On the heels of COP27 and as delegates debate the biodiversity crisis at COP15 in Montreal, heat domes, atmospheric rivers, flooding and air pollution from forest fires continue to intensify in Canada.
Unfortunately, Canadian biomedical health-research funding for climate change, environmental health and environmental racism remains woefully inadequate.
In 2018, we wrote an article in the pages of Healthy Debate, calling for increased funding for research into climate change and the environmental health effects of Canada’s growing hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) industry. At that time, using relevant search terms, we identified a total of 55 studies on climate change and three studies on the health effects of fracking out of a total of 35,679 projects funded by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) between 2009 and 2017.
Four years later, using the same search terms along with some additional ones, we again searched the Canadian Research Information System to see whether things have changed.
The number of funded studies by CIHR with the search term “climate change” actually had increased from 55 out of 35,679 funded studies (0.2 per cent) between 2008 and 2018 to a mere 68 out of 16,704 funded studies (0.4 per cent) between 2019 and 2022 (see Table below).
Studies identified with the search term “environmental health” averaged 19 per year with no change since 2009; studies with the search term “hydraulic fracturing” or “fracking,” “tar sands,” “unconventional oil & gas extraction,” “resource extractive industry” or “environmental racism” were virtually non-existent (see Table below).
Mentions of climate change, environmental health, environmental justice or calls for research on the health effects on those living proximal to fossil fuel industrial development on the web pages of the CIHR’s 13 institutes were also not evident.
So, what’s the conclusion?
First, given that the Lancet, the BMJ, the World Health Organization, the Canadian Medical Association and many of our provincial medical associations have all identified climate change as the major health challenge of the 21st century, the increase from 0.2 per cent to 0.4 per cent of all funded studies on climate change is alarmingly inadequate.
Second, an average of 19 studies per year related to environmental health out of a total of 7,000 to 10,000 funded studies per year is also strikingly low. Funding for “diabetes” and “asthma” studies were 130 and six times more common over the same period respectively.
Third, and perhaps of most concern, is the complete absence of any research into the human health impacts of those living proximal to the fossil fuel industry. This is particularly problematic given that those living near fossil fuel development are typically rural communities with limited access to health services and/or Indigenous communities dependent on the land for subsistence and cultural identity.
Why should we care about this?
For one thing, fossil fuel extraction has been taking place in this country for decades. Canada is the fifth largest exporter of gas and the fourth largest exporter of oil. The vast majority of gas in Canada is extracted through fracking in northern B.C. and Alberta. Oil is sourced from oil sands in northern Alberta and mined through an energy-intensive steaming process to liquefy bitumen, allowing it to rise to the surface.
Both techniques expose Indigenous and rural communities living near these industries to carcinogenic, endocrine-disrupting and inflammatory-inducing substances via air, groundwater and soil contamination.
Environmental racism is exemplified by these drilling and extraction projects.
Environmental racism, defined as the disproportionate exposure of Indigenous, racialized, poor, and often geographically isolated communities, to potentially harmful environmental industrial waste, is exemplified by these drilling and extraction projects.
The virtual absence of research examining the health impacts on the rural and Indigenous communities living close to these industries embodies this “systemic overlooking.”
With social accountability in medical schools becoming the new ethical standard and the growing discourses on decolonizing biomedical research and environmental justice in research, is it not time for research funding policies to take up a similar process of self-reflection and “re-imagining”?
Outside the world of medical education, the issue of environmental racism also matters to many ordinary Canadians. Canada’s Bill C-226 to address environmental racism and advance environmental justice passed second reading in the House of Commons in June and cleared the House of Commons Environment Committee on Nov. 4 after two days of hearing.
This bill is asking the federal Minister of Environment & Climate Change to develop measures to examine the link between race, socio-economic status and environmental risk; collect information and statistics relating to the location of environmental hazards, and the negative health outcomes in communities affected by environmental racism; and assess the administration and enforcement of environmental laws in each province.
Whether forced by law to tackle these issues or because it is the right thing to do, biomedical research policy needs to begin addressing environmental racism and justice and expand funded research for climate change, environmental and planetary health.
|Proportion (%) of CIHR funded studies over two time periods by various planetary health search terms
Data Source Canadian Research Information System
|Search term (s)||Time period
2009/ 10 – 2017/18
2018/19 – 2021/22
|Climate change||69/ 31,029 (0.2%)||67/ 16,200 (0.4%)|
|Environmental health||92/ 31,029 (0.3%)||50/ 16,200 (0.3%)|
|Hydraulic fracturing (fracking)||1/ 31,029 (0.0%)||2/ 16,200 (0.0%)|
|Tar sands/ oil sands||1/ 31,029 (0.0%)||1/ 16,200 (0.0%)|
|Unconventional oil and gas extraction/ development||0/ 31,029 (0.0%)||0/ 16,200 (0.0%)|
|Resource extraction||9 31,029 (0.0%)||02 16,200 (0.0%)|
|Climate justice||0/ 31,029 (0.0%)||0/ 16,200 (0.0%)|
|Environmental racism||2/ 31,029||1/ 16,200|
|Climate change + indigenous health||8/31,029 (0.0%)||10/ 16,200 (0.1%)|
|Climate change + first nations||2 /31,029 (0.0%)||7/ 16,200 (0.0%)|
|Climate change + aboriginal||9/ 31,029 (0.0%)||1/ 16,200(0.0%)|
The authors have no conflicts to declare.
Environmental racism. A new one. Don’t you think if you use loaded words too often, they no longer mean anything?
Many thanks for this comment. While “racism” may have been considered a “loaded” word in the past, most people acknowledge it is a useful term to characterize systemic bias based on racial heritage. There is a growing body of research on environmental racism in the field of environmental health. Here in Canada, Dr Ingrid Waldron has written a book on the topic and there is a bill currently going through Canadian Parliament aiming to address the problem of environmental degradation being disproportionately located in indigenous, racialized, and economically disadvantaged communities, i.e. environmental racism.