Heat, fire, death in British Columbia show us the reality of climate change

The town of Lytton British Columbia became a real-world symbol of climate change for Canada, setting temperature records for three days, reaching 49.6 C (121.1 F) on June 29th — the highest ever recorded in Canada. The next day, the town was virtually destroyed by sudden, irresistible wildfire.  As humans and animals have died in unprecedented numbers across the North American West from the heat, other effects were also recorded – wildfires and their smoke, damage to roads and rail lines,  power outages, destruction of crops, deaths of shellfish, a shortage of emergency responders, and the stress of their work.

Here is a sampling from the cascade of news coverage:   

“For third straight day, B.C. village smashes record for highest Canadian temperature at 49.6 C” (CBC News, June 29)

“Deaths Spike as Heat Wave Broils Canada and the Pacific Northwest” ( New York Times, June 30)

Most homes in Lytton destroyed by catastrophic fire minister says” (CBC, July 1)

“B.C. still a tinderbox as firefighters arrive from other provinces” (National Observer, July 6) – stating that there were 199 active wildfires in B.C. as of July 5 –  13 of which are “wildfires of note”, 5 of which merited evacuation orders.

“Stories of bravery amid ‘unimaginable horror’ of Lytton wildfire” (National Observer, July 8)

“Canadian inferno: northern heat exceeds worst-case climate models” (The Guardian, July 2)

B.C.’s heat wave likely contributed to 719 sudden deaths in a week, coroner says — triple the usual number” (CBC News, July 2) – quoting the Chief Coroner that the province had previously experienced three heat-related deaths in the past three to five years before the heat wave. )

“More than a billion seashore animals may have cooked to death in B.C. heat wave, says UBC researcher” (CBC News, July 5,6)

“B.C. heat wave ‘cooks’ fruit crops on the branch in sweltering Okanagan and Fraser valleys” (CBC News, July 6)

“B.C. Wildfires damaged  key rail lines, backlogging Canada’s freight supply chain”(CBC News, July 8)

“North America has its hottest June on record” (NYTimes, July 7) – “average temperature was more than 2 degrees Fahrenheit higher than the average from 1991-2020″  across North America”

Some Context and discussion:

“Just How Historic Was Western Canada’s Heat Wave? ‘Nothing Can Compare’” (The Tyee, July 3, reposted from Yale Climate Connections) 

“Hundreds died during B.C.’s heat dome. Who is responsible for deaths caused by extreme heat?” (CBC News, July 7) . The article cites a 9-page memorandum by the Vancouver City Planning Commission (VCPC) which makes recommendations to address heat and air quality concerns, with an emphasis on equity and housing concerns for the unhoused and poorly housed.  

“The Future of Fire in Canada” (The Tyee, July 5) by Ed Struzik, a fellow at the Institute for Energy and Environmental Policy at Queen’s University, author of Firestorm, How Wildfire Will Shape Our Future.     

BC’s Municipalities Are Not Economically Ready to Weather Disaster” ( The Tyee, July  7)  

“A Deadly Summer in the Pacific Northwest Augurs More Heat Waves, and More Deaths to Come” (Inside Climate News, July 1)

“The link between extreme weather and climate change” a media brief (June 28) in which Clean Energy Canada compiles links to studies on the topic.

The Limits of Livability (Climate and Health Alliance in Australia, the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment, and the WONCA Working Party for the Environment, June 2021) – a report on the smoke impacts on health from forest fires and climate change, with case studies of major recent fires in Australia, Canada and Brazil .

From a workers’ perspective:

“The case for a Youth Climate Corps in Canada” (National Observer, June 1) – Seth Klein includes disaster response as one of the tasks for his proposed Youth Climate Corps, to treat the climate disaster as an emergency.

“Heat wave shows that climate change is a workers rights issue” ( Portside,July 2)

“Heat wave, wildfires underline need for climate action” (NUPGE, July 8) – statement by the National Union for Public and General Employees, whose members are firefighters and disaster workers.

“Orange skies: Biden raising federal pay to fight wildfires”  (AP news, June 30) summarizes the White House press release, “Biden-Harris administration acts to address the growing wildfire threat” (June 30) – addresses a broad range of strategies including increasing firefighter pay (which currently has a start rate of $13US/hour), and converting many seasonal positions to permanent status, acknowledging that wildfires are now an ongoing threat.

 “Constant, compounding disasters are exhausting emergency response” (Circle of Blue, July 6)   referring to the international scene and a call from the United Nations secretary general

“Let the Birds Eat Them’: Crops Shrivel as Heat Wave Hits Washington” (New York Times, July 3) – anecdotal reports of heat experiences, including for farm workers

And from the recent past:

“Hundreds Of Firefighters. 20 Bulldozers. Intentional Burns: Inside Washington’s $328M Push To Break Cycle Of Disastrous Fires” (InvestigateWest, April 16, 2021)

A People’s Framework for Disaster Response: Rewriting the Rules of Recovery after Climate Disasters , a report written by Saket Soni and Andrea Cristina Mercado,  published by Resilience Force in January 2020, takes an environmental justice perspective on the Florida response to hurricanes, with recommendations for victims and exploited disaster recovery workers.

Social workers urged to advocate for a Green New Deal and climate justice

environmental justice social workersThe  November issue of the journal Environmental Justice includes “Time is Up: Social workers take your place at the climate change table” ( free access only until November 22, 2019). The authors maintain that “Social workers are uniquely situated to be involved, with their training in social policy, legislative advocacy, and community organizing, in combating the negative effects of climate change and the inherent social justice issues associated with this issue. However, …. they must be trained on topics such as disaster-specific trauma, bereavement, and resource disruption.

The article begins with a broad overview of policies related to climate change – including the Kyoto Protocol and the Paris Climate Agreement, but the main focus is on social workers in the United States as actors in climate change.  Based on reviews of the social work literature between 2008 and 2019, the authors conclude that what little has been written has focused on consequences and/or coping strategies after a natural disaster. They  also conclude that  most of the climate-related training of social workers is occurring outside of the United States in countries such as Australia and New Zealand.

The article reveals how the professional organization,  the American Academy of Social Work and Social Welfare, has viewed the climate emergency.  The AASWSW issued its  12 Grand Challenges for Social Work in 2016, and it included a goal to “Create social responses to a changing environment”. A separate Policy Briefing outlines amibitious goals, including: (1) adopt and implement evidence-based approaches to disaster risk reduction, (2) develop policies targeting environmentally induced migration and population displacement, and (3) strengthen equity-oriented urban resilience policies and proactively engage marginalized communities in adaptation planning.  A 2015 background paper preceded the goal statement:  Strengthening the Social Response to the Human Impacts of Environmental Change .

The latest issue of the Association’s journal Social Work Today  is a progress report on the Grand Challenges. Regarding the changing environment, it reports that the Association has been advocating for the Green New Deal, and will “examine the social work implications of the proposed Green New Deal and to call social workers to action around environmental justice policies.”  It concludes:

“One of the greatest challenges toward continued progress is in making social workers aware of their role and responsibility in addressing both the causes and consequences of climate change,” …. Many social workers feel there are more immediate issues to deal with, even if they acknowledge the seriousness of the problem.”