Vancouver is famous for its beautiful summers. On a typical day, the North Shore Mountains gleam across Burrard Inlet as sailboats and kayaks ply its blue waters. City dwellers brave months of rain and gloom for these few brilliant months.
Last year those mountains vanished. Air quality advisories hit a record on 19 days between July and September as blowing smoke from wildfires in the Interior and unusually hot weather stirred the coastal air into an opaque chemical soup.
Urban doctors’ offices and emergency rooms filled with patients complaining of sore throats, eye irritation and wheezing as we sampled what so many families in rural B.C. fear and endure each summer.
Today, hundreds of fires are burning across the province — and indeed the continent — as heat records are being smashed around the globe. And though their smoke has yet to mar our coastline this year, that time will surely come again.
As members of the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment, we are deeply concerned about the health consequences of increased forest fires due to climate change. And by turning a blind eye as our elected officials continue to prop up the fossil-fuel industry, Canadians are complicit in this.
Wildfires in Western Canada, like the 2016 Fort McMurray blaze that displaced tens of thousands of Albertans as it depressed air quality as far away as New England, have reached numbers and intensities not seen in decades.
The year 2017 saw over 1.2 million hectares burned in B.C., the worst wildfire season in its recorded history. Along with staggering economic costs, the toll on human health is similarly dire. Thousands of Canadians die premature deaths from air pollution each year, which disproportionately affects our most vulnerable: the very young and elderly, those with low income, and people with lung and heart disease.
Faced with devastation of their homes and communities, fire survivors frequently develop mental health issues like post-traumatic stress disorder and depression, recently prompting the Canadian Mental Health Association to launch a dedicated phone line to support victims of last year’s forest fires.
Scientists estimate that over half of global warming can be blamed on fossil-fuel use; the world has warmed almost 1 degree Celsius since the dawn of the industrial era, and 17 of the 18 hottest years on record have occurred since 2001. If we do not change course, conservative estimates have the average world temperature increasing by another degree by 2100, while others predict it will be 4 degrees hotter by then.
While no single forest fire can be attributed directly to climate change, shifting weather patterns and climate zones that parch wetlands and forests and expand the range of tree-killing pests, as well as increase the frequency of lightning strikes, are creating ideal conditions for ignition and fire spread.
Yet what are Canadians doing today to combat the climate change that is making our forests tinder dry?
On a provincial level, Alberta touts green energy projects while energetically promoting its oilsands. B.C. rails against a pipeline while it offers billions of dollars in tax breaks to its fracking industry. Ontario is dismantling its recent gains by ending its cap-and-trade program, and cancelling over 750 clean energy projects already in progress. Saskatchewan refuses to implement carbon pricing as it launches legal action — with new support from Ontario — against a Pan-Canadian framework on climate change.
Meanwhile, in April the federal government was lauded for allocating $35 million in its 2018 budget to transition coal-industry workers to a clean-growth economy. Just one month later, it offered up $4.5 billion to buy Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain pipeline expansion, and now that the July 22 deadline for finding another private buyer has passed, Canadians have become de facto shareholders in a massive project that will increase fossil fuel extraction and export.
Recently, our government bowed to industry pressure and took the teeth out of its proposed carbon tax, shifting polluters’ obligations to pay for as little as 10 per cent of their emissions under benchmark instead of its original target of 30 per cent.
It’s time to wake up and smell the smoke.
As representatives of the physicians and scientists of Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment, we declare that climate change is a public health emergency. We must divert more resources to a just and rapid transition to renewable energy sources instead of enacting contradictory measures that ultimately increase our use of fossil fuels. The health of our forests, air, and people in big and small communities across this nation depends on it.
• Dr. Melissa Lem is a board member of the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment. Dr. Larry Barzelai is the Chair of the BC Chapter of the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment. Both practise family medicine in Vancouver.
CLICK HERE to report a typo.
Is there more to this story? We’d like to hear from you about this or any other stories you think we should know about. Email email@example.com
You might also like: