Dr. Melissa Lem didn’t learn about climate change in school. It was when the travelling family physician became a mom, the future became cause for concern.
“My son was three months old and I was reading a book called This Changes Everything by Naomi Klein, which is about climate change and capitalism. Just reading and having my baby on my lap, I thought ‘this is the future that we’re going to have if we don’t take action.’ If as doctors, people with really strong, trusted voices don’t start speaking up now, it’s going to be too late,” she said.
Lem grew up in Toronto and found nature as a refuge as a kid, escaping from bullying and racism as an Asian Canadian. In nature, she could be herself.
As a teenager, Lem visited Vancouver and spent time in Pacific Spirit Regional Park. That visit left such a mark, she wanted to return to the west coast again one day to stay for good.
Lem made the move and now, lives not far from the park with her husband and young son with all that Vancouver has to offer on her doorstep. And her surroundings inspired her to take action on the places she cares about protecting most: nature.
“I want to be an example to my patients and to people at large. If I start talking about how important it is to take action on climate change and then I pull up in my SUV, no one’s going to listen to me. If I talk about how important it is to reduce our emissions and I live in a mansion, you know, with eight bedrooms and 10 bathrooms. It’s just hypocritical,” she said.
“There’s a lot of talk about the importance of the need to act. But when it comes to actual action, I find there’s less of that” – Dr. Melissa Lem
Lem is currently the president-elect of CAPE — the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment. Her work allows her to encourage a connection to nature while lobbying the government to make responsible, greener policy looking ahead to the future.
Lem is taking her passion one step further with the new PaRx Project, launched in late 2020. The initiative of the BC Parks Foundation is Canada’s first large-scale program, formally allowing health care professionals to prescribe nature as medicine.
“When I talk about sleep, exercise, diet, I say ‘and also, spending two hours in nature per week has been shown by research to have significant positive effects on your well-being.’ So interestingly, it is sort of a roundabout way of prescribing nature to get people to take action on the environment,” she said.
Leaning on B.C.’s “greener” reputation, Lem hopes the awareness of climate change combined with creating a connection with the outdoors for health will add up to meaningful action.
“I think overall, the city does have some ambitious goals and some great goals. But in terms of implementation, that’s been the harder part, right? There’s a lot of talk about the importance of the need to act. But when it comes to actual action, I find there’s less of that,” she said.
But Lem isn’t dwelling on inaction.
“I don’t get as anxious anymore because I’m taking action, really” she said.
“You can’t be everything to everyone. You can’t take every action. I think you have to think about what your priorities are. You know, what do you really love? For me. I love nature. I love being outside with my son.”
Melissa Lem is featured in a new Citytv VeraCity documentary, The Fight For Tomorrow. The film explores the impact of the climate crisis on Canada’s largest cities and how eight Canadians are trying to change the course of our future. Produced and written by Megan Robinson, The Fight For Tomorrow premieres Tuesday, March 30 at 10pm/9pm CT on Citytv and Citytv.com. Join us for a live discussion about the documentary on Facebook, March 31 at 12 p.m. EST.