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Opinion: Heat wave another climate change wake-up call

Heat wave getty
The recent heat wave in Whistler and the north west of North America is a wake up call that climate change is impacting weather patterns globally.

For the last 16 months, we have all been caught up in the global COVID-19 pandemic health crisis. Along the way, we have been deeply saddened about the ongoing opioid crisis, which has worsened as the mental-health impacts of the coronavirus continue.

But in the last week, all of this has fallen to a distant second place in our psyche as we have worked to cope with a life-threatening heat wave—one that appears to have contributed to 719 deaths, according to the province’s top coroner.

And consider for a moment that not even the pandemic resulted in school boards moving rapidly to shut schools down completely. That’s exactly what happened in several school districts a week ago Monday, including in our own Sea to Sky region.

The heat wave obliterated records across the western half of North America and then within a blink of an eye, the devastating wildfire season grabbed the headlines. The world was staggered at the temperature record set in Lytton (49.6 degrees Celsius) and just a day later Canada mourned as the historic town, which is one of the longest continuously inhabited areas in the country, was mostly razed by fast-moving flames. It’s believed that First Nations have inhabited the area for the past 10,000 years.

Don’t for a moment think that it couldn’t happen in Whistler. It could. Indeed the ink on Lytton’s evacuation order wasn’t even dry before the flames jumped to the village of 250 people, devastating it and leaving two dead (as far as we know).

Of course, there are many lessons in the weather and fire events we are experiencing, but surely we can see the writing on the wall from this? Climate change isn’t just knocking at the door, it has thrown the door wide open and is stomping through.

While this may be headline news right now, no one should be surprised. Scientists have been telling us this is coming for decades—I’ve been reporting on this for just as long.

The Washington Post reminded us this week of two such reports: NASA physicist James Hansen’s testimony to a U.S. Senate committee in 1988 that “global warming is now large enough that we can ascribe with a high degree of confidence a cause and effect relationship to the greenhouse effect,” while in 1979, the National Research Council published a study led by the late meteorologist Jule Charney that predicted serious global warming would evolve. “It appears that the warming will eventually occur, and the associated regional climatic changes so important to the assessment of socioeconomic consequences may well be significant,” he wrote.

Over the past decades we have seen severe heat events happen all over the globe, including the heat dome variety we experienced here. (Heat domes are essentially sprawling zones of high pressure at high altitudes that bake the air underneath them.)

Europe experienced a heat wave in 2003 and it is estimated that it contributed to 70,000 deaths. 

In 2016, parts of Kuwait reached 53.7 degrees C.

And according to B.C.’s best-known climate scientist, former Green Party leader Andrew Weaver, “We ain’t seen nothing yet. This is chump change compared to where we are heading,” he told the Times Colonist.

“We know that the trend is towards dramatic increased warmth. We know Canada is warming at twice the world rate. We know that we expect there to be an increased likelihood of extreme heat as we move forward, but we also expect that the records will be broken on the high end and much less frequently on the low end.

“You might not see an event like this for a couple of years and then you might see the next event after this actually is worse than the one we see here.”

It’s easy to feel a sense of panic and helplessness facing this, but each one of us must take steps to address climate change in our lives. Yes, it’s true that nations must take urgent action, but so must we.

Think about how you use energy in your home and at work. Unplug things, use cold water to wash, consider renewable energy where appropriate, eat meat-free meals, don’t waste food, try and green your commute to work and elsewhere, consume less stuff, invest in renewables and not fossil fuels, get politically active and vote on these issues—don’t forget we are likely facing an election in October.

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