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Canada and Climate Change

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The U.S. is most certainly not prepared for climate change. But think about Canada. This is a nation with an entire identity based on being cold, not burning in huge fires. What will it do?

Two weeks ago, the Canadian Institute for Climate Choices released a report on the public health impacts of climate change and the need for action to adapt to a new reality of extreme threats.

“Climate change,” Ian Culbert, executive director of the Canadian Public Health Association, wrote in the report’s introduction, “is an escalating public health emergency, and we need to start treating it that way.”

The historic and deadly heat wave in British Columbia made those words frighteningly real — even before it triggered a forest fire that destroyed most of the village of Lytton, British Columbia.

“We are now committed to a certain degree of warming in the world because of the emissions of the past,” Ryan Ness, the adaptation research director for the institute and co-author of the report, said in an interview on Friday.

“So while, in the longer term, it’s absolutely critical to reduce greenhouse gases as much as possible, as fast as possible, to keep things from getting even worse, there is a certain amount of climate change that we can no longer avoid. And the only way to really deal with that is to prepare, to adapt and to become more resilient to this change in climate.”

That means countering the increased risk of floods and forest fires. It also means accounting for how climate change will threaten Canadians’ health.

And more people will die: the report estimates that, by mid-century, heat will account for an additional 200 to 425 deaths in Canada per year.

The Institute did find that two measures to retrofit buildings would reduce the death toll. “If shading technologies were installed on 25 per cent of homes in Canada by the 2050s, there would be an average of 21 fewer deaths per year,” the report says. “If 50 per cent of all residential, commercial, and institutional buildings had green roofs installed by the 2050s, an average of 46 deaths would be avoided annually.”

But while green roofs and shading might reduce the impact of generally higher temperatures, such things won’t necessarily be enough to protect people from extreme events.

“When it comes to these extreme heat emergencies, the response systems really need to be in place to be able to identify the people who are going to be most affected by this and to get them the care that they need, whether it’s cooling centres, whether it’s medical attention, whether it’s a place to get off the streets,” Ness said.

“And in the longer term, it’s going to be important to address the underlying root causes of what makes some people more vulnerable than others.  Because it’s not really the average person who’s likely to die from a heat wave event. It’s somebody who is living on the street, somebody who has pre-existing health conditions because they aren’t able to access the health care that they need, or seniors who don’t have the supports they need to to help them out in these situations.”

I’d say it’s likely to cause a heck of a lot more than 425 deaths per year. But either way, another part of Canada’s identity is as a kinder, gentler place than the U.S., taking care of its people (First Nations need not apply of course). Will that continue? How will the need to revolutionary change the way we live co-exist with Canadian values? It will be something to watch in any case. I have little to no belief that the U.S. will ever lead the way on this. I hope Canada can provide a better example.

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