institute found that 10 per cent of Canadians believe that the climate crisis is simply a theory, and 20 per cent think that the crisis is a natural occurrence, devoid of human contributions.

Events preceding Weaver’s lecture

Weaver and colleagues signed an open letter to U of T to have class officially cancelled on September 27 in order to allow for students to attend the climate strike. Despite this request being denied, professors were instructed to not penalize students of their absence.

Weaver took this opportunity to initiate a class discussion on climate crisis denial, since he inferred that in this sample of  students, there would be climate crisis deniers present.

Speaking with The Varsity, Weaver recalled: “It was a very quiet class to begin with, very unsure whether they can ask, what they can ask, [and] what would my reaction be.” Weaver did not criticize any students for their views, but rather welcomed their questions and answered their inquiries with research-based evidence.

He continued by explaining that, as an instructor in an educational role, “What I can contribute from the classroom is an opportunity to engage with the science of the issue, and in particular with an audience that hasn’t had the opportunity most likely to talk to someone in the field directly.”

Engaging students and encouraging them to ask questions

Weaver evaluated the impact of his efforts by the frequency and type of questions he received over the course of the semester. “Because when someone continues to come back and ask follow-up questions, they are now intellectually engaged.”

From his viewpoint, “I already won: they are thinking critically.”

“Some people who are very passionate about this or other issues are much too quick to put down people of the ‘wrong opinion,’” noted Weaver, “and tell them to believe [and] get on board. That is the wrong approach.”

“There is a lot to be gained by giving people the opportunity to just ask questions in an honest and sincere way, and I think that is critical and often missing.”

Breaking down three common questions asked by climate crisis deniers

One of the main reasons for climate crisis denial is that some deniers don’t trust the consensus “that [the] climate is changing, and we are the cause, because of [information from] computer models,” Weaver explained.

Climate modelling utilizes mathematical computer programming to predict, to its best ability, natural and human impacts on the progression of climate change based on atmospheric, land, ocean, and sea level measurements.

Weaver continued, “We have teams… across at least a dozen countries doing it independently and coming to the same results… reproducing past climates and making predictions about where things are going.”

Another common reason promoting climate crisis denial is that “the narrative that climate change is entirely controlled by the output of the sun.” This view is promoted by the Canadian non-governmental organization Friends of Science Society — which Weaver said is one of “the world leaders in climate skepticism.”

Weaver countered their belief that, as he described it “The sun is a primary driver of [the changing] climate.” Weaver explained, “[The sun] is not the only one that controls it; it is a lot more complicated than that — that narrative sells a very simple answer to a very complicated question.”

Weaver continued, “If we had no atmosphere, the sun would still warm the planet, but the overall average temperature of the planet would be below freezing… The atmosphere is very important for moderating climate.”

In an email to The Varsity, the Friends of Science Society falsely disputed Weaver’s characterization of the organization. “Friends of Science Society sees the sun as the main direct and indirect driver of climate change, not carbon dioxide from human industry,” it wrote. “Friends of Science does acknowledge that humans contribute nominally to climate change, and CO2 emissions have a nominal role in that.”

The society’s position that humans have a small impact on the climate crisis contradicts the conclusions of the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. According to the panel’s Fifth Assessment Report, it is “categorical in its conclusion: climate change is real and human activities are the main cause.”

A related common question from climate crisis deniers is, “Are we really having an impact, or is it all natural variability?” Addressing this, Weaver noted that “the climate naturally has variability and trends associated with it,” and these trends have been tracked, such as the measurements of the output of the sun during its 11-year solar cycle.

Weaver explained, “If you have an 11-year cycle and you think that climate is being driven entirely by the sun… logically then you expect to see this 11-year cycle in the climate going up and down, tracking with the sun.”

“And [then] we look at the data — is that actually what is happening in the climate? No, it’s not — there has to be more going on.”

Resources for understanding research on the changing climate

Weaver suggested the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s Global Climate Change website as a resource to learn about the physical implications of the climate crisis. It provides information about the current state of the planet, including current measurements of carbon dioxide, global temperature, ice sheet melting, and sea levels.

Additionally, Weaver recommend looking at  the Climate Lab Book, a blog maintained by climate scientists featuring data visualizations of weather and climate patterns.

For discussions regarding climate crisis denial led by credible climate scientists, consider the blog RealClimate. If you prefer alternatives to blog platforms, Dr. Katherine Hayhoe, an atmospheric scientist, engages with the public on Twitter and YouTube to discuss climate crisis denial.

“The best resource if you are a U of T student is probably to go talk to a faculty member involved,” noted Weaver. “You have that privilege that most people don’t have.”

Letter to the Editor: On the misleading definition of greenwashing

Re: “The publicity stunt of greenwashing the climate crisis”

Letter to the Editor: On the misleading definition of greenwashing

The article titled “The publicity stunt of greenwashing the climate crisis” published on November 24 in the Arts & Culture section gives a misleading definition of greenwashing. The author defines greenwashing as “people who jump on the climate crisis bandwagon, hoping to benefit from the environmental movement without any intention of protecting the environment.” 

The correct definition of greenwashing refers to when a company markets itself, or a particular product, as being ‘eco-friendly’ or ‘green,’ when in reality, it is not. Greenwashing is a tactic used by corporations to specifically target environmentally-conscious consumers. 

This definition of greenwashing is supported by several outlets including Scientific American, Investopedia, The Guardian, and also peer-reviewed articles in both scientific journals, and business ethics journals. The author’s mistake lies in how they placed their definition in the context of the consumer instead of the corporation. 

Greenwashing was first coined by American environmentalist Jay Westerveld in the 1980s in response to hotels that claimed they were environmentally friendly because they gave guests the option to not have their towels washed every day. 

Westerveld claimed that this tricked guests into thinking the hotel was environmentally conscious when it was just saving money. The irony is that it was still polluting in other ways — for example with the detergent it used to wash the towels. 

Another example of greenwashing is the marketing of compostable takeout containers over traditional plastic ones: this ‘compostable’ material is only compostable if the municipality has the industrial infrastructure to do so. Toronto does not. Every compostable container you’ve used in Toronto goes straight in the trash. Restaurants may tout the use of these containers as being better than the actually recyclable plastic alternative, tricking consumers into thinking they are making an eco-conscious choice by eating at that restaurant.

Later in the article, the author re-defines greenwashing as “when the pigment of our green hands washes off in the privacy of our own economic, social, and political decisions.” Again, this is misleading. Greenwashing is performed by corporations, not consumers. Consumers do not benefit by greenwashing — they are harmed by it. 

There are also additional issues with the article unrelated to incorrect definitions. Namely, referring to the climate crisis in the same manner as a sports team — as the author does when they refer to the “climate crisis bandwagon” — downplays the severity of the issue, and may even deter others from participating in climate crisis mitigation by making them feel unwelcome if they are newcomers to the movement. The climate crisis is not, and should never be, an exclusive movement. 

Clara Thaysen is a second-year Ecology & Evolutionary Biology graduate student. 

Disclosure: Thaysen previously served as The Varsity’s Volume 138 Associate Science Editor.

U of T scientists sign open letter declaring climate emergency

Letter outlines where action can be taken, while four researchers share perspectives with The Varsity

U of T scientists sign open letter declaring climate emergency

Over 11,000 scientists from 153 countries signed a letter entitled “World Scientists’ Warning of a Climate Emergency,” which was published in the BioScience journal in November. Twenty-one of the signatories are faculty or graduate students at the University of Toronto.

The authors believe that public discourse on the climate crisis has been narrowly focused on global average surface temperature. They argue that this scope fails to fully capture how humans affect the planet, and communicate the dangers of the climate crisis.

Communicating the impact of the climate crisis

The authors note that a better solution for analysts would be to explore a wide range of indicators of the impact of human activity on the climate crisis.

They substantiated the letter with a series of graphs which illustrate the change of various indicators over the past 40 years, working with high-quality data collected by climate scientists.

Troubling trends that the graphs reveal include long-term increases in human and livestock populations, meat consumption, global loss of tree coverage, fossil fuel consumption, heightened airfare, and carbon dioxide emissions.

However, the authors note promising changes as well, such as decreases in global birth rates, the long-term slowdown of the rate of forest loss in the Amazon, rising infrastructure for solar and wind power, institutional fossil fuel divestment, and the prevalence of carbon pricing to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Yet the authors warn that these changes may not last — for example, fertility rates have been stabilizing, the rate of deforestation in the Amazon has risen once more, and while consumption of solar and wind energy has increased 373 per cent per decade, it was still 28 times smaller than fossil fuel consumption in 2018.

Despite 40 years of climate negotiations, the authors believe that business has continued as usual, and that the world at large is still failing to recognize the urgency of the climate crisis. They warn that we have failed to meaningfully change the ways we live, and that we are dangerously close to losing the ability to secure a sustainable future.

Six key areas where action can be taken

The authors outlined six key areas where action must be taken: energy, short-lived pollutants, nature, food, the economy, and population. They emphasized that fossil fuels must be replaced with low-carbon renewables and other clean energy sources, and that the emissions of short-lived pollutants such as methane and soot must be reduced.

They also stressed the importance of restoring Earth’s ecosystems. “Marine and terrestrial plants, animals, and microorganisms play significant roles in carbon and nutrient cycling and storage,” the authors noted.

Restoring ecosystems alone could bring the world to a third of the Paris Agreement’s emissions reduction target by 2030.

The authors also advise the elimination of animal consumption, especially ruminant animals like cattle and sheep; the curtailing of excessive extraction of Earth’s resources; and equitable solutions to population growth, such as family planning and widened access to girls’ education.

This is only a selection of the many recommendations in the “World Scientists’ Warning” — their breadth reflects the magnitude of the climate crisis. Fittingly, scientists from a wide variety of fields are represented among the signatories.

To learn more about the scientists’ perspectives, The Varsity reached out to four of U of T’s 21 signatories from a diverse range of academic disciplines.

How the climate crisis impacts public health

Dr. David Jenkins is a professor at U of T’s Faculty of Medicine who is well-known for developing the glycemic index — a system which explains how carbohydrates affect blood sugar levels.

Jenkins believes that it is important to connect the climate crisis to all the factors that it impacts, with health being one of them.

He also discussed the spread of diseases that are usually found in warmer climates to parts of the world that used to be colder due to the climate crisis.

Jenkins therefore believes that changing the impact of humans on the climate is of the utmost urgency. “The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change — two years ago — only gave us 12 years to turn the crisis around,” he said. “The world, in general, needs a wake-up call.”

This warning builds on all the other climate warnings that the world has received, Jenkins noted. The first was issued in 1798 by Reverend Thomas Malthus.

As a nutritionist, Jenkins believes that one way in which humans can reduce their impact on the climate crisis is by adopting plant-based diets — something which can also be incredibly healthy if planned well. For example, tofu and seitan are relatively inexpensive and healthy food sources.

However, he stressed that with plant-based diets, careful planning is important in order to meet nutritional requirements.

The urgency of addressing the crisis

The Varsity also reached out to Dr. Miriam Diamond, a professor at the Department of Earth Sciences who is cross-appointed to the Dalla Lana School of Public Health, the School of the Environment, and the Department of Chemical Engineering and Applied Chemistry.

Diamond highlighted that the climate crisis “is not just an issue… It is a crisis and needs to be treated as such.”

Natural phenomena such as the fires in Australia, the severe flooding in the Ottawa Valley, and the dramatic fires in western Canada and Ontario over the past two years all have a climate component, according to Diamond.

Diamond also brought up the recent federal election, noting that the climate crisis was not as high of a priority as affordability. “Our society is delicately positioned to function in [the] stable climate that we’ve known for the past several hundred years,” she said.

“[We do] not have the resources to cope with… the current and growing number of disasters,” she continued. “What’s coming further down are questions of food availability.”

“If we think we are worried about [it] right now… it’s about to get a whole lot worse.”

On activism and the paper’s research

Dr. Steve Easterbrook, Director of the School of the Environment, and a professor at the Department of Computer Science, hopes the letter will give the media and the public an overview of the current knowledge that we have about climate change.

“One of the things that paper does very nicely is it shows how everything is interconnected,” he noted.

In his view, the letter is also in defence of student climate activists, who are often dismissed in the media for their youth. “Articles like this, I think, emphasize that the students conducting this process, understand the science. They’ve got it right.”

He also underscored the value of dialogue about how to effectively fight the climate crisis. His belief is that scientists in disciplines not typically viewed as relevant to climate — including his own area of computer science — should consider how they could apply their skills to this issue.

“If you take this notion that we’re in a climate emergency,” he said, “I think of it as an ‘all-hands-on-deck’ type of emergency.”

Easterbrook rejected the notion that individuals reducing their personal carbon footprints is the most effective way to curb changes in climate. Instead, he urged people to consider: “What can you do that other people can’t do?”

A perspective from the Department of Political Science

Dr. Richard Sandbrook, a professor emeritus of the Department of Political Science, presented a different perspective. “The problem is not that we don’t know what to do; it is rather that we don’t do it,” he wrote.

One of the letter’s recommendations is for wealthy nations to aid poorer ones in the transition to renewables, which Sandbrook strongly supports.

He also wrote that the global south, whose nations are mostly not major contributors to warming, must be supported, or else “these areas will become unlivable, [and] internal wars and state breakdown will occur, along with major population movements.”

Unfortunately, Sandbrook believes that the political consequences of the climate crisis are not widely grasped. That is especially true of Canada, as it is far from Africa and the Middle East — regions which will feel the impacts of the climate crisis most strongly, according to Sandbrook, and where most climate migrations will originate.

Notably, while the graphs accompanying the letter include indicators of human activities that cause changes in climate, indicators of how these will affect humans — such as migration — are missing.

To Sandbrook, organization is critical. “The radical actions needed to arrest global heating at below 2°C will only happen in time as a result of mass pressure from below,” he noted.