Climate Action & Public Health

Credit: Picture BC

Climate change is one of the most significant threats to human health in the twenty-first century.i

Climate change is a long-term change in climate conditions, such as temperature, precipitation, extreme weather events, snow cover, and sea level rise.ii Climate change mitigation activities, such as increasing energy efficiency in buildings and choosing low-emission transportation modes, aim to reduce greenhouse gases that contribute to climate change. Climate change adaptation activities aim to prepare for and adapt to projected impacts of a changing climate.

B.C. local governments are leaders in mitigating and adapting to climate change, yet there remains an opportunity to strengthen local climate action plans and strategies by understanding the health impacts of climate change. Many local strategies to address climate change can also have positive health impacts – active transportation is an example. By making clear the health impacts of climate change in local planning and communications, residences can see the relevance of climate change in their lives.

What is this issue about?

Identifying regional and community health impacts

While climate change impacts will vary from region to region, health impacts of climate change in B.C. include:

  • heat-related stress, particularly for seniors, children, and vulnerable segments of the population
  • increased incidence of diseases spread by water, air, organisms, and viruses (e.g. West Nile)
  • reduced air quality in urban areas
  • reduced air quality due to increased frequency of forest fires
  • increased risks for vulnerable populations as a result of extreme weather or related events
  • reduced drinking water security in water-stressed regionsiii, iv

Climate change events (e.g. drought, fire, floods) can result in long-term psychological, personal, and societal costs.v For example:

  • forest fires in B.C. in 2003 caused the evacuation of 45,000 residents, 3 deaths, and $700 million in damages
  • heavy rainfall in B.C. in 2010 destroyed Highway 20 to Bella Coola, and 175 people were evacuated

Developing linked agendas for health and environment

Public health and climate change mandates share many common objectives, including the desire to:

  • reduce vulnerability and risk and increase the resiliency of individuals and the community
  • make wise investments that pay off in terms of future benefits and outcomes
  • enhance livability and well-being
  • create change toward healthy personal behaviours, societal values, and the way we organize our policies and governancevi

The public health sector can make important contributions to local climate change agendas. Specifically, it can:

  • communicate with the public about the health impacts of climate change
  • mitigate public health incidents occurring as a result of climate change
  • pay attention to the impacts of climate change on vulnerable populations who are hardest hit by health, economic, and social impacts
  • use climate change mitigation efforts aimed at GHG (greenhouse gas) emissions reduction (e.g. community design and land use, active transportation, food security) to achieve population health outcomes
  • contribute health information to the local climate change policy-making process by assessing the impact of proposed policies on vulnerable populations, diseases, environmental health, and physical activity

Why is climate action important for health and well-being?

Climate change affects communities differently depending on socio-economic factors, climate, and geography. There are many examples of anticipated health impacts.


  • more frequent, more intense, and longer-lasting heat waves will result in heat stroke, dehydration, cardio-vascular illness, and mortality
  • particular areas of concern are larger urban populations in Metro Vancouver and the Okanaganvii

Air Quality

  • an increase in air pollutants including particulate matter (PM2.5) and ozone will continue to affect human health (respiratory illness, stroke, heart attack, premature death) outcomes and soaring costs. A 10% reduction in fine particulate matter (PM2.5) and ozone emissions would save an estimated $195 million in health care costsviii
  • an increase in forest fires will cause greater exposure to fine particulate matter (PM2.5) from wood smoke

Disease exposure

  • different types of diseases (spread by water, animals, and insects), with increasing spread and intensity

Food and water

  • food insecurity, especially for First Nations and rural communities that rely on hunting, trapping, and gathering
  • water insecurity in regions of B.C. that have not previously experienced water shortages, due to an increase in dry periods and water use
  • a reduction in water quality due to flooding and extreme precipitation – communities that have poor infrastructure (e.g. First Nations communities) will be particularly vulnerable

Extreme weather events

  • higher risk of injury, disease, and stress from flooding, storm surges, landslides, and wildfires

Northern, remote, and rural communities are hit hardest by the health, economic, and social impacts of climate change.ix The groups most vulnerable to the effects of climate change are often those most at risk of chronic disease, often experiencing poor living conditions and social inequities.

Why does climate action and public health matter for local governments?

Local governments are leading transformation in their communities as they mitigate climate change by reshaping policies and regulations for community design and land use, transportation, and food, and by creating community energy and emissions plans. Many strategies with environmental objectives (e.g. sustainable transportation plans, ecosystems, and greenways plans) have corresponding health co-benefits (e.g. increasing physical activity and increasing social interaction). There is the potential to more closely align public health and climate change strategies to maximize environmental, social, economic, and health benefits.

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i Anthony Costello et al. Managing the Health Effects of Climate Change in the Lancet, 373, 1693-1733. 2009.

ii Public Health Agency of Canada, Environmental Public health and Climate Change. 2009 (accessed September 4, 2013).

iii West Coast Environmental Law. Preparing for Climate Change: An Implementation Guide for Local Governments in British Columbia (Vancouver: West Coast Environmental Law, 2012, p17).

iv Public Health Agency of Canada, Climate Change and Public Health Fact Sheets. no date. (accessed September 4, 2013).

v BC Ministry of Environment, Climate Change Impacts. no date. (accessed September 4, 2013).

vi Stacy Barter and Kerri Klein, Building Healthy Communities at the Intersection of Chronic Disease and Climate Change (British Columbia: BC Healthy Communities, 2011).

vii Ian Walker and Robin Sidneysmith, British Columbia (Chapter 8) in From Impacts to Adaptation Canada in a Changing Climate. (Ottawa: Government of Canada, 2008)

viii Based on estimated 2010 figures. Health savings would come from decreases in mortality, emergency room visits, and in occurrences of asthma, bronchitis and cardiac incidents. BC Healthy Built Environment Alliance, Building Collaborations for Healthier BC Communities. (Vancouver: Provincial Health Services Authority, 2009). 2010 figures.

ix Julian Agyeman and Bob Evans, Just sustainability: The emerging discourse of environmental justice in Britain? in The Geographical Journal, 170(2), 55‐164. 2004

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