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OUR PLANETARY HEALTH: Nurses have an ethical duty to advocate for climate justice

Why would nurses care about climate change?
A group of nurses and doctors, all members of the group Doctors and Nurses for Planetary Health, rallied in front of Nelson City Hall in a demonstration to urge governments for action on climate change and environmental degradation. Photo: Bill Metcalfe

Why would nurses care about climate change?

This is a question I have been asked on more than one occasion. My response is simple: nurses have a professional duty to protect and advocate for the health of the planet, for the health of those who live on the planet, and to help make the connections between the two.

Climate change is a symptom of planetary illness. One way to view the climate crisis is through the concept of planetary health, commonly defined as the environmental limits within which humanity can safely exist. Over the past decade, the health-care and academic communities have attempted to conceptualize the intrinsic relationship between the natural world and human health, but it is by no means a novel idea. The reverence and appreciation for the earth’s forests, animals, insects, mountains, rivers, and oceans runs throughout space and time. Indigenous peoples have held this knowledge within their culture and identity whereas dominant cultures have long since forgotten.

It is problematic that Western medicine and health-care institutions have compartmentalized human health, treating it as separate from the natural world. A planetary health lens can illuminate complexities that may otherwise be overlooked. For example, environmental racism occurs when government and industry allocate polluting or damaging enterprises, without any regard for the affected communities. It is well documented that Indigenous, Black, and other racialized populations have greater health risks related to environmental degradation. Such is the case for the Aamjiwnaang First Nation, where emissions from the nearby petrochemical industry or “Chemical Valley” near Sarnia, Ontario, have been linked to increased rates of cancer, respiratory and reproductive health issues. Environmental determinants of health also include extreme weather events, which are predicted to increase due to climate change. Floods, storms, heat waves and wildfires further magnify socioeconomic disparities, leaving the people who have contributed the least to the problem, impacted the most.

Planetary health boundaries can be understood by thinking of the human body. We have 11 body systems. These include our respiratory system, immune system, digestive system, nervous system and so on. The systems operate to maintain homeostasis or an equilibrium, ensuring the whole body can function as a greater whole. Similarly, systems such as land use, air quality, biodiversity, freshwater and climate all influence planetary health. When thresholds are crossed such as with climate change, a decompensation occurs, and human health is impacted. The “Goldilocks zone” is a place of balance whereby the ecological systems and social functions of humanity are not compromised.

Climate change is often portrayed through the lens of political difference and economic risk. We must be clear - it is a human health and a social justice issue. As stewards for health and healing, nurses have an ethical duty to advocate for climate justice. Once unimaginable, the impacts of climate change are manifesting much faster than initially predicted. The Canadian Public Health Association views climate change as this century’s greatest threat to human health. Climate change is a planetary health issue.

May 12 will mark this year’s International Nurses Day. This year’s theme, “Our nurses. Our Future” highlights the broadening role nurses have in protecting human health. Nurses are emerging as leaders on the front line of change in addressing global health challenges. We are forming green teams to minimize health -are waste, advocating for the protection of natural ecosystems, and educating our politicians on the health implications related to the climate crisis. Nurses hear the call to action, and we are compelled to work toward the restoration of planetary health.

Megan Tomlinson, RN, BScN, is a member of the Canadian Association of Nurses for the Environment

About the Author: Black Press Media Staff

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