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Seven Big Warnings from the Killer Heat Wave

The ‘heat dome’ signalled our new reality. Here are key issues we must address now — or pay a big price later.

Crawford Kilian 19 Jul

Crawford Kilian is a contributing editor of The Tyee.

B.C. had a brush with death in the last week of June. The heat dome that settled over us pushed temperatures to unheard-of highs, tripled our normal death rate and forced B.C. to burn through 70 per cent of its wildfire-fighting budget when the “season” has barely begun. After making Lytton the most famous small town in the world, the heat dome burned it to the ground.

The relatively normal temperatures of early July, together with the relaxed COVID-19 travel restrictions, might encourage us to forget the last week of June and enjoy the rest of the summer. But the heat wave wasn’t a one-off; it was a week-long preview of the future, a glimpse of ever-hotter summers for the rest of our lives.

Just putting in more cooling centres isn’t going to help. I can see seven intertwined problems we need to start solving immediately, though the solutions are likely to be unpopular and expensive.

Problem 1: The destruction of the rural economy

Logging, mining, cattle, fishing and tourism will be under unheard-of stress due to lack of water and the threat of more wildfires. During the June heat wave, BC Hydro dealt with scores, if not hundreds, of local power outages, often resulting from heat-related equipment failure. One blacked out Sointula, on Malcolm Island, for half a day; another shut down electricity for the north Vancouver Island region for almost 24 hours. Food spoiled, and backup generators were needed to pump water out of wells. Internet access was down for days.

Future heat waves will aggravate and extend such events. Homeowners and businesses will find it harder and more expensive to get insurance. Aging energy infrastructure will fail in heat waves and fires. Communities may decide it’s easier to go off the grid and rely on local renewable energy like solar instead.

Problem 2: Water

Vancouver Island and the Gulf Islands are already dealing with drought. Meanwhile, B.C.’s 17,000 glaciers are melting too early and too fast in the heat, bringing the threat of floods to the Fraser River now, and drought later in the summer. The consequences for Okanagan vineyards and orchards, Fraser Valley farms and wild salmon could be catastrophic.

How do we conserve the water we have? More dams aren’t the answer: apart from the carbon emissions from making concrete, dam reservoirs can evaporate, as Lake Mead in Nevada is currently doing. Maybe we can rebuild our wetlands, or create new ones. “Flood the swamp!” could become a new political slogan.

And can we keep our rivers and lakes at tolerable temperatures? If not, we lose our wild salmon. If they go, so do bears, orcas and even the forests fed on nutrients from salmon.

Problem 3: Air pollution

Wildfires are gigantic smog factories. A recent report from the Global Climate and Health Alliance lists some of the effects.

“Forest fire smoke contains a range of pollutants including particulate matter, carbon dioxide, nitrogen oxides and volatile organic compounds. It may pollute domestic water tanks and waterways with ash and particulates, as can the fire retardant dropped by planes and helicopters.

“Health impacts increase in step with incremental increases in air pollution and are seen especially in children, the elderly and those with existing chronic medical conditions. People who spend more time outdoors are more vulnerable, along with older people over 65, people with asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and cardiovascular disease. Modest rises in pollution levels can have major population health impacts if enough people are exposed or the smoke persists for a long time.”

The report includes a “country report” on Canada. It cites studies that find fine particulate pollution can affect every organ in the body and have observable effects on cardiovascular and respiratory health within an hour of exposure. Pollution can double asthma cases and increase emergency room visits for respiratory problems.

Nine B.C. communities, including Prince George, Kamloops and Kelowna had particulate matter pollution Friday that exceeded provincial standards.

The country report also quotes Sarah Henderson, scientific director for Environmental Health Services in the BC Centre for Disease Control:

“People don’t like to think about the decades ahead, we would not be in the climate crisis that we are currently in if people did like to think about those things. What tends to happen as smoke comes, is everybody gets all worked up about it, and then it leaves and then they forget about it, and then maybe the next year is not a bad year. And then they have this wishful thinking that fires are gone now... but this problem is with us for decades. And it’s going to have long-term health consequences.”

Those consequences will be on top of the eight million people a year who already die of fossil-fuel pollution around the world.

Problem 4: Wildfire emissions

The Sierra Club estimates that B.C. forests — traditionally carbon sinks — became net emitters of CO2 almost 20 years ago. Emissions from logging (including slash burning) seem to have been fudged by the provincial government.

“Because wildfire emissions have skyrocketed,” the Sierra Club says, “we must now expect to add roughly 190 million tonnes to the annual tally, for a total of about 237 million tonnes of uncounted forest emissions (43 million from logging, 4 million from slash burning and 190 million from wildfires).”

A 2018 B.C. government “progress” report found our 2016 transportation emissions were 23.9 million tonnes — down just one per cent from 2007. Total 2016 emissions were 61.3 million tonnes.

So wildfire and logging emissions make our Teslas and heat pumps and carbon taxes less than effective as ways to mitigate global heating.

Problem 5: Housing

We don’t house everyone as it is, and the housing we do build is inflammable, fragile, poorly ventilated and hard to keep warm or cool. Or standing, or dry.

We keep building highrise condos, forgetting the leaky condo years and ignoring the recent Champlain Towers collapse in Florida. A neighbourhood in Barrie, Ontario, just suffered catastrophic damage from a tornado. And scores of people have just died in Germany as sudden flooding swept away roads and homes.

Somehow we have to rebuild our communities to endure a range of climate disasters while giving safe and comfortable shelter to everyone — because we will need all hands on deck so we can go on making a living amid these disasters. Elon Musk wants to build viable communities on Mars; he might find it more challenging to build them in Canada.

Problem 6: Public health

Air pollution and mental health issues linked to the dramatic changes in our lives will put new burdens on health care. And the pandemic isn’t going away anytime soon. In North America, getting COVID-19 is now a political decision by Canadian and American right-wingers, but we are all stuck with taking care of patients and those slowly recovering from Long COVID. The long-haulers will need care for everything from fatigue and brain fog to hallucinations, itchy skin, bladder control and tinnitus.

And they will need that care from health-care workers who themselves have suffered grave losses in the pandemic, often in the service of patients who thought COVID-19 was a hoax, and of governments that want to cut their salaries. Nurses are already burned out and quitting in droves. We’ll need to recruit their replacements, and more, with better pay and working conditions.

We’ll also need them for the routine health care — vaccinations, prenatal exams, testing — that used to keep Canadians among the healthiest people on the planet, but which has been shunted aside as the pandemic hijacked our health system.

Problem 7: Food

We can still get apples from Chile and tomatoes from Mexico for now, but food prices are going up around the world, with global heating a key factor.

The United Nations this month noted that the pandemic has triggered a spike in world hunger. “Malnutrition persisted in all its forms,” the UN said, “with children paying a high price…. A full three-billion adults and children remained locked out of healthy diets, largely due to excessive costs.”

The cost of staples is rising around the world. A similar surge in 2010-2012 helped trigger the Arab Spring and a decade of violence in Syria. Aggravated by war, drought and pandemic-related unemployment, food insecurity is already behind current unrest from Cuba to South Africa.

Most Canadians spend no more than 10 per cent of their disposable income on food — unless they’re poor, Indigenous or Black. In Kenya, households spend almost half their income just to feed themselves.

As heat waves ruin crops and kill livestock in Canada, our prices will go up too. American and Mexican farms and ranches will confront the same climate problems. Government subsidies may help reduce the cost of food at the checkout, but not for long. A nice restaurant meal will be out of reach for most, and a fast-food hamburger will be a rare treat. Many families will have a choice for dinner between chips (potato or tortilla?), hard-pressed food banks or backyard gardening.

What’s ahead?

We’re facing a different world.

We’ll have to put our hard-earned tax dollars into countless responses to these challenges: training and equipping new health-care workers and first responders, environmental research, funding new industries and retraining workers for them, building new housing and transportation systems.

And we’ll have to change the whole purpose of our economy: from exploiting our resources for personal enrichment and, perhaps, some social mobility, to saving our own lives by taking care of one another. The Trudeau government showed in early 2020 that it understood that principle: that’s why it pumped money into distressed businesses and unemployed workers.

Trudeau’s Liberals will likely hesitate to confront all the implications of the June heat wave. But they are educated people, and perhaps they’re aware of earlier empires that fell to drought and social unrest. The empires fell. Their people survived, by building sustainable societies without them.  [Tyee]

Read more: Health, Environment

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