Elliott Cappell is PwC Canada’s national climate change leader, and Toronto’s former chief resilience officer.
The physical effects of climate change can be hard to explain. There is an exception: It is straightforward to link record heat to global warming, as we have seen with the temperatures soaring past 40 degrees across parts of Europe, Africa and Asia. The world is getting hotter, as predicted.
For Canadians, it is hard to come to grips with a hotter world as a bad thing. It is common for us to associate warmer weather with splash pads and long weekends by a lake. For some reason we see wildfires outside Seville or the melted tarmacs in London and implicitly think it won’t happen here. This mindset ignores the tragedy that it has already happened here: Last year Lytton, B.C., became the first town in Canada to be burned to the ground by climate change. I use the label “first” explicitly and purposely.
It is tempting to suggest that either the projections for Canada aren’t that bad, or that the impact will be manageable. After all, predictions of a maximum temperature in Toronto of around 50 days above 30, with the hottest of those days reaching 38 or 40 in 2060, simply does not sound that bad. Many snowbirds would welcome such a change.
That mindset ignores evidence from London, a city known for its rainy and dark days, where the Fire Brigade had its busiest day since the Second World War. And that is the result of just one day above 40.
The greatest danger arises when multiple hot days are strung in a row, when record heat combines with another extreme – for example, the combination of heat and drought has led to wildfires burning outside Madrid – or when heat reaches the “tipping point” in an ecosystem, as we saw with the glacier collapse in Italy this month that killed 11 people.
Still, the combination of heat, drought and other perils masks the real challenge for Canadian cities: We are least prepared in the places that matter most.
If you were to draw a Venn diagram of the people most exposed to extreme heat and the people most vulnerable to the impact of heat, the circles would have a near perfect overlap. Outdoor workers, those living in older and taller buildings, and people experiencing homelessness are among the most exposed. The second group (those most vulnerable) includes seniors, low-income families and other marginalized groups. For example, if you look at Quebec’s 2018 heat wave, most of the 89 people who died lived in low-income neighbourhoods and on the top floors of old walk-up apartments. Of the 619 people who died in B.C.’s heat wave, two-thirds were older than 70, more than half lived alone, and more than half lived in materially or socially deprived areas (which is government code for the lowest-income neighbourhoods).
What can we do about it? My former colleague and now Chief Heat Officer of the City of Athens, Eleni Myrivili, proposed a three-part plan relevant for any city: awareness, preparedness and redesign.
“We don’t expect a pizza to get delivered in a hurricane, yet we do in a heat wave,” Ms. Myrivili says. The first pillar of her plan is to build awareness of the dangers of extreme heat, which “kills silently.” We can achieve this in part through public messaging, such as naming heat waves the way we do hurricanes. For Canadian cities, at least measuring the problem would be a good start: Ontario does not even count deaths related to extreme heat.
The second pillar is to be prepared. Much of what we do today for extreme heat falls in this category. We open “cooling centres” for those without access to air conditioning, and some cities run programs for checking on vulnerable neighbours. We open public swimming pools and, for the lucky, we get out of the city. These are important but ultimately palliative measures that have a mixed record of success.
Sadly, air conditioning, a literal lifesaver, is not the long-term answer. Our energy grid buckles even on today’s hottest days: Ontario’s energy demand spiked this month at the hottest time on the hottest days, driven by our need to keep factories, homes, computer servers and public places cool. It is questionable whether we have enough energy to air condition our way out of extreme heat. To make matters worse, those spikes are powered across the country, in part, by natural gas or coal, our most carbon-intensive energy sources, which makes the problem worse in the long run.
The fundamental challenge we face is that the basic infrastructure on which we all rely is not built to cope with today’s extreme heat, let alone tomorrow’s. Redesign, Ms. Myrivili’s third pillar, is essential in the long run.
Resilient design would require us to raise standards and codes to meet the challenge of climate change. This work has started at the federal level, but we do not see the urgency filtering down to the provincial or municipal levels. Canada is notably one of the few developed countries without a climate resilience strategy (although one is finally in the works). And we are actually making the problem worse with every shovel in the ground or steel beam added to a construction site designed to meet yesterday’s climate.
Redesign demands we rethink the concrete jungle approach to city building, instead using nature-based solutions to dampen urban heat islands. Blue and green corridors in our cities act as natural air conditioners. The ravine system in Toronto is a great example: There, temperatures are cooler thanks to the combination of shade and water.
Canadian cities face a challenge that makes our outlook even murkier: what I call our multihazard challenge. Cities such as Athens and Miami have appointed chief heat officers because heat is a pervasive issue all year. It is sunny more than 250 days a year in Madrid and Tel Aviv, so they can focus permanent infrastructure on shade or cooling. In Montreal or Calgary, extreme heat will be a danger sometimes, but (and here’s the really sad part for Canadian cities) we will still have winter. So we need to address the extremes across many different hazards: spring flooding, winter freezing and summer boiling.
This requires a made-in-Canada solution – one that is flexible, addresses multiple hazards and is built to a new standard. Getting to that solution would require us to rethink how we build structures, fast-track reviews of codes and standards, experiment with more flexible seasonal infrastructure, change our work and social patterns to avoid midday summer heat and embrace a significant expansion of green and blue infrastructure. Above all, we need to change our minds about extreme heat by classifying it as a natural disaster alongside flooding or earthquakes, as recommended by the Intact Centre on Climate Adaptation.
These are big steps. A start would be for us to disassociate extreme heat from afternoons at the splash pad or cold beers on the dock. Let’s do at least that before other Canadian communities share the same fate as Lytton.
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