Courtney Howard is an emergency room doctor in Yellowknife, Northwest Territories and president of the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment. Since the dawn of the coronavirus pandemic, she’s been scrambling to prepare for a wave of new cases, while encouraging fellow climate communicators to take care of themselves, be kind to each other, and develop a new narrative that fits the unprecedented moment we all find ourselves in.
The Energy Mix: What are you doing differently, and what should the climate community be doing differently, in light of the pandemic?
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Howard: We’ve been working with this meta-narrative about our house being on fire, and about the need to listen to the science and act quickly so that catastrophic outcomes don’t happen, and the fact that there are many ways we can improve life right now with the solutions we have. Now we’re working with a population that is immersed in crisis and very anxious. I’m seeing people coming in expressing anxiety, and with stress-related headaches, stomach aches, and increased levels of violence. People are really worried.
So if we come in with a climate crisis narrative at this moment, people just won’t have the energy to cope with it. And we always need to be respectful of where people are at.
But the coronavirus has underlined that we’re all in this together, and that a lack of attention to the interface between humans and the natural world puts us at immense risk. Because the origin of this health crisis is a zoonotic virus  that made its leap into humans as a result of a lack of care at the intersection between people and animals. The coronavirus crisis underlines the need for us to acknowledge that human systems depend on a well-managed interface with natural systems.
The Mix: Is that a narrative that resonates better when people are terrified?
Howard: The ecological determinants of health—water, soil, climate, biodiversity—are the necessary foundation for the financial and economic systems that allow us to build things like roads, hospitals, schools, stock markets and the other elements that give rise to what we refer to as the social determinants of health—things like housing, income, education. So not only do both of these social and ecological factors have direct impacts on health, but both sets of elements need to be stable and productive in order for us to have adequate resources to construct what is in fact an incredibly complex system—our clinics and hospitals—including the logistical supply chains that keep them stocked, and the highly-trained people who staff them.
When you look at studies from across different countries, the health benefits of our health care systems only make up 15 to 25% of overall health status. So although we think of health as something that happens in a hospital, not only does most of it happen outside that setting, but the hospitals themselves depend on a healthy society in order to exist. We’ve pushed those natural systems to the limit, and some of them past the limit, and now the natural world is saying we can’t do that anymore.
So it’s clear that in 2020, health is planetary. We’re all in this together, and we need natural and social systems to be healthy as a human family. And it is clear that we need to listen to experts and act within the time windows they recommend. Our epidemiologists and public health doctors have been heroes. I think we’ll be able to look back and be proud of Canada’s organized response to the coronavirus—nothing is ever perfect, but I think we’ll see that it was one of the better efforts, and what we learn from our societal response to this pandemic can set us up to do a better job of the next.
But we also know that climate change is the biggest health crisis of the 21st century. Once we’re past this moment of crisis, we’ll have to take what we’ve learned and put it to work to reduce the likelihood of climate-related crises, and increase our resilience to them. That will take government help and public funds. So let’s make sure every cent of stimulus goes towards areas that decrease our chance of further catastrophic health risks and improve our chances of coming through those risks with the greatest degree of wellness that we can.
The Mix: How can we be our best selves—as climate campaigners, and as citizens—during this crisis?
Howard: People are still feeling that deep ecological grief, and it’s tempting to lose patience that a focus on climate action has just been railroaded by another issue. So it’s really important, number one, to take good care of ourselves—exercising, meditating, trying to get outside into nature as much as possible, making sure we don’t over-caffeinate or drink too much, getting enough sleep, spending a lot of time with our children, and putting our phones away.
The more we can do those things and centre ourselves, the more we can act strategically instead of out of anxiety, and the better we’ll be able to be present to this moment and open to what the world is telling us, which is maybe different from what it was telling us before. We need to move really thoughtfully into a changed space in a way that is as sensitive to the emotions of that space as possible. That’s what will help us move together and in a really productive, healthy way into the next world, which will feel totally different from the one we were in before COVID—and which brings with it a new set of opportunities, although we would never have wished this crisis on anyone.
We need to support each other and just be really compassionate and patient and kind. And strategic—because there are interests that are moving quickly to take advantage of this moment of crisis for the benefits of a few, and we may need to sprint in a very focused way to make sure public funds are instead expended for public good.
The Mix: What are the best ways for climate organizations to connect with wider community concerns in this time and draw the links between the two crises?
Howard: There’s a reason most of us are in this work in the first place. We’re here because we care a lot that people lead good lives. I care a lot for my family, for my patients up here in the North, for Indigenous peoples in the High Arctic who are seeing some of the worst impacts of climate change, and for the patients I’ve taken care of in other parts of the world. When we really back up to the values and goals that brought us into the climate movement, that’s where we find the places of intersection with what’s currently happening in the world. And it makes us better able to generate solutions and narratives that help us align with what the broader population is experiencing right now.
So while it’s nice to have that sense of identity as part of the climate movement, really, we’re all humans, and we want what is best for humanity now and into the future. If we centre ourselves to our deepest values and desires for the world, and place both the coronavirus crisis and the climate emergency within a planetary health frame, that will help us connect and identify the underlying societal structures and practices that must transition in order for us to move towards a relationship with the rest of the natural world, and with each other, that allows us all to thrive.
Follow up: @CAPE_Doctors, @courtghoward