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.

B.C. Budget delivers $902 million to fund Clean B.C. initiatives

BC government news open micThe government of British Columbia tabled its Budget on February 19- officially detailed in  Making Life Better- A Plan for B.C. 2019/20 — 2021/22 .  As summarized by the National Observer article, “B.C. provincial budget funds nearly $1 billion for climate action” , it included $902 million  over the next three years to support the 2018 Clean B.C. Plan . Here are some of the big-ticket items:  $107 million for transportation initiatives – mostly providing incentives for zero-emission vehicle purchases (up to $6000 per vehicle) and funding for new charging stations;  $58 million for making homes and commercial buildings more energy efficient – as a result, homeowners can get up to $14,000 for energy efficiency improvements such as  switching to high-efficiency heating systems or upgrading their doors or  windows. $168 million is dedicated to funding  an incentive program to encourage large industrial polluters to reduce their emissions; $15 million is dedicated to help remote communities transition to clean energy solutions, and  $299 million is unallocated as yet. In addition to the Clean B.C. funds, the budget includes $111 million over three years to fight and prevent wildfires, another $13 million for forest restoration, and $3 million for the BC Indigenous Clean Energy Initiative, to help First Nations communities build clean energy projects.

Reaction has generally been positive – for example, from Clean Energy Canada . The Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives B.C. Office, in “Nine things to know about the B.C. Budget” commends the  $223 million which is  budgeted to increase the climate action tax credit for low- and middle-income earners, but says, “action needs to be ramped up further—and fast”.  CCPA’s  Special  Pre-budget Feature  included an essay by Marc Lee “Expand climate initiatives to reflect the urgency of the crisis”  (Feb. 1). Lee had called for the  reinstatement of  annual increases to the carbon tax, beginning in 2019 with an increase of $10 per tonne – but no such policy was announced. (Lee had also called for more realistic budget allocations for wildfire response, which was addressed).

Finally, the Pembina Institute response is generally positive, though it calls for an independent panel to publicly monitor accountability and report on progress annually, echoing the Op-Ed “wish list” it had released before the budget was handed down.  . That had  stated: “B.C.’s Climate Change Accountability Act needs more teeth. What’s required is a transparent process whereby the government forecasts carbon pollution (including reduction goals for each sector), tracks and publicly reports on our progress, submits this data for independent verification, and adjusts policies as necessary.”   Other key items which Pembina had called for include  stronger regulations than those announced in January to limit methane pollution, and a strategy to use clean electricity to power the controversial LNG production which threatens to make the province’s GHG emissions targets unreachable.

Some workers risk their jobs if they flee disasters. Can unions help?

bicycle in floodingWith the well-accepted consensus that climate change will make extreme weather disasters more likely in Canada and around the world, and with the misery of Hurricane Florence in full view, it is time to consider the dilemma of those who must work despite evacuation orders and disaster.  A recent AFL-CIO blog (reposted to Portside) summarizes the problem:  “You can be fired for not showing up for work during a hurricane” (Sept. 13) . The blog relates the results of a survey conducted by Central Florida Jobs With Justice following Hurricane Irma in 2017, which found that more than half of survey respondents said they faced disciplinary action or termination if they failed to show up to work during the storm. Others weren’t paid if they if they didn’t report for work – making it an impossible choice between a normal, much-needed paycheque, or tending to their own and their family’s safety.  Following Hurricane Irma, a few employers instituted climate leave policies, and in June 2018,  the Miami-Dade Board of County Commissioners passed an ordinance  prohibiting employers from retaliating against employees who comply with evacuation orders during a state of emergency. But for most workers, evacuation is not an option. waffle house

A similar situation was reported in the latest newsletter from  Labor Network for Sustainability . The Central Labor Council in Miami conducted a survey and interviews, canvassing labor leaders and coalition partners from AFSCME Florida, IUOE and South Florida Building Trades, Unite HERE, United Teachers of Dade, and the Miami Climate Alliance of community, and environmental groups, to find out their concerns about climate change and health.   Answers reflected the difficulties of working in extreme heat in a surprising number of ways, and also asked the question: “Have extreme weather events like hurricanes, flooding, or high heat impacted your job on a day to day basis?”. Recurring responses included:  “Being required to work during a hurricane or bad weather” , and concerns for job security and losing wages, because of a  workplace being closed.  Other concerns: unsafe workplaces, being required to work excess hours without allowance for caring for one’s own home, and “Not having access to clean, safe drinking water.”

Similar concerns were reported in a December 2017 report  of a survey about the impacts of Hurricane Harvey in Texas, highlighted  in the WCR article “What happens to workers when wildfires and natural disasters hit?”  In that summary, we also featured the impacts on families after the wildfires near Fort McMurray in Alberta in 2016.  In the case of Alberta,  amendments to the  Alberta Employment Standards Code took effect in January 2018, providing new Personal and Family Responsibility Leave of up to 5 days of job protection per year for personal sickness or short-term care of an immediate family member, including attending to personal emergencies.

Until legislation makes such personal leaves universal,  consider the job and wage protection in the 2014-2019 Collective Agreement  between Canadian Union of Public Employees Local 3886 and Royal Roads University in Victoria B.C..

Article 31.8 states:

“a) Should the University, or an area of the University, be closed temporarily due to environmental conditions, utility disruptions, road conditions or other reasons beyond the control of the University, employees shall receive their regular salary (excluding shift differential and weekend premium) during the closure. The University may layoff employees in accordance with the terms of Article 16 if the closure is expected to be for greater than twenty (20)working days.

b) If an employee is called in to work during a temporary closure of the University they will be paid at Overtime rates as per Article 18.02. “

Recognition of the mental health impacts of flooding and wildfires in Canada – B.C. offers support

A June 2018 report from the Intact Centre for Climate Adaptation  at the University of Waterloo presents statistics about the rising financial costs of weather-related disasters in Canada, and  profiles the results of 100 door-to-door interviews with households in flooded communities around Burlington Ontario. After the Flood: The Impact of Climate on Mental Health and Lost Time From Work   found that members of households which had been flooded experienced significantly more worry and stress than non-flooded households, and the worry and stress persisted even up to 3 years after the event. After the Flood also reported that 56% of flooded households had at least one working member who took time off work, and that the average time lost was seven days per flooded household (10 times greater than the average absenteeism for non-flooded workers).

The report cites official documents concerning the growing financial costs of disasters for example, the 2016 report from Canada’s Office of the Parliamentary Budget Officer ,  Estimates of the Average Annual Cost for Disaster Financial Assistance Arrangements due to Weather Events and includes a bibliography of the growing  international public health literature concerning the health effects of weather disasters.

talk in tough times logoOther official recognition of the rising dangers of extreme weather events:  in May 2018, the Province of British Columbia, under the leadership of Judy Darcy, Minister of Mental Health and Addictions, announced mental health support services for those who might be impacted by re-living their experiences from the record-breaking 2017 wildfire season.   In partnership with the B.C. branch of the Canadian Mental Health Association, the program directs people to support services through a Facebook campaign called Talk in Tough Times, and a phone-based support program.

Federally, the  Minister of Infrastructure and Communities announced the Disaster Mitigation and Adaptation Fund in May 2018, a 10-year national program that will invest $2 billion in infrastructure projects such as diversion channels, wetland restorations, wildfire barriers and setback levees, to help communities better withstand natural hazards such as floods, wildfires, seismic events and droughts.