Just off a bustling urban street, in the heart of a middle class Canadian community, I came upon an elderly man wilting in the low lying shrubs, mere feet from heavy traffic and visibility. He appeared unconscious, perhaps brought on by the searing summer temperatures that had pushed the mercury above 30 degrees Celsius. Judging by his appearance and nearby possessions, I made the assumption that he was homeless.
As I waited for emergency personnel to be dispatched, I did my best to describe his appearance and condition, which seemed dire. As we know, being homeless presents many socioeconomic hardships. Homelessness also increases vulnerability to extreme heat events that can exacerbate health issues brought on by heat exposure, including cardiac events, dehydration and respiratory illnesses.
Most often Canadians tend to think of the impact of cold weather in our cities during the winter months when vulnerable persons have too often frozen to death. However, heat is also a killer and cities need to be better prepared to address the risks associated with extreme weather events – not only today, but also as our climate changes and brings forth more volatile weather patterns.
This past winter several tragic events occurred in Toronto where deaths related to cold weather hit the homeless community hard. During that same frigid period, on the other side of the world, the Australian city of Melbourne was grappling with a pending heat wave. The city issued a series of measures to support its local vulnerable population with cooling stations. In addition, Melbourne also adopted a strategy to deal with increasing extreme weather.
Such government strategies will become even more important as climate volatility is expected to worsen, especially with respect to the frequency and duration of hot days exceeding 30 degrees. To put this in perspective, Environment Canada defines a heatwave in Ontario as three consecutive days of 32 degrees along with high humidity.
This past May saw parts of India hit temperatures of 48 degrees Celsius, resulting in an estimated 2,000 deaths, many among the poor and homeless. Closer to home, the Chicago extreme heat event of July 1995 resulted in an estimated 700 heat-related deaths. The spike in mortalities took place during a span of about 10 days when temperatures soared past 40 degrees Celsius.
The authors of an article in The New England Journal of Medicine documenting the Chicago tragedy cited social isolation, pre-existing medical conditions, poverty and living conditions as among the key predictors of mortality for such occurrences. Not surprisingly, they conclude that the provision of better housing, frequent interactions with social services and simple access to air conditioning as critical for survival.
There are no shortages of examples of how extreme weather events have impacted vulnerable populations on a global scale. Many of these events have caused policy makers to pause and consider the need for careful planning in order to be better prepared for sudden extreme weather occurrences. However, what is now emerging are a series of even more dire predictions as a result of modelling long-term trends in weather.
In a recent article published in Nature Climate Change, authors Bryan Jones and colleagues examined long-term weather predictions in the United States. What they contend is that the intensity of days in excess of 35 degree Celsius will increase dramatically over the coming decades. The outcome could prove devastating if climate adaption strategies are not created to address extreme heat events, especially for vulnerable populations.
In Canada, we need more careful analysis of emergency planning focused on extreme heat events for vulnerable persons. Both Environment Canada and Health Canada have developed communications strategies and tools. These resources remain important for building awareness but more concrete actions are needed that have a direct impact. This includes addressing income inequality, ending homelessness and retrofitting our aging housing stock. We must not only build more affordable housing but do so in a much more efficient manner to both cool and heat buildings (while using less energy).
Governments of all levels across the country need to consider the mounting evidence for increasing climate variability and create actionable plans for vulnerable persons to ensure that those most likely to be adversely effected by extreme weather events are protected with the right supports. This must start with ending homelessness for as many Canadians as possible and closing the widening income gap that pushes far too many into poor quality housing.
Jino Distasio is Director of the Institute of Urban Studies, University of Winnipeg.