Posted July 12, 2021
The summer of 2021 may be remembered by many as the year climate change got real. It almost certainly feels that way for residents of British Columbia and the U.S. Pacific Northwest. Two weeks ago, a tragic heat wave pummelled the region.
The little town of Lytton, BC smashed Canada’s all-time temperature mark, hitting 47.9°C.
A few days later, the town burned to the ground, a result of a rapidly spreading brush fire sparked by the hot, dry conditions.
The regional heat wave was an ecological disaster too: A marine biologist at the University of British Columbia estimated that the high temperatures on the West Coast may have killed upwards of one billion seashore animals, including clams, mussels, and sea stars during that hot week.
BC’s coroner reported more than 700 additional sudden deaths across the province, three times what would normally be reported. Hot weather takes a deadly toll on human health. Prolonged exposure to extreme heat can cause heat exhaustion, heat cramps, heat stroke and death, but also exacerbate pre-existing chronic conditions -particularly heart and respiratory diseases.
Global heating hasn’t paused for the COVID-19 pandemic. The West Coast, Siberia and northern Europe have already experienced heat waves this summer. Even Antarctica, the coldest place on Earth reached its highest all-time temperatures in 2020.
Lethal heat waves are being inflicted in areas of the global north that haven’t dealt with them before. Can Hamilton expect the same? Without a doubt.
Heat waves are the deadliest of natural disasters, killing more people than earthquakes, hurricanes and floods combined. But can we really refer to what we’re seeing now as a natural disaster? Carbon producing industries, buildings and activities have spewed too many damaging particulates into the atmosphere for our planet’s fragile eco-system to cope; CO2 levels are at the highest they’ve been in millions of years.
And while scientific publications such as National Geographic have been sounding the alarm bells about global warming for years, now even Rolling Stone magazine asked in a recent article “Can We Survive the Heat that’s to come”?
Social inequality and income disparity certainly make the deadly prospect of extreme heat even more dire for certain groups. A social autopsy following a deadly heat wave in Chicago in the late 1990s demonstrated that low-income, racialized communities were most at risk and suffered disproportionately.
Those who could afford cooling systems, had social connections, and lived in neighbourhoods which provided cooling options - such as tree cover, community pools - fared much better than those who lived in highly urbanized, low-income neighbourhood “heat islands”.
This heat island effect is when “structures such as buildings, roads and other infrastructure absorb and re-emit the sun’s heat more than natural landscapes.” Residents of high-rise apartments know only too well how multi-story buildings heat up during the day and can take hours upon hours to cool down. During a heat wave, when evening cooling is non-existent, the human body becomes incapable of cooling itself down leading to heat illness and potentially something worse.
The Climate Atlas of Canada, an online project tracking among other variables of climate change, extreme heat days in Canadian communities, predicts that Hamilton will experience more than 60 days a summer of plus 30 degrees Celsius by 2080.
This isn’t a story anybody wants to hear following 18 months of dealing with the deadliest pandemic in a century. But now is exactly the time when we need to plan and build back better to invest in adaptation strategies to deal with the extreme heat.
On Wednesday, July 14 community partners through Hamilton’s Just Recovery Initiative will be holding the first of two virtual community forums called, ‘The Heat Is On’ looking at what Hamilton must do to prepare.
Among the presenters will be Dr. Altaf Arain, Director of the McMaster Centre for Climate Change who will detail what Hamilton might expect from increasing temperatures in the years to come. We’ll look at current City of Hamilton plans during a heat wave and we’ll discuss how various types of housing, including multi-residential buildings and long-term care facilities for seniors are prepared for extended periods of heat. We’ll also talk about how heat impacts persons with disabilities and those who are homeless.
On July 28 we will gather again to explore community solutions. What are the legislative changes that need to be enacted locally, provincially and federally to better protect vulnerable people during extreme heat events? What are some technologies that innovative buildings are incorporating into their designs to deal with the rapidly heating climate and how can we we work together as a community to support one another when heat waves do come?
Anybody interested can register for ‘The Heat is On’ forums at Environment Hamilton.
Opinion Piece by Lynda Lukasik (Environment Hamilton), Matt Thompson (Social Planning & Research Council of Hamilton),Tom Cooper (Hamilton Roundtable for Poverty Reduction), and Hamilton ACORN - for Hamilton Spectator