‘No Return to Normal’: Smoke-Choked B.C. Cities Must Prepare for Worse to Come
British Columbians are being warned that this summer’s grim immersion in wildfire smoke is no anomaly, but instead a grim foreshadowing of the future in a destabilized climate that gathers ever more potential to devastate both the quality and the length of their lives.
The dangerous, smoky conditions have already become part of the argument for the Trudeau government to make a green recovery a centrepiece of its Speech from the Throne two days from now. Though Vancouver is breathing easier as the smoke that blanketed its streets for days begins to lift, health and environment experts are warning residents of B.C.’s largest city that the fires are “part of a worsening, climate change–propelled trend that could have far-reaching impacts” on both quality of life and, ultimately, lifespans, writes the Toronto Star.
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“This event right now will probably increase our annual air pollution in Vancouver around 30%,” said Michael Brauer, professor of environmental health at the University of British Columbia. “If we count on that, if we’re going to say our annual burden of air pollution has increased by 30% because of fires every summer, that’ll have a long-lasting impact on the health of the population.”
The smoke that overwhelmed the city for the bulk of last week placed Vancouver “at or near the top of a list of the world’s major cities with the worst air quality,” notes the Star. And the effects weren’t just felt in the cities of the West: CBC reports that on September 12, the air quality in the town of Castlegar “was rated amongst the worst in the world.”
For people already vulnerable to air pollution—those with underlying health conditions, the elderly, children, and pregnant women—the smoke that hung over much of the province produced a sharp reduction in quality of life as they were forced to retreat indoors for safety. Further adding to that toll is the anxiety, fear, and grief that comes from experiencing, even at some distance, the reality of a world on fire.
Such feelings are “a whole spectrum of natural human response to very scary and very concerning situations,” said Ashlee Cunsolo, a Memorial University expert on the links between ecological change and mental health. She told CBC the smoke is “a reminder of the suffering that other people and other ecosystems are going through—a reminder of the precarity of our own safety.”
And, notes the Star, with hotter and drier conditions bringing even more forest fires, policy-makers should not forget the larger significance of these days of smoke-choked air. “In the future, as climate change escalates, we can expect not just more summers like this, but also summers that are far worse,” said Steve Easterbrook, director of the University of Toronto’s School of the Environment. “That doesn’t mean every year will be worse than the last but, on average, the conditions will get steadily worse. In a decade or two, we might look back on this summer as relatively mild in comparison.”
What we cannot expect, he added, is a “return to any kind of ‘normal’.”
In anticipation of such debilitating variability, investment is urgently needed on two fronts, says the Star: appropriate infrastructure on a building and civic level (such as clean air shelters for the most vulnerable and better air filtration systems for seniors’ homes, hospitals, and office buildings), and the adoption of the same system of alerts and advisories for air quality as are now applied to extreme heat events. Those advisories are likely to limit many of the joys of an active outdoor life, from besting your competitors in an Iron Man event to watching your children running in a playground.