Dr. Courtney Howard’s advice for fighting climate change with health research


Dr. Courtney Howard – an Emergency Room Physician in Yellowknife, NT and primary author on the Lancet Countdown 2017 Report: Briefing for Canadian Policymakers – joined the Women’s Health Institute to present at the Third Annual Women’s Health Research Symposium on May 9th, 2018. Her talk, Climate change and women’s health in the North, and breakout session on climate change were focused on opportunities to improve women’s health outcomes while fighting climate change.

During her talk Dr. Howard outlined a pilot study in Northeastern British Columbia which found that benzene levels in the urine of 29 pregnant women were 3.5 times higher than the general Canadian population. Although it is suspected that the increase in benzene levels is a result of fracking (a process for extracting oil or gas, which can contaminate air and water supply), the study could not conclude that the higher levels of benzene were a direct outcome, nor the health implications of in utero exposure. Dr. Howard suggests that this is just one of many reasons that there is a need for further research into the intersections of environmental science and health.

While the intricacies of environmental science and the oil industry’s jargon might seem like a roadblock for those in health research, Dr. Howard suggests that researchers partner with experts working in those fields. Multidisciplinary collaborations can provide insight into industry procedures, entry points for meaningful change, and opportunities to mitigate environmental impacts.  This approach can make presentations to policymakers and government officials more effective as information about health outcomes can be balanced with industry-related action items.

Another way to influence policy change is to frame the impact of climate change within the context of health outcomes.  Drawing on human connections to demonstrate how issues will personally affect policymakers can be far more effective than framing them on a larger scale.  For example, “smoke from forest fires increases a child’s risk for asthma by x” draws a much clearer personal connection than “the increase in forest fires will significantly impact the climate over the next 100 years”.

In the Lancet Countdown 2017 Report: Briefing for Canadian Policymakers Dr. Howard and co-authors outlined seven recommendations for ways that Canada can respond to climate change:

  • Ensure funding for research and best-practice information sharing between public health communities in different regions to fine-tune adaptation capacity to severe weather events.
  • Phase out coal-powered electricity in Canada by 2030 or sooner, with at minimum two thirds of the power replaced by non-emitting sources.
  • Develop a National Active Transport Strategy for Canada and calculate healthcare cost savings.
  • Enhance support for tele-commuting and telehealth options.
  • Provide health-sector support for Health Canada’s draft health eating guidelines which emphasize plant-based protein sources.
  • Increase funding for research into the local health impacts of resource extraction, with a focus on impacts on Indigenous populations.
  • Integrate Health Impact Assessments as a core component of the federal Environmental Assessment process.

Although these recommendations are aimed at policymakers, the emphasis on research and healthcare demonstrates an opportunity for health researchers to make a difference for climate change.

To read the Lancet report click here. To hear more about Dr. Howard’s work you can view her TEDTalk here.