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.

Proposals to “Electrify Quebec” will bring cleaner transportation; Montreal proposes standards for heating buildings

francois legaultOn May 26, at the party conference of the Coalition Avenir Quebec (CAQ), Premier Francois Legault announced intentions to “electrify Quebec”, reduce oil consumption by  40 per cent by 2030, and reduce the province’s greenhouse gas emissions by 37.5 per cent by 2030.   According to a report from iPolitics , Legault stated “The greatest contribution Quebec can make to save the planet is by helping our neighbours replace their coal-fired, gas fired generators with clean hydroelectricity,”  and he is working to increase hydro-electric exports to New York State.  Regarding electrification of transportation, he proposed to extend Montreal’s electrified light rail network already under construction to the off-island suburbs; to complete a proposed extension of the Montreal’s subway;  new tramways for Montreal and Quebec City; a commuter train link in Gatineau; and  greater use of electric buses.  He noted that two Quebec companies, Bombardier and Alstom, have the capacity to supply the rolling stock for new rail cars and electric buses. He also announced that Quebec’s electric vehicle subsidies will continue, benefitting rural Quebecers without access to transit options. Although plans are far from specific, Legault promised to finance his green plans from the proceeds from Quebec’s Green Fund, with the revenues from its cap and trade auctions.

In response to the recent proposal for an “energy corridor” from Alberta’s new Premier Jason Kenney to bring western crude oil across Canada, Legault stated “There is no social acceptability for an oil pipeline in Quebec.”

Montreal announces 2030 targets to phase out oil heating in buildings: The city of Montreal  is one of hundreds of Canadian municipalities which has declared a climate emergency   – and has been under flood emergency warnings throughout May.  On May 6, in a press release, Montreal Mayor Valerie Plante  announced that the city is developing a plan to  reach carbon neutrality for all municipal buildings by 2030, for all new buildings by 2030, as well as for all existing buildings, by 2050, and have earmarked $4 million by 2021 for the effort.  A CBC  report states  that environmentalists are disappointed at the slow pace and weak level of ambition , and one of the key city councillors resigned, calling for stronger “war measures” against climate change, including a tax on meat, no airport expansion, and planting a half-million trees.  The tree-planting proposal seems particularly urgent, given the heat wave deaths  in Montreal in 2018 – 42 officially attributed to heat by Quebec’s chief coroner,  but with that number still under investigation, and the possibility of  a public inquiry. “Life and Death under the Dome” (May 23) in the Toronto Star  quotes Montreal Public Health official estimates of 66  heat-related deaths that summer. It also explains what the city’s public health officials have done to analyse the causes and patterns – identifying vulnerable populations and areas – and  calling for a greening of the city on a massive scale, including trees,  roofs and architecture .

Update: On May 22, the Government of Canada and the Federation of Canadian Municipalities announced an investment of $2,777,960 in four green infrastructure projects in the Greater Montreal Area, including Laval.  Most of the investment will go to infrastructure and re-naturalization through tree planting, to mitigate the heat island effect and flooding in the city.