Newswise — As a doctor, I didn’t expect to find myself living in a tree since Monday at the age of 63, but here I am: 82 feet (25 meters) off the ground in a lovely grove of old cotton wood trees trying to stop construction on an oil pipeline.

For 30 years, I've been a public health physician and scientist, studying and working on policies related to climate change. Like other scientists and medical experts, I've spent those years informing our politicians about the  risks climate change poses to human health, from drinking water quality to asthma and other diseases.

I used to think our message was starting to sink in. Last year, Parliament declared a climate emergency and Prime Minister Trudeau’s Liberals’ promised to get to net zero emissions. But then, under pressure from Canada's powerful oil and gas lobby, the government bought the Trans Mountain Expansion (TMX) pipeline project from Texas fossil fuel company Kinder Morgan.  The pipeline would facilitate increased oil extraction and exports from the Alberta oil sands — already Canada's fastest-rising source of greenhouse gas emissions. 

So, when I heard that the government planned to clear important water crossings to make way for construction, I knew I had to do more. Now, I'm exercising my right to peaceful protest. 

TMX is slated to run from Alberta to the British Columbia coast, through Indigenous territories without consent and past Simon Fraser University (where I work). Along the way, it could jeopardize the drinking water sources of many communities, threaten salmon populations and threaten the heavily populated Burrard Inlet. 

I should be thinking about retirement. Instead, top of mind for me are my children, their children, and future generations.  No short-term economic benefits from boosting oil exports can out-weigh the direct and climate-related health dangers this pipeline poses to families and communities. I'm putting my body on the line in the hope that our elected officials — including Liberal MP for Burnaby North-Seymour Terry Beach, who represents the riding at the end of the pipeline — will finally get the message.

Climate change is a health threat that moves slower than COVID-19, but make no mistake: it's here and it will be bigger. Canada's phenomenal response to COVID-19 is a reminder of how important it is to deal with such threats decisively. Yet I witnessed first-hand how the National Energy Board's environmental review refused to address health risks that discussed the climate impacts from the project. Things like the impact of a pipeline spill (diluted bitumen from the oil sands is carcinogenic), low air quality worsened by heatwaves, and wildfire smoke events were inadequately assessed or not considered at all. 

At the current rate, as carbon emissions increase around the world, the Earth’s average surface temperature will likely increase by more than two degrees Celsius by 2060. That's a biological threshold that most scientists agree would be catastrophic. 

What we do now will affect the health of current generations and those to come. Building a pipeline in the middle of a climate crisis is like walking into a crowded supermarket without a mask, knowing you have COVID-19: selfish, short-sighted and likely to endanger the lives of others. 

Faced with this reality, my choosing civil disobedience to block the construction of TMX is choosing a far lesser crime than that perpetrated by the proponents of this project. 

The federal government’s response to the pandemic has been swift and effective. We must look ahead and apply the same urgency to our climate change response. Here and now is the right place and the right time to rethink TMX and firmly turn Canadian energy policy towards a healthy, safe sustainable future.