Voices in Health, September 30th, 2019

On Monday, September 30th, UBC students and faculty gathered at the School of Population and Public Health to participate in a rigorous panel discussion about climate change and health science, and the connection between human rights law and environmental and public health.

The inaugural event, titled, “Public Health, Law and Climate Change: Legal Approaches to Protecting Children’s Health in a Warming World” showcased critical knowledge presented by Andrea Rodgers, Senior Attorney with Our Children’s Trust, and Chris Tollefson, the founding director of the Center for Environmental Law and Litigation (CELL).

Both presentations discussed the potential of using international law to unpack the threats posed by climate change on the safety and health of global populations. Andrea Rodgers spoke on the implications of climate change on current and future generations, and the insufficiency of government efforts to address these consequences.

“A climate system capable of sustaining human life is a fundamental right.”

Just a few days before, more than 100,000 Vancouverites took to the streets to protest government inaction on climate change, “decolonize and decarbonize” a recurrent slogan during the march.

From the ongoing pipeline politics to the human-ignited fires in Brazil, the climate activism movement has reached a critical point in its development and execution. Despite pledges to meet the standards set by the Paris Agreement, carbon emissions rose globally last year, and are predicted to rise by a near-record amount in 2019.

Youth-led efforts to confront policymakers have sparked a series of climate strikes around the world that aim to put an end to the age of fossil fuels.

According to Rodgers, “governments have a strong understanding of the scientific reality [of climate change],” and yet decades worth of evidence show that little action has been taken to litigate the science behind the crisis.

In one room, officials are calling attention to the urgency of climate action, and in the next, “they’re voting to extract more oil from our outer continental shelf.”

In her presentation, Rodgers explained that climate change has had a disproportionate impact on children, as their bodies and brains develop, and their lungs absorb more and more pollution.

“We are at the very last opportunity to avoid the worse impacts of climate change, and that’s why we’re calling on our courts to get engaged and start looking at this from a human rights perspective.”

Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg is among the fifteen students suing five of the world’s major carbon polluters for their infringement on the health and social welfare of children. If successful, climate change would be looked at by the United Nations as a children’s rights crisis, and compel the countries named in the suit to action, which would include engaging with other countries not named in the complaint.

Chris Tollefson presented next, emphasizing the importance of quantifying infringement using different metrics, including the roles of climate targets and scientific climate evidence in the design of a charter-based climate case in Canada.

“It’s important for this case to be about the science; science to define the infringement, the point of which government conduct infringes upon the rights of our young people.”

In light of the upcoming federal election, discussions of climate action have become even more frequent as science and politics reach a critical intersection. Tollefson expresses the need for science litigation in Canadian courts and internationally to protect the environment and sustain public health.

The presentations were followed by a robust discussion, facilitated by our wonderful panelists. The School of Population and Public Health would like to thank all speakers and attendees for their participation and for making the event an overwhelming success.

To learn more about our Voices in Health Speaker Series event, please click here.