Heat waves, wildfires: Here's how climate change is affecting Canadians' health
A helicopter pilot flies past a wildfire burning in Lytton, B.C., on Thursday, July 1, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
TORONTO -- Rising temperatures and increasing exposure to wildfires are threatening the health of Canadians, according to a global report outlining the growing risks of climate change.
The Lancet Countdown’s sixth annual report on health and climate change, published in The Lancet journal on Wednesday, tracked 44 indicators of health impacts that are directly linked to climate change to show that key trends are getting worse and exacerbating existing health and social inequities.
In Canada, there has been increased exposure to heat waves and wildfires in the past few years when compared to earlier periods.
“We’re seeing that all of the indicators that track health impacts of climate change are flashing red,” Dr. Marina Romanello, research director of the Lancet Countdown on Health and Climate Change and the study’s lead author, told CTVNews.ca during a telephone interview from London on Wednesday.
“They’re all showing that the health impacts of climate change are increasing really rapidly and we're running out of time to do something about this.”
According to the report’s findings, Canada experienced an increase in annual daily population exposure to wildfires by 5,194 days (18 per cent) from 2001-04 to 2017-20. Romanello explained that the number of wildfire exposure days is calculated based on the number of people living in proximity to a wildfire on any given day. For example, if there are 10 people affected on one day by a wildfire that equals 10 wildfire days in their tally.
What’s more, exposure to very high climate-related risk of wildfire also increased by 160 per cent during this time.
The report’s authors cited the extreme heat wave in British Columbia in June and the devastating wildfires in Lytton, B.C. and northwestern Ontario as examples of the effects of climate change in Canada in the summer of 2021.
According to the British Columbia Coroners Service, there were 570 reported heat-related deaths during the heat dome week in June, triple the average weekly number of total deaths.
The following week, the town of Lytton burned to the ground and the nearby Lytton First Nation was evacuated after setting a Canadian heat record of 49.6 C.
In Ontario, communities in the northwest part of the province were hard hit by wildfires, with at least six First Nations forced to evacuate. Overall, Indigenous Peoples, including First Nations, Metis, and Inuit, are disproportionately impacted by fire, with a 33 times higher chance of evacuation due to wildfires for those living on reserve compared to those living off-reserve.
“What became really, really explicit this year is how vulnerable Canada and the northern U.S. are because you're not used to seeing this extreme heat. You don't have the adaptation measures to cope with a 50 C day,” Romanello said.
AN OVERALL TREND
As alarming as the events of this past summer were, the report’s authors warn they aren’t isolated and are part of an overall trend.
For instance, between 2014 and 2018, rapid warming in Canada led to a 58-per-cent increase in average annual heat-related mortality for those over the age of 65, compared to the 2000 to 2004 baseline.
Additionally, between 2016 and 2020, the report said there was an average annual increase of 2 million days of heat wave exposure for those over the age of 65 years old, compared to a 1986-2005 baseline. This rose to 12 million days in 2020, according to the findings.
“We tend to think that developed countries, or countries that have very high income, are not really that vulnerable to extreme events, but actually, in the U.S., in Canada, in Europe, it is a very aging population. You have a very big proportion of the population that is highly vulnerable because it's over 65 years old,” Romanello said.
For children under the age of one, there were more than 600,000 more days of heat wave exposure in 2020.
The intense heat also affected the economy, with Canada losing nearly 22 million hours of potential labour due to the warm temperatures in 2020. The country’s construction and service sectors were the most vulnerable to the heat-related drop in productivity, accounting for 70 per cent of the total hours lost.
In order to mitigate the effects of climate change on Canadians’ health, the researchers called on the country’s decision-makers to end public fossil fuel subsidies and redirect these funds to support national green energy and health-adaption strategies, such as a climate adaptation agency and increasing urban greenness, with support for locally specific climate action plans.
“These decisions can be supported by comprehensive cost-benefit analysis of the true costs of climate inaction, including impacts on deaths and disability. This will provide evidence to support actions that save money and lives,” the researchers said.
And although the authors acknowledged that Canada has made some “modest progress” in the reduction of air pollution from fine particulate matter, which has led to a 16 per cent reduction in premature deaths between 2015 and 2019, there were still 4,900 premature deaths attributable to air pollution in 2019.
Finally, the report’s authors urged Canadian politicians to prioritize inclusive research and policymaking that values the perspectives and experiences of rural, remote, Indigenous, and low-income communities.
“Only then will we fully understand how climate change is impacting health across the country, and how to address it,” they said.
Beyond Canada, the Lancet Countdown’s data showed that rapid increases in heat wave and wildfire exposure, drought, changes in the suitability for infectious diseases, and rising sea leaves – combined with insufficient adaptation measures – are harming people’s health in all countries.
And not just their physical health, either.
The data also measured the effect of heat waves on people’s mental health by analyzing over 6 billion tweets over five years from users around the world. They found a 155 per cent increase in negative expressions during heat waves in 2020 compared to the 2015-2019 average.
The report also outlines how current COVID-19 recovery plans are not compatible with the Paris Agreement and will therefore have long-term health implications. To avoid this, the researchers encouraged political leaders and policy makers to use this public spending to reduce inequities.
“As governments turn from emergency spending to long term post-pandemic recovery it is vital that more of these funds are spent in ways that reduce climate change, such as promoting jobs in zero-carbon energy, where investment lags behind what is necessary to keep within 1.5C of warming,” they said.
With the UN Climate Change Conference (COP26) in Glasgow, Scotland less than two weeks away, the report’s authors urged world leaders to commit to more ambitious climate targets to protect people’s health from the risks of a warmer world.
“Our health is paying the price for a lack of action on climate change,” Dr. Maria Neira, the director of the Department of Public Health and Environment at the World Health Organization, said in a press release.
“The Lancet Countdown report show us just how much our health is at risk. It also shows us how much we have to gain from taking ambitious climate action: cleaner air, reduced health care costs, and a healthier, more just society. The health argument for climate action has never been clearer; what are we waiting for?”