Climate deaths and class divides: What we can learn from B.C.’s heat wave disaster

Cities can do more to prepare for extreme heat events, and they must. Or else the death toll will continue to climb.
Photo: B.C. Ministry of Transport
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Like Ernest Hemingway once said about bankruptcy, the climate emergency arrives gradually — and then suddenly. For 30 years, neoliberal governments of various shades have kicked the can down the road. We’re now at the end of the road.

In B.C., in the aftermath of a five-day extreme heat wave during which hundreds of people died — more than four times the usual number for the period — we’re left with the uncanny feeling of having lived through the type of disaster that’s been predicted for decades. No amount of awareness prepares you for its arrival.

From the scorched ruins of Lytton, B.C., to the watery inferno of the Gulf of Mexico, it all feels like the opening scenes from a dystopian movie. Terminal phase pyro-capitalism. Even the billionaires are playing their part, as if from the pages of an overwrought Hollywood script, racing to be the first to leave the planet for outer space.

“Science fiction is the realism of our time,” author Kim Stanley Robinson told me last year in an interview about his latest novel, which opens with a mass death, heat wave event. After the hellish prologue of The Ministry of the Future, the world finally gets serious about tackling climate change and, though much of the damage cannot be easily reversed, broadly succeeds in avoiding the worst of the planetary crisis.

After the hundreds dead in B.C., the next chapters are up to us.

It starts with a reckoning about what just happened and the way class inequality shapes climate carnage, and a collective commitment to take time and resources to better prepare for the next wave.

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‘Fatalities are a part of life’

On Monday, I intemperately commented online that I was deeply disturbed by how little I was seeing in the press and on social media channels about the heat wave deaths. Some local reporters justifiably replied incredulously, pointing to their work in recent days. Perhaps what I was really responding to was the silence from scores of people with online platforms or other influence who would have been up in arms had a conservative government been in power provincially.

Imagine, for example, if Doug Ford had said “fatalities are a part of life” in response to questions about hundreds of heat wave deaths in Ontario? These were the words of B.C. NDP Premier John Horgan, when asked whether his government could have done more to prevent deaths from the heat wave.

The insensitive remarks, to be fair, came just after the worst days of the unprecedented weather event — before the B.C. coroners’ shocking estimate that up to two-thirds of the more than 700 deaths over that five-day period may be attributable to the heat.

Whether the metaphor of choice is a Green New Deal or a war-time mobilization, the solutions are well known.

Nevertheless, the ill-advised words, which the premier walked back without apologizing a few hours later, are worth reflecting on in terms of what they say about the priorities and preparedness of our societies and our governments — especially in a province also wracked by an ongoing poisoned drug supply crisis that killed nearly 2,000 people last year alone.

As with the misnamed “drug crisis,” both the severity of and solutions to the climate crisis have long been understood. It’s just that successive governments of various partisan stripes have refused to take the measures necessary to save lives and prevent ever-worsening crises.

On the mitigation of climate change, the obvious steps are to protect old-growth forests, end all new fossil fuel extraction projects, immediately cease all subsidies to associated industries, and massively mobilize human and capital resources to roll out the energy, transportation, and retrofitted built environment we need. Whether the metaphor of choice is a Green New Deal or a war-time mobilization, the solutions are well known. They just require political will and courage.

In terms of preventing heat wave deaths, which will remain a threat for decades even in the best-case climate scenarios, governments at all levels — even those taking the climate crisis most seriously — seemed caught off-guard by the extreme heat.

The City of Vancouver, for example, earned much-deserved praise for declaring a climate emergency in 2019, building on a series of “Green City” measures implemented by past environmentally conscious city councils. And yet, when an extreme weather emergency hit, both the municipal administration and its provincial counterpart failed to pull out all the possible stops.

While weather alerts and the locations of cooling centres were advertised on social media, and some mist stations activated around the city, no special press conferences were convened to warn the public, in contrast to the special COVID press briefings over the past year and a half. B.C. Emergency Health Services failed to mobilize adequate staff and resources, resulting in a dangerous overload of ambulance services, and reports of people waiting many hours for service after calling 911. And it only got around to opening the Emergency Coordination Centre on the last day of the heat wave.

Given similar recent deadly heat waves in North America in cities such as Chicago and Montreal, more lessons could have been learned and more preparations made.

With the fire disaster in Lytton, which burned to the ground immediately after recording the three hottest days in Canadian history, it’s perhaps understandable that the hundreds of less dramatic but no less tragic deaths resulting from the heat wave have yet to be scrutinized closely. But in the coming weeks, it’s imperative that public sector agencies and government leaders carry out in-depth analyses of what happened and how it can be prevented in the future.

Lessons from Montreal

The recent experiences of Montreal, in particular, point to the kind of approach that must be undertaken as part of the postmortem of the B.C. heat wave. After a 2018 heat wave contributed to an estimated 66 deaths in Montreal, public health agencies conducted a rigorous study of the city’s environmental and socioeconomic conditions.

They not only looked at economic and health factors that contributed to the risk of heat death, but also mapped deaths by neighbourhoods, cross-referenced with data on tree canopy cover throughout the city. Not surprisingly, many wealthier neighbourhoods with much greater tree coverage also had few or no deaths reported.

They concluded that residents in urban “heat islands” were twice as likely to die of heat-related causes than those who lived elsewhere, that an increase in urban tree canopy and other greening measures needed to be prioritized to reduce heat islands, and that municipal and other local emergency plans needed to be developed to prioritize checking on the most vulnerable residents.

Leave the nihilism and escapism to the billionaire class.

Building on lessons and policies implemented after earlier heat waves in Montreal, they charted a phased response for public authorities: seasonal preparation, alerts ahead of forecast heat waves, and interventions to minimize deaths among vulnerable populations.

The full report should be studied, and similar methodologies applied both to journalistic investigations and public health analyses of what just happened in B.C.

Climate politics is class politics, and that means taking the geography of inequality seriously. Municipal climate plans must work to bridge the cavernous divides between rich and poor while reducing overall carbon emissions. Importantly, the Vancouver Planning Commission has already issued a memo to the city council with a series of recommendations for mitigating harm from heat and poor air quality with a focus on equity and accessibility.

Regardless of any partisan considerations here in B.C., it would be criminal not to take the time and effort to learn as much as we can about the hundreds of deaths from this heat wave. Mass deaths from extreme weather events aggravated by climate change may now be a part of life, but we should fight like hell to minimize them. Leave the nihilism and escapism to the billionaire class. With grit, clear thinking, and cooperation, we can still eke out a livable future on this planet.

That’s a story worth writing together.

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