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COMMENTARY: Cancer and climate – a multitude of parallels

Canada has a fever. Our north is already warming at two to three times the mean global average. Even in the increasingly unlikely event that the world does manage to come together to keep mean temperature increases to below 2 Celsius, Canada is rapidly on its way to being at least 3 C hotter later in this century.

I have discovered there are many parallels between cancer and climate change. In my view, what I have gone through personally with cancer will in many ways be no different than what, on the much larger stage of our entire society, we may inevitably have to go through if we want to survive climate change. Where, in the beginning I wanted to die rather than go through what I thought was ahead, now I want to live because I did.

The first thing we will need to do is come to terms with the shock that, whether we like it or not, we face a crisis. We are not there yet with respect to the climate threat. I now understand why. Like a cancer diagnosis, the disruption to our way of life climate change portends is too much to bear. Rather than face the fact that one’s life cannot and will not continue as it was, it is easier just to deny what is happening while at the same time letting your imagination gradually exaggerate the problems your new circumstances will create until they assume apocalyptic proportions. Rather than think about what the future must inevitably bring, it is easier, as I did, to bury one’s mind in the sand with the hope that all this climate nonsense will resolve itself and simply go away.

The problem, and this is just as true of my cancer as it is of the climate crisis, is by the time enough people in our society wake up and face the truth it may not be possible to do anything about the threat, even by way of the most radical of options that remain available.

Think of it this way. You notice you have got a fever. You discover it is getting worse. How long do you go before you go to the doctor? How sick do you allow yourself to become before you do something about it? How sick do you have to become before you can’t do anything about it?

Canada has a fever. Our north is already warming at two to three times the mean global average. Even in the increasingly unlikely event that the world does manage to come together to keep mean temperature increases to below 2 Celsius, Canada is rapidly on its way to being at least 3 C hotter later in this century.

Like cancer, climate breakdown, if unaddressed, will unnecessarily kill a lot of people and diminish the future for untold generations. And unfortunately, like cancer, there is no single pill – no silver bullet – doctors can prescribe to control our condition and make it all go instantly away.

As my oncologist told me, “We have to throw everything we have at it at its earliest possible stages,” which means regular bloods tests, biopsies, bone scans, CT scans, MRIs, hormone treatments, brachytherapy and weeks of daily radiation treatments, punctuated by constant assessment and reassessment of my on-going condition so as to be able to detect and get on top of possible treatment side-effects. How different is this from how society will have to adapt to the climate threat? There is no difference.

Though it will disrupt our lives in ways that will be inconvenient if not sometimes painful, we have to commit to the full treatment until the fierce focus of our intention on remaining alive wins out and we can ring the bell that announces we can restart our lives as different people living in a cleaner, safer, healthier, fairer, more just and more sustainable world than exists now.

As a society, full treatment means immediately cutting our carbon dioxide emissions while at the same time preparing for more frequent and more powerful extreme weather events in the form of heat waves, droughts, wildfires, flooding events and increasing meteorological stability especially where we live. On our coasts, we need to anticipate and respond in advance to the inevitable impacts of sea level rise. We have to make our cities and towns more resilient by planting trees and refiguring our energy grids. We have to move away from industrial farming practices toward restorative agriculture, halt and reverse biodiversity loss and address the global water crisis. Meanwhile, we need to reform our economies and economic institutions to make change possible. If there is to be any hope of getting through what we face, we need to put aside our divisiveness and restore and reform our democracy. We can no longer see the world solely through the lens of regionalism and national interests. We have to see ourselves as one world.

In the meantime, we must not allow ourselves to be seduced by wishful thinking and the promise of easy but false solutions. As we found in not dissimilar circumstances during the COVID-19 pandemic, there are many now who would take advantage of the doubt about the climate threat that has been purposely manufactured by the fossil fuel sector over the past two generations to take advantage of the gullible. Among the most obvious of these questionable remedies are proposals to simply geoengineer our way out of our climate emergency.

Proposals put forward by the false prophets of techno-fantasy are dangerous in that they generate a faux sense of security by implying we don’t have to worry because their technology will somehow, sometime save us. The reality is we do not have time to wait 30 years for unproven, uneconomical technologies to perhaps mature in order to get ahead of the climate emergency. In response to the United Nation’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Lili Fuhr, the deputy director of the Centre for International Environmental Law's Climate and Energy Program, said “Building our mitigation strategies on models that instead lock in inequitable growth and conveniently assume away the risks of techno-fixes like carbon capture and carbon dioxide removal ignores the clarion message and increases the likelihood of overshoot.”

As with cancer, if we want to save lives and provide security for our children, we have no choice but to throw everything we are sure will work now at the climate threat, and do soon as we possibly can. And then, one day, maybe we will be able to ring that bell.


The print edition of this opinion piece mistakenly identified a quote to the United Nation's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The quote was from Lili Fuhr, the deputy director of the Centre for International Environmental Law's Climate and Energy Program. The Outlook apologizes for the error.