The Summer of 2019: Flooding, hurricanes, wildfires and heatwaves

The world has awoken to the real-life manifestations of climate change in 2019, and we have been bombarded with media images of extreme weather disasters.  July 2019 was approximately 1.2°C warmer than the pre-industrial era, according to a summary of international heat waves by the World Metorological Organization (WMO) on August 1.  The WMO also published “Unprecedented wildfires in the Arctic” (July 29) and “Widespread fires harm global climate, environment” on August 29, including information about the Amazon wildfires.   “Global heating made Hurricane Dorian bigger, wetter – and more deadly”  by scientists Michael Mann and Andrew Dessler appeared in The Guardian on September 4  and “Is climate change making hurricanes stall?” at the PBS website  both offer clear summaries of  the climate change connection to the most recent extreme weather disaster the world has seen.

In Canada, flooding was the predominant weather disaster: In a July 2019 press release, the Insurance Bureau of Canada  described the flooding events of April and May and estimated that spring flooding in Ontario, Quebec and New Brunswick caused close to $208 million in insured damage . In the same press release, the IBC advocates that all political parties in the upcoming federal election commit to a National Action Plan on Flooding.  ( The IBC  published Options for Managing the Flood Costs of Canada’s Highest-risk Residential Properties in June,  the result of national consultations with the  Working Group on the Financial Management of Flood Risk, co-chaired by Public Safety Canada and the IBC.  The report is summarized in the IBC press release  and in the National Observer  “Who should bear the financial risk of flooding? Report lays out three options” in the National Observer June 19 .  )

BCclimate-risk-assessmentIn what it calls the first report of its kind in Canada to examine climate risks at the provincial level, the British Columbia government published a Preliminary Strategic Climate Risk Assessment for British Columbia in July 2019. The report evaluates the likelihood of  15 climate risk events and considers their health, social, economic and environmental consequences, concluding that the greatest risks to B.C. are severe wildfire season, seasonal water shortage, heat wave, ocean acidification, glacier loss, and long-term water shortage.  A compilation of  forty-six articles concerning Wildfires is available from the National Observer, and includes “‘Climate change in action:’ Scientist says fires in Alberta linked to climate change” (June 10).

In late June, Healthy Climate, Healthy New Brunswickers: A proposal for New Brunswick that cuts pollution and protects health was released, written  by Louise Comeau and Daniel Nunes. The report describes how climate change will affect the physical and mental health of all New Brunswickers, especially children, seniors, the isolated, and those living on low incomes. The report combines climate projections and existing community health profiles for 16 New Brunswick communities, emphasizing the risks of more intense precipitation, flooding and heat waves.

Extreme Heat in Canada and Beyond: 

heatreportcoverThe Prairie Climate Centre at the University  of Winnipeg released Heat Waves and Health  in August – a brief and practical guide to the health impacts of heat waves, drought and wildfires in Canada. The report predicts future heat waves in Canada, based on data newly updated the Climate Atlas of Canada   .  Previous projections were published as Chapter 4 in the federal government’s 2019 report Canada’s Changing Climate Report :  “Changes in Temperature and Precipitation Across Canada” .

Heat is a much more widespread danger in the United States, with Phoenix Arizona experiencing 128 days at or above 100 degrees Fahrenheit in 2018 –  one of the hottest and fastest-warming cities in the country, according to an article in the New York Times,  “As Phoenix heats up, the night comes alive” . The Times article describes how citizens and workers must re-schedule their lives and their job duties to avoid the killing heat of the day.  Phoenix is also the main focus of a lengthly  article,  “Can we survive extreme heat” in the Rolling Stone (Aug. 27) .

killer-heat-report-cover-thumbnailKiller Heat in the United States: Climate Choices and the Future of Dangerously Hot Days   was released in July by the  Union of Concerned Scientists, directed to a non-technical audience, and includes interactive maps and downloadable date here . The report offers national and regional projections and in Chapter 5, addresses the particular implications for outdoor workers, as well as city and rural dwellers, and those in low-income neighbourhoods. A more technical version of the research appeared as “Increased frequency of and population exposure to extreme heat index days in the United States during the 21st century” in the Open Access journal Environmental Research Communications .

The accuracy and sensitivity of occupational exposure limits to heat is examined in “Actual and simulated weather data to evaluate wet bulb globe temperature and heat index as alerts for occupational heat related illness”. This important article, published in the  Journal of Occupational and Environmental Hygiene in January 2019, analysed the cases of  234 outdoor work-related heat-related illnesses reported to the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration in 2016 and concluded that wet bulb globe temperature (WBGT) should be used for workplace heat hazard assessment. When WBGT is unavailable, a Heat Index alert threshold of approximately 80 °F (26.7 °C) could identify potentially hazardous workplace environmental heat.

Finally, “Can the Paris Climate Goals Save Lives? Yes, a Lot of Them, Researchers Say” in the New York Times (June 5)  summarizes a more technical article which appeared in the journal Sciences Advances on June 5 .  “Increasing mitigation ambition to meet the Paris Agreement’s temperature goal avoids substantial heat-related mortality in U.S. cities”  reviews the literature about heat-related mortality and concludes that achieving the 1.5°C threshold of the Paris Agreement  could avoid between 110 and 2720 annual heat-related deaths in 15 U.S. cities.

New Brunswick launches consultation on industrial emissions – updated

The Government of New Brunswick opposes the federal government carbon tax and maintains a “We can’t afford a carbon tax” page on the government website – which estimates the costs (but none of the benefits) of the federal carbon backstop in effect in the province.  On June 13, New Brunswick introduced its own Made-in-New Brunswick  Regulatory Approach for Large Emitters ,  an output-based pricing system which will cover roughly 50 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions in the province and will require large industrial emitters, including electricity generators, to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions intensity by 10 per cent by 2030.

The CBC summarized the plan and reaction in “Province proposes carbon tax on tiny fraction of emissions from big industrial polluters”  (June 13) . CBC states that the proposed system would tax only 0.84 percent of greenhouse gas emissions from the province’s biggest emitters, such as Irving Oil,  far below the 20 per cent in the existing federal system. However, it covers the same industrial sectors, applies to the same gases and applies the same price scale of $20 per tonne this year, rising to $50 per tonne in 2022.

A Discussion paper , Holding Large Emitters Accountable: New Brunswick’s Output-Based Pricing System  forms the basis of a public comment period about the proposed system, which runs from June 13 to July 12.  One public response has been published by the Ecofiscal Commission in Exception to the Rule: Why New Brunswick’s Industrial Carbon Pricing System is Problematic (June 19) , which contends that under the proposed regulations, “firms can very easily achieve their emissions intensity benchmark, because it will be essentially set to current levels.”

The Conservation Council of New Brunswick reaction was quoted by the CBC, and also states that the proposed regulations are too weak.  Emphasizing the importance of the issue, on June 25 the Council released Healthy Climate, Healthy New Brunswickers: A proposal for New Brunswick that cuts pollution and protects health,  by Louise Comeau and Daniel Nunes. The Council characterizes the report as “the first comprehensive look at how climate change will affect the physical and mental health of all New Brunswickers, but particularly the very young, seniors, the isolated, and those living on low incomes.”  The report combines climate projections and existing community health profiles for 16 New Brunswick communities, emphasizing the risks of more intense precipitation, flooding and heat waves. It includes recommendations for action and attempts to end on a hopeful note. The report is available in English and French versions from this link .

Updates on New Brunswick’s carbon tax:  On July 8, CBC reported “New Brunswick Premier Blaine  Higgs  abandons  planned carbon tax court fight” , which explains that the province will save taxpayers’ money by supporting Saskatchewan’s Supreme Court of Canada challenge to the carbon tax as an intervenor, since Saskatchewan’s arguments are the same as New Brunswick’s.   Also in  July, an historical and political analysis appeared in Policy Options, “ New Brunswick’s timid foray into carbon pricing”, as part of the week-long series , The Evolution of Carbon Pricing in the Provinces .

 

Canadian nurses’ unions issue a call for action on the climate health emergency

Nurses climatechange-cover-368x480The Canadian Federation of Nurses Unions (CFNU) is the umbrella organization representing approximately 200,000 nursing and front-line health professionals in unions across Canada. At their Biennial Convention in Fredricton in June, representatives passed Resolution #3, calling on the CFNU and its Member Organizations: …  to recognize within their position statements that climate change is “a global crisis and health emergency”; …to support sustainable health care practices to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in health care settings; …to “engage with community stakeholders, such as the Canadian Labour Congress, in initiatives and campaigns that raise the public’s awareness about the serious health implications of climate change”; and to call on the federal and provincial governments to undertake the necessary policies to meet Canada’s obligations under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (the Paris Agreement)….”

Also at the convention, the CFNU released a  discussion paper: Climate Change and Health: It’s Time for Nurses to Act . It is described as “a starting point for for advocacy and leadership”. It summarizes the well-established health impacts related to climate change in the Canadian environment – for example, heat stress, increased allergies and asthma, cardiorespiratory distress from air pollution due to wildfires, Lyme disease. It includes a special focus on mental health and anxiety impacts.  It also highlights three practical examples from  2018 : wildfire smoke exposure in B.C., flooding in Atlantic Canada, and heat waves in Ontario and Quebec.

The report concludes with these six recommendations for nurses:

  1. Work with your employers, unions and associations to reduce emissions and to “green” your workplace.  (sub-recommendations include “Promote the divestment of pension plans from high-emission sectors and the investment in clean technologies and low-emission sectors;”)
  2. Know about climate change science, and help educate patients and the general public about it.  (sub-recommendations include “Campaign for the ecological determinants of health to be included in nursing education to prepare future generations of nurses, who will see the greatest effects of climate change. Nursing education should support a basic level of climate change literacy.”)
  3. Call for meaningful federal and provincial actions to reduce and eliminate climate change-causing emissions to ensure Canada leads the world in implementing its obligations under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (The Paris Accord). (Sub-recommendation: Promote transitioning away from fossil fuels towards renewable energy. ….. By investing in renewal energy rather than in fossil fuels we are committing to a healthier future.)
  4. Be aware and plan for the emerging needs of patients resulting from climate change and help them take action to support a healthy planet. (Sub-recommendation: “ Be aware and prepare your workplaces for future influxes of climate refugees coming to Canada. This population may have experienced trauma or extreme environmental conditions and taken risks to enter this country.”)
  5. Be prepared for extreme weather events.
  6. Promote active transportation and local healthy agriculture and food systems to reduce emissions.

Climate-Change-Toolkit-for-Health-Professionals-2019-234x300The Discussion paper was launched as part of a panel which included Dr. Courtney Howard, president of the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment.  CAPE issued their latest Call to Action  in February 2019 , in collaboration with the Canadian Medical Association , the Canadian Nurses Association, the Urban Public Health Network , and the Canadian Public Health Association.  On April 30, CAPE released a Climate Change Toolkit for Health Professionals, which is available for download in either English or French , and offers eight stand-alone modules with seven factsheets. Topics include Climate Change Health Impacts Globally and Across Canada; Taking Climate Change Action at Health Facilities ; Preparing for Climate Change in our Communities;  and Engaging in Climate Change as Health Professionals, which highlights, for example,  CAPE’s role in the campaign to phase-out coal in Alberta. As part of their active advocacy campaign, CAPE  makes frequent media statements and was part of the health delegation which met with the federal Minister of Health on June 7 .

Climate change and health: more evidence of the dangers of extreme heat for workers

european health reportThe Imperative of Climate Action to Protect Human health in Europe was released on June 3  by the European Academies Science Advisory Council, urging that adaptation and mitigation policies give  health effects a greater emphasis, as well as proposing priorities for health policy research and data coordination in the EU.   The report also acts as a comprehensive literature review of the research on the present and future health impacts of climate change in EU countries.  It documents studies of direct and indirect health effects of extreme heat, forest fires, flooding, pollution, and impacts on food and nutrition.  Some of these impacts include communicable infectious diseases, mental illness, injuries, labour productivity, violence and conflict, and migration. It identifies the most vulnerable groups as the elderly, the sick, children, and migrating and marginalized populations, with city dwellers at greater risk of heat stress than rural populations.

construction drinking waterHeat as a Health risk for workers:  Although the report doesn’t highlight outdoor workers such as farmers and construction workers as a high risk group, it does weigh in on heat effects on labour productivity for indoor and outdoor workers.   For example,  “Even small increases in temperature may reduce cognitive and physical performance and hence impair labour productivity and earning power, with further consequences for health. Earlier analyses had concentrated on the effects of heat on rural labour capacity, but now it is appreciated that many occupations may be affected. For example, recent analysis by the French Agency for Food, Environmental, Occupational Health and Safety (ANSES 2018) concludes that productivity and health of workers in most business sectors will be affected in European countries by 2050. The effects of indoor high temperatures in terms of altered circadian rhythms were recently reported (Zheng et al. 2019) as part of a broader discussion of the literature on indoor high temperatures and human work efficiency. For temperature rises greater than 2°C, labour productivity could drop by 10–15% in some southern European countries (Ciscar et al. 2018). Meta-analysis of the global literature confirms that occupational heat strain has important health and productivity outcomes.”Canada Post Strike 20160705

Also: “with 1.5°C global temperature change, about 350 million people worldwide would be exposed to extreme heat stress sufficient to reduce greatly the ability to undertake physical labour for at least the hottest month in the year; this increases to about one billion people with 2.5°C global temperature change .”

And also: Hot and humid indoor environments may result in “mould and higher concentrations of chemical substances. Health risks include respiratory diseases such as allergy, asthma and rhinitis as well as more unspecific symptoms such as eye and respiratory irritation. Asthma and respiratory symptoms have been reported to be 30–50% more common in humid houses.”

Calls to improve heat standards for U.S. workers : A report in 2018,  Extreme Heat and Unprotected Workers , stated that  heat killed 783 workers in the U.S. and seriously injured nearly 70,000 between 1992 and 2017. The report was published by  Public Citizen, a coalition of social justice groups and labour unions. They continue to  campaign  for a dedicated federal standard regarding heat exposure – most recently with a  letter to the U.S. Department of Labor on April 26, 2019 which states: we “call on you to take swift action to protect workers from the growing dangers of climate change and rising temperatures in the workplace. …. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration has an obligation to prevent future heat-related injuries, illnesses and fatalities by issuing a heat stress standard for outdoor and indoor workers.”  The campaign is described in   “Worker advocates burned up over lack of federal heat protections” in FairWarning (May 9), with examples of some U.S. fatalities.  Notably, the death of a  63-year-old postal worker in her mail truck in Los Angeles in July 2018  resulted in  H.R. 1299,  the Peggy Frank Memorial Act, which was introduced in the House of Representatives in February 2019 and would require any Postal Service delivery vehicle to include air conditioning within three years. (It has languished in the House Standing Committee on Oversight and Reform since.)

The article also reports that in April,  California released a draft standard: Heat Illness Prevention in Indoor Places of Employment  which, if approved, would make California the first U.S. jurisdiction to cover both indoor and outdoor job sites. The proposed standard would require water and rest breaks for workers when indoor temperatures reach 82 F degrees, with additional requirements when temperatures hit 87 F. It is noteworthy that this is a slow process – even in progressive California, which has had heat protection for farm workers on the books since 2006,  the Advisory Committee leading this initiative has been meeting since 2017, and the draft standard still under consideration has been revised numerous times .

United Nations reports warn of health impacts of climate change, thawing Arctic

geo6 final 2019The Fourth United Nations Environment Assembly (UNEA) convened from March 11 – 15 in Nairobi, Kenya, under the sombre cloud of the crash of Ethiopian Airlines which killed many, including Canadians, on their way to attend the meetings.

The flagship report, produced by 250 global scientists and experts, is the Sixth Global Environmental Outlook, which the UN press release calls “the most comprehensive and rigorous assessment on the state of the environment completed by the UN in the last five years .. warning that damage to the planet is so dire that people’s health will be increasingly threatened unless urgent action is taken.”  It warns that, without such urgent action,  cities and regions in Asia, the Middle East and Africa could see millions of premature deaths by 2050, with pollutants in freshwater systems leading to deaths through increased  anti-microbial resistance, as well as impacts on  male and female fertility and impaired neurodevelopment of children, from endocrine disruptors.  A 28-page  Summary for Policymakers   is available in multiple languages besides English, including French .  GEO6-NA_cover_large

The official documents from the UNEA meetings are compiled here , including the closing press release summary, “World pledges to protect polluted, degraded planet as it adopts blueprint for more sustainable future” .

Other reports relevant to Canada:

1.The Assessment and Data Report for North America is one of the regional reports, all of which are compiled here .

2.  Global Resources Outlook 2019: Natural Resources for the Future We Want    examines the economic benefits and environmental costs of resource use, and finds that all resource sectors combined (including agriculture, mining, forestry ) account for 53% of the world’s carbon emissions. Extraction and primary processing of metals and other minerals  is responsible for 20% of health impacts from air pollution and 26% of global carbon emissions. The report warns that without change,  resource demand would more than double to 190bn tonnes a year, greenhouse gases would rise by 40% and demand for land would increase by 20%.   A summary of the report appeared in The Guardian.

3.   With a forecast even more dire than the 2018  IPCC report, Global linkages: A graphic look at the changing Arctic  warns that even if global emissions were to halt overnight, winter temperatures in the Arctic would still increase 4 to 5°C by 2100 because  of  greenhouse gases already emitted and ocean heat storage. The UNEA report warns of the dangers of thawing permafrost, predicting that by  2050, four million people, and around 70% of today’s Arctic infrastructure, will be threatened.  However, a critique by  the Carbon Brief    disputes this particular conclusion within the UNEA report, and states that  if humanity can mobilize to hit a -2 degrees C target, “future Arctic winter warming will be around 0.5 to 5.0°C by the 2080s compared to 1986-2005 levels, much lower than the 5.0 to 9.0°C values stated in the report.” … “This means that much of the future warming in the Arctic will depend on our emissions over the 21st century, rather than being ‘locked in’, as the report claims.” The Carbon Brief analysis is summarized in The  Energy Mix .