Ontario family rests on a park bench

Never has the connection between climate change and health been clearer. “Climate change is the biggest global health threat of the 21st century, and tackling it could be our greatest health opportunity,” according to the medical journal The Lancet.

The report, published late last year, issues a clear warning: “A rapidly changing climate has dire implications for every aspect of human life, exposing vulnerable populations to extremes of weather, altering patterns of infectious disease, and compromising food security, safe drinking water and clean air.”

It’s perhaps no surprise, then, that the Canadian Public Health Association is intervening in a court case that asks whether Ottawa has the right to price carbon pollution. Ontario’s Court of Appeal granted the health organization intervener status over objections from the provincial government. It joins other interveners including the David Suzuki Foundation, the Assembly of First Nations, Canada’s Ecofiscal Commission and an organization representing youth voices acting on climate.

“As the World Health Organization decreed, climate change is one of the biggest health challenges of the 21st century,” says CPHA executive director Ian Culbert. His association — founded in 1910 — recognizes the evidence has long showed that health is “very much influenced by social and natural environments.”

The organization began talking about global warming in the 1980s and in 1992 published a landmark report on the issue, Human and Ecosystem Health: Canadian Perspectives, Canadian Action. Culbert says it “shined a light on the predictable outcomes of climate change on population health.”

Climate change is one of the biggest health challenges of the 21st century.

Ian Culbert, Canadian Public Health Association

Ontario is taking the federal government to court, arguing Ottawa doesn’t have constitutional authority to price carbon under its Greenhouse Gas Pollution Pricing Act. Groups such as the CPHA and the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation say the federal government does in fact possess this power.

“The federal government has a right and responsibility to bring carbon pricing to provinces where it’s not already in place,” Culbert says.

CPHA will argue climate change knows no borders and is international in scope. This is why “federal authority is essential,” Culbert explains. “Only the feds can tackle this issue at a global level.”

The Foundation, represented by lawyer Joshua Ginsberg of Ecojustice, will argue the federal government has a right to act when Canada faces a national emergency — and climate change now meets this test. “Temperatures in Canada are rising faster than the global average. We’re experiencing dramatic forest fires, flooding and ocean acidification,” Ginsberg says. “Parliament has the power to act when disaster is impending.”

Pricing carbon is a proven way to curb greenhouse-gas emissions, but this case isn’t about putting carbon pricing on trial. Rather, it asks whether the federal government has the right to implement a national plan to avoid climate disaster. “If the court acknowledges there is an emergency here, then Ottawa can act,” Ginsberg says. Among the actions it can take is ensuring carbon polluters have to pay.

Ecojustice is not representing CPHA but strongly supported its application for intervener status. “Climate change is a national emergency which impacts our health,” Ginsberg says. “Therefore CPHA’s intervention is relevant and helpful.”

Lawyers from Gowling WLG’s Environmental Law Group are representing CPHA.

Ontario’s Court of Appeal will hear the case in April 2019.

Put a price on climate pollution! Tweet the environment and climate change minister