The Prairie Climate Centre at the University of Winnipeg maintains the Climate Atlas of Canada, and on November 20 launched a new section of their website devoted to climate change and health in Canada. So far, the webpages provide a general overview of the issues of air quality, diseases, extreme heat, and mental health – supported by more detailed articles – for example, Climate Change, Air Quality, and Public Health ; Wildfire Smoke and Health ; and a new 4-minutes video about wildfires, with impactful images which highlight the links between wildfires and mental health, especially relating to first responders and medical providers. The Prairie Climate Centre also published the Heat Waves and Health report, released in August 2019, and now part of the new section.
Since 2016, the prestigious medical journal The Lancet has published an annual report, Countdown on Health and Climate Change . The 2018 Countdown report focused on work-related health impacts of climate change, especially heat effects, as summarized in the WCR here . The 2019 edition just released in early November focuses on the impacts of climate change on the health of children, with this key message: it is possible to limit the global average temperature rise to well below 2ºC, a situation which “would transform the health of a child born today for the better, throughout their lives. Placing health at the centre of the coming transition will yield enormous dividends for the public and the economy, with cleaner air, safer cities, and healthier diets.”
In addition to the global report, the Lancet also publishes country-specific Policy Briefing reports. The Policy Briefing for Canada (in French here ) is written in cooperation with the Canadian Medical Association and the Canadian Public Health Association. The four highlighted results for Canada are:
- “Exposure to wildfires is increasing in Canada, with more than half of the 448,444 Canadians evacuated due to wildfires between 1980 and 2017 displaced in the last decade;
- The percentage of fossil fuels powering transport in Canada remains high, though electricity and biofuels are gaining ground. Fine particulate air pollution generated by transportation killed 1063 Canadians in 2015, resulting in a loss of economic welfare for Canadians valued at approximately $8 billion dollars;
- Canada has the third-highest per capita greenhouse gas emissions from healthcare in the world, with healthcare accounting for approximately 4% of the country’s total emissions;
- The health of Canadians is at risk due to multiple and varied risks of climate change…… An ongoing, coordinated, consistent and pan-Canadian effort to track, report, and create healthy change is required.”
For each of the four problems, broad policy recommendations are made.
Some of the other countries for which Policy Briefs are available: Australia ; European Union ; the United Kingdom ; and the United States . Each one reflects the unique challenges of the country concerned. The full menu of all Country Briefs is here.
The Columbia Journalism Review published an article on November 1: “What journalists miss when covering the California fires” . It states “we discuss celebrities and show pyro-pornography to capture attention. …. journalists could also use the borrowed interest to discuss bigger environmental consequences impacting people inside (and sometimes outside) of California.”
Here are some articles which focus on the impacts for working people in California and Canada, especially first responders and health care workers. A previous WCR article, “What happens to workers when wildfires and natural disasters hit?” appeared in December 2017, after the Fort McMurray wildfires in Alberta.
“At PG&E, a workforce on edge — and under attack — as fire season arrives” in the San Francisco Chronicle (June 8) describes how front line workers are suffering harassment because the public blames their employer, Pacific Gas and Electric Company, for the 2018 Camp fire, as well as for the disruptions of their planned power outages to avoid sparking more fires.
A blog post Power Shutoffs: Playing with Fire summarizes the issue of California power shutoffs and includes anecdotal reports from a focus group study of home health care and nursing home workers, which found that lack of communication was a common problem as they try to care for or evacuate their vulnerable patients. The focus group was convened by the Emerald Cities Collaborative and SEUI2015.
Home healthcare in the Dark : Why Climate, Wildfires and Other Emerging Risks Call for Resilient Energy Storage Solutions to Protect Medically Vulnerable Households from Power Outages. This report published by Clean Energy Group and Meridian Institute in June 2019 identifies the problems associated with unreliable power when the electric grid goes down either through disaster or through planned power outages to prevent wildfires. The report makes a series of recommendations directed at policy makers, including: “truly resilient power should be generated onsite, should not be dependent on supply chains that may be disrupted during catastrophic events”.
“Getty fire: Housekeepers and gardeners go to work despite the flames” in the LA Times which also highlights the chaos brought by lack of communication, and the need for low-wage workers to work, despite danger.
International Association of Firefighters press release “California Members Work around the Clock to Contain Wildfires” provides an overview of wildfire fighting by their members and points out that firefighters’ homes may also be in the path of destruction. (a fact that is true for other essential workers such as health care workers).
“As fires rage, California refines an important skill: Evacuating” in the Washington Post (Oct. 29). Describes the challenges of first responders responsible for vulnerable patients in hospitals.
“New threats put wildfire fighters health on the line” in the New York Times points out : “While burning wood poses some threat to lungs, man-made products and the gases and particles they produce when burned are far more dangerous…Unlike urban firefighters dealing with structural blazes, these wildfire responders do not wear heavy gear that filters air or provides clean air because the gear is unwieldy and too limited to allow the kind of multi-hour, high-exertion efforts demanded on the front lines of these large outdoor infernos.”
And from 2017, “Suicide rate among wildland firefighters is “astronomical”” in Wildfire Today , based on a more substantial article in The Atlantic: “A Quiet Rise in Wildland-Firefighter Suicides”.
“Climate change is making wildfires in Canada bigger, hotter and more dangerous” in Maclean’s (July 18 2019) is a quick overview of the Canadian experience.
“We were blindsided: Rappel firefighters criticizes UCP for axing program“ in the Edmonton Journal (Nov. 7) and an article in the newspaper Fort McMurray Today react to the Alberta government cuts which will eliminate the 40-year-old rappelling program, which employs more than 60 firefighters who rappel from helicopters into forest fires. Staffing for close to 30 wildfire lookout towers and one air tanker unit will also be cut. The articles describe the dangerous job of fighting fires.
A British Columbia government press release at the end of October 2019 announces two research projects underway to study firefighter health and wellness (including its physical, mental and emotional dimensions). One at the University of Northern B.C. is a scoping study to contribute to a long-term research strategy for worker health by the B.C. Wildfire Service. The second, supported by the government of Alberta, is examining the nature and concentration of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons in the air that firefighters breathe and accumulate on their skin. This study will also “explore the practicality and effectiveness of firefighters using respiratory protective equipment; and investigate whether wildland firefighters have more chronic lung disease than other people of the same age, gender and geographic location.” A progress report on the initial phase of this project is expected in March 2020.
“Fire-weary Western Canadians are picking up stakes and moving on” in the National Observer (June 24 2019)considers the impact of smoke as well as fire over the past two years in the West, discussing how “residents … young and old, often on fixed or limited incomes, are making tough choices about where they want to live and to work. The decisions are being informed by many factors, but often the most pressing concern is the increasing frequency of forest fires.” (This updates some of the themes of a 2017 Globe and Mail article “Fort MacMurray wildfires leaves livelihoods in limbo” ).
Unions have made consistent and significant donations to wildfire-affected communities. Some examples: “Steelworkers Humanity Fund Contributes $69,000 to Fort McMurray Recovery” (2016); “Steelworkers Contribute $100,000 to B.C. Fire Relief” (August 2017), and Steelworkers Humanity Fund Contributes $58,950 to Support Disaster Recovery Here and Abroad (June 2019) – which specifies a $10,000 donation to the High Level Native Friendship Centre food bank in Northern Alberta after forest fires caused the evacuation of the town. Also, “Unifor wildfire relief donations top $220k” in 2017, and a 2018 press release announced $150,000 to the B.C. Fire Relief Fund of the Canadian Red Cross in 2018 through Unifor’s Canadian Community Fund as well as its Social Justice Fund .
The California utility company largely blamed for the catastrophic Camp Fire in 2018 is making headlines again. In the midst of dry, windy weather conditions, Pacific Gas & Electric shut off power to approximately 800,000 accounts (translating into 1.8 million people) on October 8, in an effort to reduce the risk of another wildfire caused by sparking from their electricity transmission lines. The Los Angeles Times provides a general overview in “Gov. Newsom slams PG&E over ‘unacceptable’ power outages and failure to fix systems” (Oct. 10) and “Millions Brace for Unprecedented Power Cuts in California” in Bloomberg News reports that shutoffs will affect major cities in the San Francisco Bay area, including Oakland, San Jose and Berkeley, with a possible duration of up to 6 days.
The chaos, anger and inconvenience has additional significance for workers, described briefly in “Confusion reigns as California utility cuts power in 34 counties to reduce wildfire risk” (Oct. 10) in Energy Mix . More details appear in “What happens when a power company decides to turn off the electricity for millions of residents?” in Wildfire Today which states: “The indirect effects of having no electricity expand to a much larger population when you consider traffic lights not working, tunnels on highways being shut down, plus the closure of gas stations, schools, and businesses …. At some point, cellular telephone towers and infrastructure may exhaust their emergency power supply systems, not to mention the batteries in the public’s cell phones…And in an emergency, firefighters’ communications could be hampered by the disabling of their radio repeaters on mountaintops. Notifying residents of approaching fires and conducting evacuations in order to save lives could be challenging.”
And what of the PG&E workers? The local Sacramento Bee newspaper reported “PG&E employee shot at ahead of utility’s massive Northern California power shutoff” (Oct. 9) as residents take out their frustrations on employees doing their jobs. The Washington Post reported “PG&E pleads for employee safety amid outage after police report egging, gunfire at vehicle” . One worker’s wife is widely reported to have issued a social media plea stating that utility workers “are simply employees and have no say in any decision making so shouting profanities or resorting to violence towards PG&E workers will never do any good but it would instead hurt someone’s father, mother, brother, sister, husband or wife. ” Truly a dark time.
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 . )
In 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:
The 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 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.