Dr. James Orbinsky views climate change here, now, as a huge threat to human well-being. “The science is unequivocal, but we don’t even need scientists to tell us our weather is changing,” he says. Photo credit: LUCAS OLENIUK / TORONTO STAR
The following is an edited interview by Ken Dryden, published in The Star, with Dr. James Orbinski, former president of Médecins Sans Frontières; CIGI chair in global health at the Balsillie School of International Affairs. Big doer, big feeler, big thinker.
You have spent much of your professional life outside Canada. With MSF in Peru, Somalia, Afghanistan, Rwanda and Zaire, during famine, civil war and genocide. You took time back in Canada, as you once put it, to get your “feet back on the ground.” How do you see Canada and the world today?
I don’t see things as “Canada and the world.” It’s Canada in the world. I don’t see us as somehow separate, somehow removed. “In the world” means being an active participant in the mutual construction of our destiny. It means assuming responsibility when as a nation or as an individual or as an institution one is able to respond meaningfully. And it means not simply responding, but also shaping, which means engaging, with a view to changing and making better our world so that it’s more just, more fair, more equitable.
So if one isn’t in the world, how does that change things?
One would always be a junior player, and always have the option of not playing. But life is a participatory sport, not a spectator sport. You live in the doing. You need purpose.
One of the most beautiful elements of our country is its diversity. Our racial diversity, our cultural diversity, our linguistic diversity, our geographic diversity. I was just in Victoria and the physical beauty of our country is literally breathtaking. And here each of us has the freedom to go anywhere, and to choose to make that place our home. This vast and diverse country – from prairie to mountain, to tundra, to the Canadian Shield, to the ice floats of northern Canada – is part of our being, part of our DNA. This geographic diversity is connected to the diversity of our people. Thirteen per cent of all marriages in Canada are interracial – I think it’s the highest in the world. I’m married – mine is an interracial marriage and it is so normal as part of our culture it’s not even honoured. It’s just the way it is. This way of being allows us to go beyond difference and to find common purpose, and to find common purpose around common problems.
My experience internationally has helped me to see what it is about our beautiful Canadian society that is so powerful. I think it has everything to do with diversity in all of its forms: geographic, cultural, linguistic, spiritual.
Here we have a framework, both legal and normative, that allows this diversity to thrive.
What does this mean for us in the future? What role can we play in the world?
I’d like to rephrase your question. What role must we play? This is not an option. We are in the world. The world is in us. We cannot choose to retreat or choose not to participate. We must consciously be in the world. That means re-engaging in our multilateral system, with all of its challenges and failures. We must do so seriously, with appropriate commitment of our intellectual resources, our diplomatic and financial resources to engage in the shaping of our global, multilateral system.
There are huge challenges internationally. We’re at the tail end of a global financial crisis. We’re in the midst of a global food crisis, a fuel crisis, and most importantly a crisis in governance; in global governance. There are also security challenges, whether it’s nuclear proliferation or the rise of Al Qaeda and now ISIS – and these crises are very much related, one to the other.
If this is a role we must play, are you saying in fact, we’re also well-suited to play it?
That’s exactly what I’m saying. There are certain parts of our Canadian mythology that are actually quite true. One of them is that we hold no colonial baggage. We have been seen, until fairly recently, as an independent, fair and honest broker. That doesn’t mean being “apolitical,” or being “neutral in all things,” Absolutely not. But it does mean being open-minded, seeking wisdom, being open to new ideas, being humble, but also being bold. It is a paradox but great humility can lead to great boldness, because humility allows you to see things differently.
What is it today in the world that we really must see?
The biggest issue is climate change. The world’s leading medical journal has said that it is the greatest threat to global health in the 21st century. We’ve already passed several critical thresholds. The science is unequivocal, but we don’t even need scientists to tell us our weather is changing. We have floods, again, in Alberta. A hurricane swept through Guelph. The march of the pine beetle across Canada, from B.C. through Alberta, has left a wake of dead, brown trees that are igniting into wildfires at an increasing frequency.
West Nile virus, never seen here before the year 2000, has infected more than 21,000 people in Canada and the U.S., killed more than 800 people, and left many thousands in permanent states of morbidity. This is a direct consequence of climate change. Lyme disease is sweeping through the continent, again driven by climate change. In 2011, draught and famine across East Africa meant that 13 million people were in need of food assistance, and 500,000 died.
A mere 10 years from now, crop yields in some parts of Africa are expected to fall by 50 per cent and water stress could affect as many as 250 million Africans. Exactly the same pattern is true for Central America and Southeast Asia. Climate change is here and we need to face up to it, and we need to stop, not only not participating, but scuttling other countries’ efforts to deal with it. So many of the other crises swirl around its reality. Our international financial crisis, our food crisis, our fuel crisis, they’re all inter-related, and the common solution rests in how we concretely address the issue of climate change, and how urgently we do so.
I’m working with the United Nations now to develop disaster preparedness scenarios, early warning systems that incorporate a health focus for communities that are facing extreme weather events.
These events have implications for infectious disease. As humidity patterns change, so too the vector patterns of mosquitoes, and therefore too the incidence of malaria and of other vector-born diseases like African sleeping sickness. It has implications for food security, for water, and for how we approach appropriate sanitation.
It has implications for urban versus rural environments. The world’s population has become increasingly more urbanized; in the developing world, squatter centres and slums in major urban centres grow with more population and even less infrastructure, and how one approaches infectious disease, food security, water sanitation, from a public health and a clinical health perspective, has to change.
This is what my research is focused on. But as I do that, something else is becoming profoundly clear to me – good planets, even those that are a bit damaged, are hard to find. There’s no escape from our biosphere. It’s the only place that we live. Yet we’re changing it so that it’s unlivable for many, especially those who’re the poorest.
The biosphere is not a problem to be solved. It’s a living being to which we belong, and we need to somehow re-imagine ourselves in relationship to it. We are part of it and it is part of us. We’re the proverbial frog in the cooking pot, but we’re turning up the heat on ourselves. We’ve got to change our way of seeing.
It really does require wisdom. It requires a genuine humility, a willingness to stand in awe of our beautiful world and be humble in relation to it. At the same time to have the courage to be creative and ambitious in how we approach new carbon-neutral or carbon-negative technologies.
It also requires us to be very, very determined in finding a common solution to our common purpose as human beings.
To go back to where we began: there is something particular about our perspective as Canadians, and it is rooted in our diversity and our common experience of diversity. There’s something particular about it that we have to bring to the world’s table.
We’ve seen it with cigarette companies, with lead companies; in sports on concussions, it’s what leagues do. They don’t need to prove their own case, because none of us wants the alternative to be true. They create doubt – that’s all – and we hang on to doubt because everything is easier that way. But without jump-in-both-feet commitment nothing happens. How do we do better on climate change?
Scientists are not political animals. They take great comfort in the certainty of their methodologies and in recognizing the limitations of them. The consensus of the International Panel on Climate Change is telling us unequivocally that the threat we now face is catastrophic and unprecedented. Yet we often confuse the unprecedented with the improbable.
From my perspective, I’m not willing to expend one more calorie of energy on the debate about climate change. The issue is absolutely clear. We have simply got to move into appropriate mitigation, adaptation and resilience strategies, and we’ve got to do it now.
My work is very much around disaster preparedness to extreme weather events. But really it needs to be about a new way of seeing, and from that a new way of being in relationship to each other and also in relationship to our biosphere.
I think art will be extremely important to help us come to this new understanding. It’s not going to arise through more intellectual debate. The beauty of art is it helps us see a phenomenon and ourselves differently. Art has many forms, and we need language and story and culture to express and give shape to a new story where we can see ourselves, where we can find ourselves, and where we can make ourselves for the future.
What is it that keeps you up at night with excitement? What is it that keeps you up at night with anxiety?
In my life I’ve seen war and its crimes, famine, epidemic disease. I’ve seen genocide. I know exactly what we can be, and how we can fail. I’ve also seen incredibly beautiful creations, incredibly beautiful human creations. Whether they’re forms of government, whether they’re in science or art, whether they’re in our social policies or our problem-solving strategies. And I’ve seen and continued to live in this wonderful daily gift that is life.
Somewhere in here is choice, and as human beings, we have the ability, if we’ll just wake up, to see that we can make choice. I know that choice means an active engagement and a participation. It needs effort.
Your kids will be living another 70 years or more. What do you hope for them? What is possible for them?
My wife and I talk about this a lot. Much of what is possible for our children depends on what we as parents, but also as citizens, do today. For our children to be the kind of people we hope they will be is rooted in the values they grow up in. We hope they will hold them as precious. But the environment surrounding the family is also important. To participate in issues of importance, as defined by each of us, or by virtue of circumstance. To hold certain roles as precious, the most important, the one beyond our personal relations as mother, father, brother, sister, friend — our role as citizen. In and for our community, whether it’s local or whether it’s global. And no matter what happens our children will have their Canadian legacy. It has done us pretty well in our short history as a nation. We’ve made some mistakes but with our values we can discover our mistakes and correct them.
Is there anything you would like to add?
Yes, one thing, Happy Birthday, Canada, and many more.
PUBLICATION: Toronto Star
BYLINE: Ken Dryden Special to The Star
COPYRIGHT: © 2014 Torstar Corporation