Climate Change: Our Obligations for Global Health


There is significant and increasing evidence that climate change has serious effects on health that will only exacerbate with time. The spread of vectors, such as mosquitoes and deer ticks, increases the occurrence of vector-borne diseases.1 More frequent extreme weather events cause accidents and injuries that tax our healthcare systems.2 The depletion of arable land raises issues of food and water insecurity.3 Despite our growing understanding of anthropogenic climate change, we are still at an impasse in creating appropriate action.

One reason for this standstill concerns the scope of our actions. The common belief that our individual changes make a significant difference in slowing the rise of greenhouse gas emissions and the destruction of our ecosystems is misplaced. This might seem counter-intuitive to some, especially because we’re constantly inundated with ads promoting clean, green lifestyles through clean, green products. However, these consumer-based answers cannot adequately tackle the large-scale problems that are actually causing climate change.

This notion of changing individual behaviours as the solution to climate change is unique to this particular issue. For many other social issues, we often take a different approach. Consider Canada’s reaction to the federal government’s cuts to refugee health care.4 Due to economic concerns regarding our health care spending, the Canadian government thought it appropriate to decrease the health care coverage of certain refugees. How did we react to these cuts?

Our immediate response was not to change our habits. We didn’t advocate for more generic drugs to reduce the cost of pharmaceuticals. We didn’t reduce our use of antibiotics to prevent the spread of resistance. We didn’t even try and improve vaccination rates to minimize outbreaks of vaccine-preventable diseases.

Instead of approaching the problem through individual-level action, our immediate response was to lobby for political action. Organizations such as Doctors for Refugee Care were created to legally challenge the government’s decision, and events such as the National Day of Action were organized to add significant political pressure.4 This created the political will necessary for the Supreme Court to rule the cuts unconstitutional.5

What was significant about our reaction was that we recognized the appropriate scope to create meaningful change. We realized that solving this issue was not a job for the individual, but rather a job for the government and their broader regulations.

Don’t get me wrong. It would be great if everyone accessed generic drugs, used fewer antibiotics, and vaccinated their children. However, for an immediate impact, we had to confront the government.

It might seem unreasonable to compare this health care issue with climate change, but individual actions in both cases are equally ineffective. So, the same political approach must be used for climate change. Quite simply, governments have the power and resources necessary to reduce greenhouse gas emissions on a large scale. They can create environmental policies for industries, capping carbon emissions for manufacturers and oil-producers; create legislation that tax our carbon emissions, forcing individuals to pay for their ecological footprint; and interact with other governments to create a sense of liability and obligation.6,7

This is not, of course, to say that we haven’t been pressuring our governments at all. Similar to our reaction to the refugee health care cuts, we’ve created organizations like to foster grassroots movements, and we’ve organized events such as the climate march to advocate for legislative change.6,7 Many are doing their part to ensure that governments act, but more needs to be done.

What is concerning is the number of individuals who feel satisfied with their actions on an individual level.6,7 They eat less meat, they drive electric cars, and they buy “green” products believing that living this low-carbon lifestyle alone is enough. While it would be great if more people took responsibility for their actions, we cannot become complacent just because of these meagre reductions. Individuals need to consider their role more broadly as political agents.

What I am advocating, then, is for individuals to realize that they must uphold multiple ethical obligations if they want to be serious about combating climate change. One obligation concerns the individual as a consumer, ensuring that they don’t directly contribute to the problem through wasteful choices. Another obligation concerns the individual as a political agent, impacting government policy by applying political pressure.

While most individuals acknowledge at least one of these through their low-carbon purchases or their activist involvement, few truly internalize both by acting conscientiously and politically. However, we must try to achieve both as best as we can if we want to mitigate the effects of a warming climate.


  1. Seguin, J. (2008). Human Health in Climate Change: A Canadian Assessment of Vulnerabilities and Adaptive Capacity. Canada: Her Majesty the Queen in Right of Canada.
  2. Richardson, G. (2010). Adapting to Climate Change: An Introduction for Canadian Municipalities. Canada: Her Majesty the Queen in Right of Canada.
  3. Warren, F.J., & Lemmen, D.S. (2014). Canada in a Changing Climate: Sector Perspectives on Impacts and Adaptation. Canada: Her Majesty the Queen in Right of Canada.
  4. Canadian Doctors for Refugee Care. (2012). “The Issue.” Canadian Doctors for Refugee Care. Web.
  5. Canadian Doctors for Refugee Care. (2012). “In the news.” Canadian Doctors for Refugee Care. Web.
  6. Sinnott-Armstrong, W. (2005). “It’s Not My Fault: Global Warming and Individual Moral Obligations.” Web.
  7. Broome, J. (2012). Climate Matters: Ethics in a Warming World. United States of America: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc.

Image: “Low Tide” by Kainet / CC 2.0