Two weeks ago, the Canadian Institute for Climate Choices published a report on the effects of climate change on public health and the need for action to adapt to a new reality of extreme threats.
“Climate change,” wrote Ian Culbert, executive director of the Canadian Public Health Association, in the introduction to the report, “is an escalating public health emergency and we must start treating it that way.”
The historic and deadly heat wave in British Columbia made those words frighteningly real – even before they started a forest fire that devastated most of the village of Lytton, British Columbia.
“We are now campaigning for some global warming because of past emissions,” said Ryan Ness, the institute’s director of adaptation research and co-author of the report, in an interview on Friday.
“So in the longer term it is absolutely critical to reduce greenhouse gases as quickly as possible as much as possible so it doesn’t get worse, but there is some climate change that we cannot avoid. The only way to really deal with it is in preparing for this climate change, adapting and becoming more resilient. “
This means counteracting the increased risk of floods and forest fires. It also means considering how climate change will endanger the health of Canadians.
A hotter, more dangerous world
Adjustment will require much greater action on the part of governments – and learn some of the lessons of the other public health crisis we have been fighting over the past year and a half.
The institute’s report estimates that increased economic, social and health costs associated with multiple climate change impacts – ground level ozone (smog), rising heat, and the spread of Lyme disease – will be billions of dollars by mid-century, even in a ” low emission “scenario. Damage and costs only increase if emissions are not reduced.
However, because some costs are difficult to predict, the researchers have not modeled all of the potential impacts – for example, on mental health or the effects of poor air quality from forest fires or weather-related threats to healthcare facilities.
Thick smoke from forest fires fills the air as a man stands on a boat while fishing on Kamloops Lake west of Kamloops, BC, Tuesday, August 1, 2017. (Darryl Dyck / The Canadian Press)
This summer in Canada is perhaps remembered for its record breaking and deadly heat. But a similar fatal wave follows in Montreal in 2018. And the future only promises more heat.
The report finds that Ontario and Manitoba experienced approximately 50 days each year between 1971 and 2000 when temperatures were high enough to cause heat-related deaths. In the 2050s, the institute estimates that the annual grand total will be 1.5 times higher.
This extra heat will bring more people to hospitals. With particular attention to coronary artery disease, stroke, high blood pressure and diabetes, the report estimates a 21 percent increase in heat-related hospital admissions in a low-emission scenario.
Nancy Fisher is photographed at a Toronto homeless camp on Friday July 10, 2020 during an earlier period of rising temperatures. (Chris Young / The Canadian Press)
And More People Will Die: The report estimates that heat will cause an additional 200 to 425 deaths per year in Canada by mid-century.
The institute found that two building renovation measures would reduce the death toll. “If shading technology were installed in 25 percent of households in Canada by the 2050s, there would be an average of 21 fewer deaths per year,” the report said. “If 50 percent of all residential, commercial and institutional buildings had green roofs by 2050, an average of 46 deaths a year would be avoided.”
Green roofs and shading can reduce the effects of generally higher temperatures, but such things are not necessarily enough to protect people from extreme events.
“When it comes to these extreme heat emergencies, the response systems really need to be in place to identify the people who will be hardest hit and provide them with the care they need, be it cooling centers, medical care, whether it’s a place to get off the street, “said Ness.
“And in the longer term, it will be important to address the underlying causes of what makes some people more vulnerable than others. Because it’s not really the average person who is likely to die of a heatwave. It’s someone who is alive.” on the street, someone who already has health problems because they are unable to get the health care they need, or the elderly who do not have the support they need to help them through these situations. “
What the pandemic should have taught us
The provincial coroner said many of the 300 people who suddenly died in British Columbia’s recent heat wave were seniors living in poorly ventilated homes.
That is a disturbing echo of what happened in this country during the current pandemic. When COVID-19 hit, seniors who lived in inadequate long-term care facilities suffered most.
Often times during the pandemic, it was low-income Canadians of racial origin who saw higher infection rates and were forced to take the greatest risk as “essential workers”. The Climate Choices report shows that climate change has the potential to exacerbate existing inequalities.
Paramedics are removing a person from the Revera Westside long-term care home during the COVID-19 pandemic in Toronto on Monday, December 7, 2020. (Nathan Denette / The Canadian Press)
These weaknesses need to be taken into account in responding to climate change – but reducing or eliminating these disparities in general would also create a society better prepared for the stresses that climate change brings.
“It’s incredibly important to address vulnerability and give people the resources and the best possible chance to achieve good health before these things happen,” said Ness.
And while the focus may now be on heat, Ness notes that deteriorating air quality could create problems that “dwarf” the effects of higher temperatures.
The liberal federal government has committed to developing a national adaptation strategy – although a recent report by the International Institute for Sustainable Development found that Canada lags behind some European countries in such planning.
The federal government has also allocated billions of dollars to disaster risk reduction, infrastructure improvement and public reporting (including the recently released National Issues Report on the effects of climate change on Canada). However, the Institute for Climate Choices found that only three percent of the climate adaptation funds announced in the latest budgets were specifically targeted at public health.
While adaptation is now coming to the fore – a new coalition of insurance companies and environmental organizations have come together to push for federal action – it ranks second in the public debate on climate change in general, perhaps with some justification. Mitigating future climate change by reducing greenhouse gas emissions is far better than just learning to live with its effects.
But the world is long past the point where some dangerous climate change could be avoided. And we no longer have to look to the future to imagine what this change might look like and feel like. The climate crisis is here.