World Health Organization issues new air quality standards in response to growing evidence of the health impacts of pollution

On September 22, for the first time in 16 years, the World Health Organization updated its Global Air Quality Guidelines (AQGs) , based on the rapidly growing scientific evidence that air pollutants can effect human health at even lower concentrations than previously understood. WHO’s new guidelines recommend air quality levels for 6 “classic pollutants”: particulate matter (PM), ozone (O₃), nitrogen dioxide (NO₂) sulfur dioxide (SO₂) and carbon monoxide (CO), and also highlight good practices for the management of certain types of particulates for which there is not yet sufficient evidence to set guideline levels (for example, black carbon/elemental carbon, ultrafine particles, particles originating from sand and dust storms). The press release states: “Clean air should be a fundamental human right and a necessary condition for healthy and productive societies. However, despite some improvements in air quality over the past three decades, millions of people continue to die prematurely, often affecting the most vulnerable and marginalized populations.”  The accompanying Fact Sheet provides key statistics, and a report in The Guardian   summarizes some of the most shocking , including:

“Every one of the 100 most populous cities in the world exceeded the new WHO guideline for tiny particle pollution in 2020, according to Greenpeace analysis. This includes Tokyo, Shanghai, New York, Lagos, London, and Delhi, with the latter exceeding the limit by 17 times.”

And what is one of the most dangerous kinds of pollution, even in cities?   “Mortality risk attributable to wildfire-related PM2·5 pollution: a global time series study in 749 locations” is a pioneering study published on September 1 in Lancet Planetary Health. It analyzes data from 749 cities in 43 countries and regions during 2000–16 and concludes that while wildfires are far from the only source of PM 2.5 pollution in cities, the PM 2.5 exposure from wildfires was more deadly, and longer-lasting, than fine particle pollution from other urban sources – probably because of the chemical makeup and smaller size of the particles in wildfire smoke.   

Climate Scientists sound the alarm in “Code Red” IPCC Report and WMO Atlas of mortality and economic damage

Alongside the continuing disaster of North America’s heat, drought, and wildfires has come Hurricane Ida on the Gulf Coast, U.S. Northeast, even as far as Quebec.  Only 4% of broadcast media in the U.S. linked Hurricane Ida to climate change – preferring to report on the flooding, storm surge, resulting power losses, evacuations, oil spills in the Gulf of Mexico, death and destruction.  Yet with less media attention, scientists worldwide have published recent studies unequivocally linking such weather extremes with climate change and human activity. Notable examples over the summer : 1.  Climate Change 2021: the Physical Science Basis, the first installment of the Sixth Assessment Report (AR6) by the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Working Group I, 2. The WMO Atlas of Mortality and Economic Losses from Weather, Climate and Water Extremes (1970–2019) released by the World Meteorological Organization on  August 31, and 3. The WMO Air Quality and Climate Bulletin , launched on September 1.

The world’s scientists issue a Code Red warning in the IPCC 6th Assessment

At almost 4,000 pages, the full IPCC report, Climate Change 2021: the Physical Science Basis, is a comprehensive compilation and assessment of the latest research  by the world’s scientists. More readable and less technical: the  Summary for Policymakers , or the official Fact Sheet .  The U.N. press release announcement was accompanied by warnings of the “Code Red”   situation:  irreversible climate-related damage is already underway across the world, and immediate, strong and sustained reductions in emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases are urgently needed. The report was summarized widely: for example, in “Global Climate Panel’s Report: No Part of the Planet Will be Spared”  (Inside Climate News, Aug. 9); by Carbon Brief here ;  or by The Guardian here .  

An  analysis of coverage by 17  international newspapers found that Canadian news outlets, with the exception of the Toronto Star, were particularly poor at explaining the IPCC report – as summarized in “When Dire Climate News Came, Canada’s Front Pages Crumpled “ in (The Tyee, Aug. 19).  However, outside of the mainstream media, here are some noteworthy examples of Canadian news coverage:

Climate scientist John Fyfe explains why new IPCC report shows ‘there’s no going back’” (The Narwhal, Aug. 12)

It’s Code Red  for the Climate. Will BC Do Anything about It?” (The Tyee, Aug. 10)

Two blogs by David Suzuki in Rabble.caClimate report shows world pushed to the brink by fossil fuels”  and “IPCC report could be a legal game-changer for climate“(Sept. 1)

“IPCC warns of climate breakdown, politicians warn of each other” (National Observer, Aug. 9)

“U.N. Climate Report scapegoats “human activity” rather than fossil-fuel capitalism”  (Breach Media), which states: “We should welcome the latest IPCC Report for its scientific insight. But we should also understand it as an ideological document that obscures the crucial systemic causes of climate change. For advice on what social forces could push forward climate solutions, readers will have to look beyond the thousands of pages generated by the IPCC.”

Extreme weather disasters caused US$ 3.64 trillion, 2 million deaths between 1970 and 2019

A second new international scientific report is The WMO Atlas of Mortality and Economic Losses from Weather, Climate and Water Extremes (1970–2019), released on  August 31 by the World Meteorological Organization. It aggregates and analyses statistics on world disasters, with continent-level breakdowns. It reports that there were more than 11,000 disasters attributed to weather, climate and water-related hazards between 1970 and 2019, accounting for just over 2 million deaths and US$ 3.64 trillion in economic losses. This represents  50% of all recorded disasters, 45% of related deaths and 74% of related economic losses over the last 50 years. Food for thought for those who say that fighting climate change is too expensive!  

The WMO Atlas includes an extensive discussion of current and new statistical disaster databases, and how they can be used to reduce loss and damage.  It also includes a brief explanation of “attribution research”, which seeks to determine whether disasters are human-caused. ( A recent article in Inside Climate News is more informative on the issue of attribution science, highlighting the research of the World Weather Attribution network, which has already published its findings about the German flooding in July 2021).

Finally, on September 3, the WMO also published the first issue of its  Air Quality and Climate Bulletin ,  highlighting the main factors that influence air quality patterns in 2020 – including a section titled “The impact of Covid-19 on air quality.”   The Bulletin concludes that there is “an intimate connection between air quality and climate change. While human-caused emissions of air pollutants fell during the COVID-19 economic turndown, meteorological extremes fuelled by climate and environmental change triggered unprecedented sand and dust storms and wildfires that affected air quality…. This trend is continuing in 2021. Devastating wildfires in North America, Europe and Siberia have affected air quality for millions, and sand and dust storms have blanketed many regions and travelled across continents.” 

In another section, “Global mortality estimates for ambient and household air pollution”  the new Bulletin states that global mortality increased from 2.3 million in 1990 to 4.5 million in 2019 (92% due to particulate matter, 8% due to ozone). Regionally, present-day total mortality is greatest in the super-region of Southeast Asia, East Asia and Oceania, with 1.8 million total deaths.

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.

Health impacts of smoke from wildfires call for more preparation as well as more research

Reports of the heat, drought and wildfires in the U.S. this summer are alarming, but Canada is also at risk. Though conditions are not as extreme as the U.S., British Columbia is under a warning for a prolonged heat wave, wildfire evacuations have already begun in Alberta,and Ontario’s wildfires are so much more numerous than normal that Alberta has responded to the province’s appeal for more firefighters. Against this backdrop, the Global Climate and Health Alliance (GCHA) released a report in early June: The Limits of Livability – The emerging threat of smoke impacts on health from forest fires and climate change.  Accompanying the main report are country briefs specific to  Australia , Brazil and Canada.  The  overview report documents the impacts of wildfires, emphasizes how unprepared we are, and warns that governments must act to prepare public health systems for the health impacts of recurring air pollution episodes. Lead author Dr. Frances MacGuire states : “The short term health effects of forest smoke are now well documented but the long term effects of extended exposure are unknown. It is clear that there are significant research gaps in understanding the full health impacts of smoke from increased wildfire risk in a warming world, and on primary and secondary health services.” 

The Country Brief for Canada  provides health statistics about the 2018 B.C. wildfires and the Summer of Smoke around Yellowknife Northwest Territories in 2014. One of the detailed medical papers referenced  is SOS! Summer of Smoke: a retrospective cohort study examining the cardiorespiratory impacts of a severe and prolonged wildfire season in Canada’s high subarctic, which appeared in  BMJ Open in 2021. The authors of the Country Brief call for greater urgency to combat climate change, as well as specific calls to 1. Strengthen the pan-Canadian emergency response, 2.  develop easy to understand emergency response plans for residents and communities, and 3.  Tackle inequalities in smoke exposure, including recognition of greater vulnerability of Indigenous people living in remote areas.   

Australia’s disastrous wildfires of 2019/20 resulted in a Royal Commission into National Natural Disaster Management Arrangements (also known as the Bushfire Royal Commission), and much of the Australia Country Brief summarizes the issues covered by the commission – notably, Indigenous practices and knowledge.  (Note that the Terms of Reference for the Commission included firefighter safety and training).  The Brief reports that the  Australian Institute of Health and Welfare has secured funding for a large-scale research project to study the medium-term health impacts of smoke and ash exposure, including mental health, for frontline responders and affected communities.

The Brazil Country Brief  is centred on the role of deliberate fires set for land clearance for agriculture. The Brief calls for a moratorium on deforestation and fires for clearing land, combined with strong supervision.

B.C. consultation on climate adaptation open from June to August

On June 9, British Columbia released a new draft Climate Preparedness and Adaptation Strategy,  to launch a consultation process which will run until August 12 on the government’s public engagement website . The Draft Strategy Paper highlights current actions for 2021-2022, and proposes actions for 2022-25 to address increasing wildfires, more frequent flooding, longer summer droughts and heatwaves, as well as adaptation to slower issues such as changes in growing seasons, ecosystem shifts and sea level rise.   This Strategy document is itself the result of a consultation process, documented here, all of which have been based on the substantive 2019 report, Preliminary Strategic Climate Risk Assessment for British Columbia.

Scientists actually DO know how climate change contributes to California’s wildfires

Despite Donald Trump’s off-hand dismissal of climate scientists on his visit to California’s apocalyptic wildfires, there are plenty of scientists who ACTUALLY DO know how climate change contributes to these disasters. Below are some recent examples of this well-established relationship and impacts.  

Climate change is increasing the likelihood of extreme autumn wildfire conditions across California”  appeared in Environmental Research Letters in August. One of the co-authors, Daniel Swain, writes an ongoing blog, Weather West, which chronicles and explains “California weather and climate perspectives” from his perch at the University of California at L.A. Institute of the Environment and Sustainability. The Union of Concerned Scientists have also posted an Infographic: Wildfires and Climate Change, which summarizes trends, impacts and costs, including health costs.

Some mainstream media is giving voice to climate scientists :

 “How Can We Plan for the Future in California?” by transplanted Canadian climate scientist Leah Stokes, appeared in The Atlantic (Aug. 23). She is also interviewed by Democracy Now in “This is climate change : West Coast Fires Scorch Millions of Acres & Blot Out the Sun” (Sept. 10).

 “The Burning  West” special feature compilation of articles from Inside Climate News, which includes “California and Colorado Fires May Be Part of a Climate-Driven Transformation of Wildfires Around the Globe” (Aug. 22) and “10 Days of Climate Extremes: From Record Heat to Wildfires to the One-Two Punch of Hurricane Laura” (Aug. 29 ), and “A Siege of 80 Large, Uncontained Wildfires Sweeps the Hot, Dry West”  (Sept. 9), which catalogues the fire events to date.

“A Climate Reckoning in Fire-Stricken California” in the New York Times (Sept. 10,updated Sept. 14)  

These Are Climate Fires”: Oregon Firefighter Ecologist Says Devastating Blazes Are a Wake-Up Call” in Democracy Now (Sept. 14)

Climate change is worsening California’s hellish wildfires” in Yale Climate Connections (Aug. 24).

California wildfires getting bigger, moving faster than ever” in the Toronto Star (Sept. 10)

Climate grief is burning across the American West” in Wired (Sept. 14)

Wildfire Impact on workers

On the Front Lines: Climate Change Threatens the Health of America’s Workers  was released in July by the Natural Resources Defense Council, and documents the “myriad threats” posed by wildfires, explaining “Increases in wildfires will put more emergency responders and recovery workers in dangerous situations and expose more outdoor and indoor workers to unhealthy wildfire smoke.” The report also explains some of the mental health aftermath and provides dozens of links to scientific research.

Pandemic, Wildfires & Heat Wave: Undocumented Farmworkers Face “Triple Threat” as West Coast Burns” in Democracy Now (Sept. 14).

A Human Tragedy”: Wildfires Reveal California’s Reliance on Incarcerated Firefighters” in Democracy Now (August 25).

In the US West Scorched by Wildfires, We Can Barely Breathe. It’s Going to Get Worse” from the Union of Concerned Scientists (Sept. 14) – an overview which briefly discusses outdoor workers and relies on a 2016 article from Climate Change to conclude: “All told, there are roughly 4.8 million outdoor workers across the western US who are exposed to wildfire smoke in an average year.” 

California Bill Clears Path For Ex-Inmates To Become Firefighters” at NPR (Sept. 11) , describing AB2147 , a Bill which lets prisoners who had worked in California’s prisoner-firefighting program petition the courts to dismiss their convictions after completing their sentences.

The toll of Australia’s Black Summer of bushfires

Australia’s Summer of Crisis  was published by the Climate Council of Australia in March, describing the economic and climate change impacts of the bushfires of 2019/20. Although the bushfires were widespread, the report focuses on the two most severely affected areas of the country:  New South Wales and the Australian Capital Territory. It estimates that there was a 10-20 percent drop in international visitors, so that the tourism sector alone will lose at least $4.5 billion.  Bushfire-related insurance claims in New South Wales, Queensland, South Australia and Victoria totalled an estimated value of $1.9 billion.  The report also estimates the unprecedented climate impacts – between 650 million and 1.2 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide spewed into the atmosphere ( Australia’s annual emissions are around 531 million tonnes). The report states that the hot dry conditions which fuelled the fires will only worsen, and calls urgently for an end to fossil fuel production and export, and a plan to reduce Greenhouse Gas Emissions to net zero.

Health impacts

Unprecedented smoke‐related health burden associated with the 2019–20 bushfires in eastern Australia”, published in the Medical Journal of Australia (March 12) estimated that bushfire smoke was responsible for more deaths than the fires, and extraordinary health impacts. The researchers estimate there were  417 excess deaths, 1124 hospitalisations for cardiovascular problems and 2027 for respiratory problems, and 1305 presentations to emergency departments with asthma.  The article is summarized by The Guardian here  , which also reports that the authors have obtained funding for follow-up studies through the Centre for Air Pollution, Energy and Health Research (CAR), funded by Australia’s National Health and Medical Research Council .  The CAR website offers fact sheets and research summaries about bushfire impacts.

 

The Australian bushfire disaster: what does it mean for firefighters and workers?

There are many themes amid the story of the horrifying Australian bushfires of 2019/20:  destruction of habitat and homes, the reality of climate change, and the resilience and self-sacrifice of Australians, exemplified in their unique tradition of community volunteer firefighters, or “firies”.   The International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) recognized their contribution in a statement which includes: “Workers in the emergency services and volunteers in their own communities are on the front lines of defending people, their homes and community infrastructure. We thank them profusely for their efforts and their courage. They are working heroes.”

australia firefightersAustralia’s Volunteer Firefighters Find It Hard to Pause, Even for Christmas in the New York Times (Dec. 24 2019) describes the self-sacrifice displayed by these volunteers, but it also questions how sustainable such a system can be in such a long-running and widespread disaster. Exhaustion is one constraint; financial necessity to earn money is another.  Only under public pressure did the government finally announce compensation for the volunteers  in December.  The Sydney Morning Herald offers a detailed “Explainer: How the Bushfire Compensation Scheme works”  (Jan. 12), which notes that some union leaders “have called for amendments to the Fair Work Act to ensure workers have the right to paid emergency services leave as part of the National Employment Standards.”  This idea is taken up in “Unions and employers join forces to demand increased bushfire relief for workers and firies”, also in the Sydney Morning Herald (Jan. 12), which highlights the “fine print” limitations for firefighters’ :

“The federal government and some state governments have said they will provide eligible volunteer firefighters with up to $300 per day capped at a total of $6000 as compensation for time off work to fight bushfires, but firies can only claim from day 11 and the hours spent on patrol must align with their normal working hours…This means if a volunteer firefighter normally works from 9am to 5pm, but is out fighting blazes from midday to midnight, they can only claim five hours’ pay.”

Occupational health and safety concerns:

The Australian Council of Trade Unions issued a December call for change in “Laws must adapt to keep workers safe in changing climate” , focussed on the occupational health and safety issues of extreme heat and smoke for all workers.  Their call for change was accompanied by two Fact Sheets:  Smoke Haze – Bushfires and Air Quality  and Working in Heat . Another important occupational health issue, the emotional and psychological toll of such disasters, is described in “Black Saturday firefighters want you to listen to them, not call them ‘heroes‘” from the Australian Broadcasting Corporation  (Jan. 3).

On January 7, the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) released  this statement and call for government action :

  “No workers should ever be required to work in dangerous environments. Smoke levels are well beyond the hazardous range in huge areas of the country. Any workers, especially those who work outside, who have concerns about their safety should contact their union.

Workers should be aware that the NES provides for unpaid leave for the full period of time that workers are engaged in volunteer firefighting or other emergency service work. Union negotiated Enterprise Bargaining Agreements will also often provide additional paid leave provisions.

In some circumstances, workers will also be able to access personal leave if they are unable to return to work due to being evacuated or having nowhere to live, for instance if they or a family member have suffered mental or physical injury as a result of the fires.

Under no circumstances can a worker or their employer already dealing with this devastating crisis face the added insult of being left without an income or a bill they cannot pay for a service they have not used or received.

To make sure this happens, the Federal Government’s response needs to make it clear that everyone impacted by this crisis is entitled to support and assistance and should not be left worse off.  This should include ensuring that there is comprehensive relief from debt repayments, mortgages and utility bills while families get back on their feet.

Any worker who faces issues with their bank, other lending institutions or who is fired from their job due to the fallout from these fires should immediately contact their union.”

The ACTU has established a Bushfire Relief Fund here , where donations can be made to support union members who may need more than the government support, and another campaign, here, for Australians to volunteer their skills and time in the rebuilding effort.   The National Construction Division of the CFMEU also announced their own $100,000 donation to the bushfire recovery effort in a press release .

australia nasa smokeA few other recommended articles about the Australian Bushfires :  from The Guardian, “We are seeing the very worst of our scientific predictions come to pass in these bushfires” (Jan. 3); “Australia’s fires have pumped out more emissions than 100 nations combined” (MIT Technology Review, Jan. 10) ; “Terror, hope, anger, kindness: the complexity of life as we face the new normal”  (Jan. 11, The Guardian);    “In Australia, the air poses a threat; people are rushing to hospitals in cities choked by smoke (Washington Post, Jan. 12); “Australia’s bushfires offer heated view into longstanding misinformation on climate change” (National Observer, Jan. 7); “Bushfire emergency leads thousands to protest against PM and climate change policies “( Australian Broadcasting Corp.,Jan. 10) , and the latest political development: “Scott Morrison to take proposal for bushfire royal commission to Cabinetreported on January 12 by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, also reported as  “Australia’s Leader Calls for Inquiry Into Government Response to Fires” in the New York Times (Jan. 12).  

Climate change and health in Canada

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  – supporteclimate-video.pngd 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.

2019 Lancet Countdown emphasizes climate impacts on children’s health

lancet childrenSince 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:

  1.  “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; lancet wildfires
  2. 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;
  3. 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;
  4. 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.

Workers who respond to wildfires – some news you might have missed

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.”

firefight in smokeHere 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.

California:

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”

 

Canada:

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 .

How are workers affected by PG&E power outage in California?

california map PGE_outage_10-10-2019The 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 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.