Dean’s Leadership Series: Reflections on Climate Change and Urban Health


The final instalment in the Dean’s Leadership Series, organized by the University of Toronto’s Dalla Lana School of Public Health (DLSPH), focused on the topic of maximizing urban health and minimizing climate change. The event, held on May 31st, included a panel discussion moderated by former DLSPH Dean Howard Hu.

Dean Hu opened the event with a land acknowledgement, and then recognised the success of the Dean’s Leadership Series held over the course of this year, which included discussions ranging from creating sustainable health systems to rethinking the idea of a good death. Dean Hu then spoke about the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) which aim to eliminate poverty, protect the planet, and create sustainable societies. He highlighted that all the SDGs relate to public health in one way or another. However, he also emphasized that economic growth might actually be incompatible with the goal of creating a sustainable environment in response to climate change. This was a theme that was carried on throughout the conference.

The four panelists were then introduced, beginning with Paula Braitstein—an epidemiologist and Associate Professor working with the DLSPH. In her experience as an educator and activist focusing on HIV prevention and patient care in Kenya, she observed extreme inequalities in health and healthcare. She emphasized that, compared to their more affluent counterparts, communities with poorer populations are more harshly affected by climate. Dr. Braistein said that “low income communities are paying the price in drought and flood prone areas.”

The second panelist was Peter Donnelly, the president and chief executive officer of Public Health Ontario. He spoke about the role of climate change in causing extreme weather patterns, including drought and floods. He also highlighted the fact that effects of climate change are felt globally and are not limited by geographic boundaries. For example, in recent years it has been observed that disease-causing mosquitoes have been able to travel further north due to warmer weather. We will also continue to see the displacement of populations due to catastrophic weather. In this way, Donnelly emphasized that climate change is definitely a global issue and will no doubt put great strain on health systems. Catastrophic weather creates the need for the world to be prepared for such health strains, and to respond faster to emergencies because “in such events vectors move and people are displaced”. Displaced people may not only create political tensions, but also increase the risk of spreading disease. Canada, due to its climatic characteristics and economic stability, is in a position to take the lead in the global adaptation effort.

Fiona Miller, an associate of Health Policy at the Institute of Health Policy, Management and Evaluation and Director of the Division of Health Policy and Ethics at Toronto Health Economics and Technology Assessment Collaborative (THETA), was next to speak. Her research focuses on developing sustainable health systems and practices in order to improve patient outcomes. She brought up an important point in that health care systems, globally, actually contribute to climate change. In fact, the healthcare system is major contributor to pollution and leaves behind a large carbon footprint. Miller emphasized that there is good and bad healthcare and we must recognize the importance of creating sustainability in everything we do to avoid further exacerbating climate change. She said that healthcare needs to adapt and make sustainability a top priority.

Ifrah Abdillahi spoke last, about her experience as a PhD student at the DLSPH specializing in Global Health. Her research looks at climate change and urban health in Africa. She focuses on how Sustainable Development Goal 6, clean water and sanitation, can be achieved in Africa. Abdillahi emphasized the importance of taking leadership and initiative beyond one’s country—this is the only way the SDGs can be achieved. She said at the time there is great need for innovation and taking leadership.

The panel discussion was followed by a question and answer session. It was repeatedly stressed that in order to counter the effects of climate change, sustainability must become a priority. It is not currently a priority largely because governments and those in power tend to prioritize economic gain over all else. The panelists agreed that economic growth is incompatible with fighting climate change as powerful industries contribute the most to the carbon footprint.

Some influential countries are not taking the issue of climate change seriously, so there is a great need for someone to take the lead, to give the others a push in the right direction. As we improve our own climate change commitments, Canada is in a position to do so by encouraging other countries to rethink policies to incorporate sustainability in everything they do.

It was also highlighted that the general public needs to be educated. There should be a sense of urgency added to the need to rethink our lifestyles, because even everyday activities for some, such as showering and travelling, can be detrimental to the environment. Climate change does not merely affect the non-human environment; in fact it affects all aspects of life: biological, physical, and even social.

The event was a great reminder, and a warning, that climate change is a serious and important issue. Those who have not studied climate change in depth may believe it does not directly affect them because major consequences will be faced in the future so there is no need to worry now. However, the panel held at DLSPH highlighted over and over again the realities of climate change to open the eyes of those unaware of its increasingly serious effects. Current DLSPH Dean Adalsteinn Brown closed the event by saying that everyone must do their part in fighting climate change. He said change is possible but, “there is no magic bullet to solve climate change.”