The climate crisis ranks among one of the most crucial forces that is shaping the livelihoods of younger generations. Worried for their futures, students have been empowered as social change agents through acts of activism, putting pressure on higher powers. UBC consistently ranks among the top universities for taking urgent action to fight climate change, and UBC students have had a huge impact in this. In fact, student climate activism at UBC has led to the university’s commitment to full divestment of fossil fuels, as well as contributed to a report for climate emergency response.
The following UBC scholars are using their research to better understand the impact of the climate crisis on human health. According to them, the climate crisis is a planetary health issue, and climate change will not only be bad for the planet's health, but it will also influence human health and disease in several ways. The work conducted by our graduate students is showing how oppressed and marginalized communities will bear many of the harmful impacts, which has already been evident in the COVID-19 public health crisis. Urgent progress and collaboration between youth and society leaders are part of the solution for a better future.
Zhaohua Cheng: Urban forest-based solutions for optimal cooling
Zhaohua Cheng (Cindy) is a PhD student in the Urban Forestry program at the Faculty of Forestry. Her research is focusing on finding a way to integrate urban forest planning and management into climate action planning of cities to cope with the climate crisis. Cindy is also looking at the co-benefits of livability and social benefits of urban forests in cities.
“Studies are showing that urban forests can have a significant cooling effect in neighborhoods, and how this has social benefits such as increased walkability, encouraging people to go outside, et cetera -- which in turn helps their health,” she said.
Cindy’s inspiration for this research idea came from helping with the Faculty of Forestry to coordinate a new program, the Bachelor of Urban Forestry. “This is where I learned about this fascinating idea of managing tree resources for urban residents,” she said. Also, she saw the importance of trees when she visited her hometown by the coast, Ningde, China, and saw that it was going through a rapid densification process.”It’s all about economic development, industrialization, but there is little talk about protecting the environment.”
Cindy states that the health impacts of climate change are already being seen around the world. She gave the example of sea levels rising in coastal cities and as a result many people losing their homes and relocating. “This will negatively impact people’s physical and mental health, especially people with low incomes, and chronic health conditions.”
She aims to help politicians, and practitioners better understand the various benefits of urban forests, and how it not only benefits the environment but humans too. She stated that when we look at climate impacts in cities, we are mainly talking about the impacts on people, and urban forests can be a nature-based infrastructure, which helps people cope with climate challenges in urban areas.
Verena Rossa-Roccor: Leveraging political knowledge-to-action strategies to improve ecological determinants of health
Verena Rossa-Roccor is a PhD student at the Institute for Resources Environment and Sustainability at UBC. She is looking at strategies to improve ecological determinants of health through climate policy advocacy.
Verena is exploring the science-to-policy gap, and focusing on the role of researchers and academics. She believes that more can be done to mobilize evidence into policy. “If academics, researchers, and scientists can get more involved in trying to bridge the knowledge to policy gap, we can really make common cause with activists doing this work -- and thereby use evidence-based strategies to shape policy,” she said.
She was inspired to conduct this research based on her experiences. In 2012, Verena was a physician, where she realized people were sick because of systemic issues they were exposed to. In 2016, she started studying and working in the field of public health and realized that researching the problem alone does not create change. Instead, the path from evidence to policy is mitigated by politics, which sparked her interest in how academics can play a more active role in this area.
Verena is working alongside two community partners who are supporting her research: the Pacific Institute for Climate Solutions and the Planetary Health Alliance. She is using the planetary health lens to conduct her research. She stated this lens is important because framing the climate crisis as a health issue has the potential to “speak to the hearts and minds of the people.” Conversely, when it’s framed solely as an environmental issue, many in the Global North assume it does not concern them.
“Planetary health, to me, really means this understanding that without a healthy planet, and a healthy environment, we will not survive. The planetary health community has understood that the time to act is now.”
Federico Andrade-Rivas: Human health and its connection with nature and ecosystems health
Federico Andrade-Rivas is a PhD student at the School of Population and Public Health. His research is focusing on human health and the connection with nature and ecosystems health.
Currently, his research focuses on how chemical contamination affects humans and the ecosystems around us. He is working in different areas in Ecuador and Canada, and looking at how structural processes are growing at a rapid pace.
He believes it is important to frame climate change as a health crisis on many levels. Federico says we need to understand what happening to us and the planet. “To me, planetary health is an idea that we need to stop thinking about human health in isolation and in the short term. Rather, we need to talk about climate change in a way that actually makes sense to people and helps them make the right choices,” he said.
In his research, he is looking at marginalized and historically oppressed communities. For example, in Ecuador, he is looking at farmers working both in the banana and flour production. In Canada, he is working alongside Indigenous communities. According to research, marginalized, low-income, and vulnerable communities will be hit the hardest by the health effects of climate change.
Federico hopes that his research has an impact both locally and globally. “Locally, I would like it to be meaningful for the struggles people are having, and they can use it to make their situations better. But on the broader scale, I would like researchers to look at my work and acknowledge the damage that is going on, and have a willingness and passion to change that,” he said.
Fiona Beaty: understanding the adaptive capacity of marine socio-ecological systems to change
Fiona Beaty is a PhD student in the Zoology. Her research is addressing the interrelatedness of the climate crisis, biodiversity crisis, and health of communities living on the coast who depend on the ocean.
Beaty spent her childhood in Vancouver, exploring Howe Sound/Átl'ka7tsem. She developed a strong connection to the region’s nature and people and wanted to help communities protect their rights to access a healthy ocean by adapting to the climate crisis. As a youth, the connection between the climate and biodiversity crisis was overwhelming for her.
“Many young people agree that it can be super daunting to hear about the decline of our global condition --- social and ecological. I combat that anxiety by participating in community work so I can feel like I am moving towards solutions that are tangible in protecting ocean and community health and well-being,” she said.
Part of that solution is helping individuals understand why the crisis is so crucial. “Climate change is hard for people to personally connect with because it is a global phenomenon,” she said. Therefore, she believes framing the climate crisis through different lenses, such as health and connecting to place, can be beneficial as everyone can relate to their health and homes.
Today, she is working with local governments, youth, educators, and First Nations on understanding how climate change is directly impacting marine ecosystems in the Salish Sea, and how communities can protect their home waters.
Her goal is for people to form really strong connections to places in nature that they care about, which can be hard for people who live in cities. “I firmly believe that everybody has a role to play in leading our society to a better way of operating and a responsibility to be part of that solution,” she said.
Brayden Pelham, Victoria Ker, Stephen Patenaude, Erica Steele: Lax̱g̱alts’ap Adaptation to Sea-Level Rise
UBC Master of Public Policy and Global Affairs students Brayden Pelham, Victoria Ker, Stephen Patenaude, and Erica Steele are passionate about addressing the need for proactive strategies for adapting to climate change in Canada, particularly in supporting rural Indigenous communities with the lowest capacity to cover costs of disruption.
Their recent Global Policy Project (GP²) gave them the opportunity to apply creative thinking, policy analysis skills, and a variety of virtual field research techniques as they worked with the Nisga’a Village Government of Lax̱g̱alts’ap to assess the adaptation strategies that are available for Lax̱g̱alts’ap as they respond to sea-level rise along the Nass River.
Their project approach involved conducting remote interviews with industry specialists, rightsholders, and stakeholders, which made it possible for them to connect with a wider variety of people that might not normally be possible outside of an online setting. “It was incredibly eye-opening to be able to speak with experts in their field and to hear compelling perspectives on our project during the course of our virtual fieldwork.” The group found that the information gathered from their interview process was invaluable and set the stage for a conducive project design.
“My background in sustainable development typically focused on strategies for larger municipalities like Vancouver, but the project provided insight into how climate change affects smaller communities with limited access to resources,” contributed Brayden Pelham.
The team felt that their work gave them insight into not only the importance of proactive climate adaptation strategies but also the importance of involving Indigenous communities in these conversations. They believe that if the needs of Indigenous and smaller Canadian communities are going to be met, the Canadian federal government must take a proactive approach to climate adaptation. This would include making funding more widely available for adaptation before a disaster occurs.
“Our research really highlighted the importance of applying an intersectional lens to climate change to ensure that no one is left behind. We have learned the value of creating spaces where a variety of voices can share their concerns before implementing change,” the group concluded.