Inequality, Pandemics and Climate Change featuring Richard Wilkinson

2021 SFU Vancouver Speaker Series

2021, Equity + Justice, Climate + Environment, Series SFU Vancouver Speaker Series

Richard Wilkinson is one of the world’s leading experts on the health and social impacts of inequality—which have been impossible to ignore, and deeply exacerbated, during the COVID-19 pandemic.

His decades of research show that countries with greater income inequality have worse health and social outcomes at all levels of society. Lifespans are shorter, rates of violence, addiction and imprisonment are higher, and educational performance is lower. Inequality also is tied to chronic stress, anxiety and depression. 

Wilkinson argues that socioeconomic inequality erodes our social fabric, decreases our trust in each other, reduces political stability and undermines our resilience to major shocks—from pandemics to climate change. Thus, addressing inequality must be central to Canada’s policy framework, and at the heart of our response to all our challenges.

In this SFU Vancouver Speaker Series lecture, Wilkinson will address how inequality affected the pandemic experience and response, and how we can improve quality of life post-COVID as we face the ultimate challenge of the climate crisis.

Wilkinson will be joined by Maya Gislason (Assistant Professor in SFU’s Faculty of Health Sciences) and Chuka Ejeckam (political researcher and writer) for a wide-ranging conversation and audience Q&A moderated by CBC journalist Laura Lynch, host ofWhat On Earth on CBC Radio.

Points of discussion will include:

  • What is the relationship between inequality, rates of transmission and vaccination and vaccine hesitancy?
  • How did inequality in Canada affect the worst outcomes of the COVID-19 pandemic?
  • How can reducing inequality better equip us to respond to the climate crisis?
  • How does the reduction of inequality improve economic outcomes for everyone?
Wed, 27 Oct 2021

12:00 p.m. (PT)

Online Event


ASL interpretation and closed captioning in English will be available at this event.

SFU Vancouver Speaker Series

The SFU Vancouver Speaker Series brings global experts to a local audience. Launched in 2012, the series builds on SFU’s rich history of community engagement by exploring critical issues to contribute to better understanding among Vancouver’s citizens through an intellectually enriching experience.

The SFU Vancouver Speaker Series is presented by SFU Public Square, in partnership with SFU Vancouver and SFU’s Vancity Office of Community Engagement.

Richard Wilkinson

Richard Wilkinson has played a formative role in international research on the social determinants of health and on the societal effects of income inequality. He studied economic history at the London School of Economics before training in epidemiology and is a Professor Emeritus of Social Epidemiology at the University of Nottingham Medical School, Honorary Professor at University College London and Visiting Professor at the University of York.

Wilkinson's books and papers have drawn attention to the tendency for societies with bigger income differences between rich and poor to have a higher prevalence of a wide range of health and social problems. The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better, co-written by Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, is a best-seller available in 24 languages. It won the 2011 Political Studies Association Publication of the Year Award and the 2010 Bristol Festival of Ideas Prize, and was chosen as one of the Top Ten Books of the Decade by The New Statesman. In their 2019 book, The Inner Level: How More Equal Societies Reduce Stress, Restore Sanity and Improve Everyone's Well-Being, Wilkinson and Pickett move from the study of inequality on societies to how it affects us individually, and how material inequities have powerful psychological effects.

Wilkinson is also the co-founder of The Equality Trust (with support from the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust), which seeks to promote public understanding of the effects of inequality. In 2013 Wilkinson received SOLIDAR's Silver Rose Award and Community Access Unlimited’s Humanitarian of the Year Award. The Irish Cancer Society awarded him the 2014 Charles Cully Memorial Medal, and he was the 2017 medalist of the Australian Society for Medical Research.

In the last few years he has given many hundreds of conference addresses and media interviews round the world, including at the World Health Organization, the European Union, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, and the World Bank.


Maya Gislason

Assistant Professor, Faculty of Health Sciences, SFU

Dr. Gislason is a Michael Smith Foundation for Health Research Scholar, Assistant Professor in the Faculty of Health Sciences at Simon Fraser University and founder of the Research for Eco-social and Equitable Transformation (RESET) team. As an eco-social equity scholar, she works with a range of partners on projects rooted in the ethic of intergenerational climate justice and towards the goal of improving health for people and the planet. Dr. Gislason works with governments using sex- and gender-based analysis approaches to address the impacts of climate change on equity-deserving groups and is championing new work on children’s mental health resilience and climate change.

Chuka Ejeckam

Political researcher and writer

Chuka Ejeckam is a political researcher and writer in British Columbia, and a research associate with the BC Office of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives. He holds a master's student in political science from the University of British Columbia. He also serves on the steering and advisory committee of the SFU Labour Studies Program, and has served on the organizing committee for a UBC Lind Initiative speaker series. His writings can be found at and elsewhere.

Chuka is also a member of the advisory committee for our Towards Equity Community Summit. For more from him, read our On Equity interview with him!


Laura Lynch

CBC Journalist

Laura Lynch is an award-winning journalist with the CBC. She is the host of What On Earth on CBC Radio, which won the 2021 CJF Award for Climate Solutions Reporting. In the course of her career, she has reported from across Canada and around the world, and has won the prestigious Nieman fellowship from Harvard University, awards from the British Bar Association, the Canadian Bar Association, RTNDA (Canada and U.S.), Overseas Press Club of America, Amnesty International, RNAO and the Gabriel awards. Laura has a law degree from the University of Victoria and a journalism degree from Carleton University.

Event Summary

Recap of Inequality, Pandemics and Climate Change featuring Richard Wilkinson

By Charlene Aviles, Peer Educator, SFU Public Square

As part of the SFU Vancouver Speaker Series, SFU Public Square hosted Inequality, Pandemics, and Climate Change with social epidemiologist Richard Wilkinson. Along with Wilkinson, the event featured SFU health sciences associate professor Maya Gislason and political researcher Chuka Ejeckam, with CBC journalist Laura Lynch as moderator.

Read More

At the start of the event, Wilkinson warned against the common theme of unrealistic optimism when talking about climate change. He recognized natural disasters and heat waves are warning signs that climate change is an immediate concern with severe consequences, such as political instability. 

According to Wilkinson, the dialogue regarding climate change requires honesty. He pointed out how extreme the climate crisis is: “More than half of the [global CO2] emissions, human emissions, since 1750 have come since 1990. That is an indication of the enormous scale at which we are tipping this into the atmosphere.”

Wilkinson advocated against fossil fuel use of any kind, while acknowledging that the transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy will be a labour-intensive and time-consuming process. While renewable energy is an alternative energy source, this industry still uses fossil fuels, especially through mining.

“We would have to erect, every year for the next 15 years, four times as many wind turbines and three times as many solar panels as the US did in 2019, and then replace the whole stock every 15 to 30 years.

”We can no longer hold a comforting idea that sustainability is simply a matter of switching to a new energy system and continuing our high impact lifestyles into the future,” said Wilkinson.

He also recognized that as industrialization has increased, overpopulation has exacerbated climate change. “Large-scale industrial production means we’re using somewhere around 1.6 or 1.75 planets, and that means we’re eating into natural stocks,” he said.

According to Wilkinson, increased consumption and consumerism are especially common in regions with higher levels of inequality. Thus, equality for all and climate action are interconnected goals.

Survey results revealed that “business leaders in more equal countries give a higher priority to international environmental agreements.” For example, these countries have the highest rates of recycled waste.

Chuka Ejeckam responded to Wilkinson’s comments on the likelihood of refugees increasing. He was concerned with how governments should balance domestic and international political interests.

“The political system, the public and the government have to be willing to reduce the aggregate well-being of people within their own country or jurisdiction to increase the aggregate well-being outside of their country’s jurisdiction,” said Ejeckam.

In contrast to Wilkinson, Maya Gislason agreed conversations about climate change should be honest but should circle back to hope. 

“I think what we call grounded hope in our work is this idea that we tell the truth to ourselves and one another. We are grounded in science,” said Gislason. She recognized that youth want to balance out the conversation “with ambition, with love [ . . . ] and with a commitment to doing things differently.”


Event Recording

In the News

How the pandemic and climate change have shown inequities in health — CBC's The Early Edition with Stephen Quinn (October 27, 2021)


SFU Vancouver Speaker Series Events

  • Inequality, Pandemics and Climate Change featuring Richard Wilkinson

    2021, Equity + Justice, Climate + Environment, Series SFU Vancouver Speaker Series

    In this SFU Vancouver Speaker Series lecture, Wilkinson will address how inequality affected the pandemic experience and response, and how we can improve quality of life post-COVID as we face the ultimate challenge of the climate crisis.

    Read More →

  • The Great Derangement featuring Amitav Ghosh

    2019, Series SFU Vancouver Speaker Series, Arts + Culture, Climate + Environment

    Are we deranged? Acclaimed Indian novelist Amitav Ghosh argues that future generations may well think so, given our imaginative failure in the face of global warming.

    Read More →

  • Gwynne Dyer: The Populist Revolt — Its Causes and Cure

    2019, Series SFU Vancouver Speaker Series, Democracy

    In this SFU Vancouver Speaker Series event, journalist, author and historian Gwynne Dyer discusses how both the emotional and financial pain of unemployment have been driving populism in the U.S. and beyond, and how universal basic income could be a solution.

    Read More →

  • The Future of Learning

    Series SFU Vancouver Speaker Series, 2017, Future of Work

    The future of learning is upon us. How well are universities responding to the changing world students face? How relevant are today’s educational programs for tomorrow’s challenges? How can we ensure universities serve the needs of students? How must universities evolve to ensure their approach to educating is contemporary, fulfilling, and relevant?

    Read More →

  • This Changes Everything featuring Naomi Klein

    Series SFU Vancouver Speaker Series, 2016, Climate + Environment, Economy

    Join us for this special evening with Naomi Klein, award-winning journalist, syndicated columnist and author.

    Read More →

  • The Rules of Revolt featuring Chris Hedges

    Series SFU Vancouver Speaker Series, Climate + Environment, 2015, Democracy

    In Chris Hedges' vision, the forces that drive the current climate crisis, that drive the planet beyond its carrying capacity and fuel the unfolding extinction event, are the same forces that have invaded and ultimately invalidated our so-called democratic processes. This is a largely unchecked corporate power, driven by a logic of growth and profit-making, that arguably leaves the rest of us little option other than mass disobedience and a grass roots reclaiming of the power of the streets.

    Read More →

  • improv4humans (with The Sunday Service) featuring Matt Besser

    Series SFU Vancouver Speaker Series, Arts + Culture, 2014

    Few names are as synonymous with Improv as Matt Besser. A founding member of the Upright Citizens Brigade (UCB) along with Amy Poehler, Matt Walsh and Ian Roberts, Besser’s credits include appearances on Late Night with Conan O’Brien, Spin City, Frasier, Human Giant, Curb Your Enthusiasm, How I Met Your Mother, Reno 911, Key & Peele, Parks & Recreation, & Comedy Bang! Bang!

    Read More →

  • Cryptocurrencies: Bitcoin & Beyond featuring David Andolfatto

    Series SFU Vancouver Speaker Series, 2014, Economy

    Professor David Andolfatto will discuss money, payments, and monetary policy in a world with cryptocurrencies. Following the lecture, Andolfatto will be joined by cryptocurrency commentators Stephen Hui and Michael Yeung for a moderated discussion.

    Read More →

  • Jesse Thorn & His Podcasting Pals (with Graham Clark & Dave Shumka)

    Series SFU Vancouver Speaker Series, Arts + Culture, 2014, Media + Information

    Thorn’s talk will cover how he innovatively turned his college radio show into an independent media powerhouse, and how 12 other people, many of them his friends and colleagues, exemplify the qualities you need to make your independent artistic and career aspirations a reality in the internet age.

    Read More →

  • Gwynne Dyer - Climate Wars

    Series SFU Vancouver Speaker Series, 2013, Climate + Environment

    The lecture “Climate Wars” is based on Dr Dyer's book of the same name. Drawing on interviews with scientists, policy-makers and military strategists in a dozen different countries, it explores the grave geopolitical implications of large-scale (and probably rapid) climate change. Governments are starting to make some calculations that they prefer not to discuss in front of the children.

    Read More →

  • Shabana Azmi: Sex and Sensibility

    Series SFU Vancouver Speaker Series, Equity + Justice, Arts + Culture, Media + Information, 2013

    Shabana Azmi, who is receiving an honorary degree from SFU on June 12, will speak about her life and work in cinema and activism, focusing on the attitudes towards women on screen and in society, a discussion of particular relevance due to the current political climate in India.

    Read More →

  • The Right to Adequate Housing: A Talk by Miloon Kothari

    Series SFU Vancouver Speaker Series, 2012, Cities, Equity + Justice

    The lecture will trace the evolution of the Right to Adequate Housing since the early 1990's concentrating on the work done by civil society campaigns and movements around the world and their influence on the interpretation of this critical human right at the UN human rights bodies. The lecture will also summarize the many obstacles that impede the implementation of this well articulated human right, including the impact of the current economic crisis in many regions of the world.

    Read More →