The Burdens of Climate Change are Not Felt Equally
From the Nest, Issue 9
by Sophie Geffros
This summer, as wildfires raged across much of the North American West, record high temperatures were recorded in several locations in British Columbia. These records had a death toll – all in all, British Columbian public health officials stated that nearly 500 people died as a result of the heatwave.
It was just the latest example of what many other countries throughout the world have been dealing with for years – record-high temperatures blanketing entire regions for days or weeks on end, leaving high rates of mortality in their wake.
Climate change is a key contributor. One significant impact that Canada is likely to experience as the planet heats up is an increase in the rate, intensity, and duration of extreme heat events. Extreme heat events are particularly dangerous for older adults, small children, pregnant people, and people with disabilities. The impact of extreme heat events also falls disproportionately on low-income communities, people of colour, and people living in dense urban centres, who are further vulnerable to the urban heat island effect.
While many involved die as a direct result of heat exposure through heat-related illness, severe dehydration, and heat stroke, others die as a result of the worsening of a chronic condition. People with cardiovascular or respiratory conditions may find that their condition is exacerbated in an extreme heat event.
It goes without saying that this does not mean these individuals would have perished if they were not exposed to the extreme heat. A death that results from the exacerbation of a chronic condition is just as avoidable as a heat-related death in someone without a chronic condition. All of these deaths are policy failures.
Compounding the risk of mortality in heat events is that neighbourhoods which experience significant heat island impacts are also often communities with high proportions of low-income residents and residents of colour, living in apartment buildings that are designed to retain heat, and without access to personal air conditioners. In such conditions, the risk of heat-related disease and death increases exponentially.
In the city of Hamilton, the neighbourhoods which make up our downtown core are most vulnerable to urban heat island effects, although these effects are not distributed evenly between or within these neighbourhoods.
While the Beasley, Landsdale, and Gibson neighbourhoods are all quite vulnerable to heat island effects, Beasley is the most vulnerable by far. Limited greenspace, a high proportion of apartment buildings, and paved surfaces dominate the landscape.
In other areas of the city, a more robust urban canopy, a higher proportion of greenspace, or a closer proximity to Lake Ontario provide some degree of protection from the impacts of the heat island effect, although there is no neighbourhood in central Hamilton which is completely free from this impact.
Hamilton has been fortunate enough to avoid a mass wave of deaths as the result of an extreme heat event like those we have seen elsewhere, but we will not keep being fortunate. As the intensity and frequency of extreme heat events increases, we must be aggressive in our approach to ensure that we do not let people die of heat-related conditions which we could have prevented.
The urban heat island effect is a solvable problem. Researchers have found that an increase in green cover from 10% to 25% can lead to a 2 degree reduction in ambient temperatures. The cooling impact of urban tree cover is well-known. Trees cool the air, reduce air pollutants by trapping particulate matter in their leaves, needles, and bark, and absorb and sequester CO2 emissions.
Although tree coverage has perhaps the most significant effect, all forms of greenspace impact the heat island effect. Replacing large paved surfaces like parking lots with native plant ground cover and community spaces would have a huge impact on the temperature of the neighbourhoods that are hit the hardest by the heat island effect.
Further, the large paved roads that currently bisect our downtown core have no place in the downtown core of a city.
These urban highways are both highly dangerous for pedestrians and cyclists and huge contributors to the heat island effect. These multi-lane highways could be transformed by the construction of protected bike lanes and reflective paint which would prevent the heat absorption effect. Pedestrian walkways could be repainted and widened, using the newly-expanded space to include living groundcover, trees, and planters.
It is worth noting that residents of Hamilton have been attempting to address these issues proactively, only to face barriers at municipal or other levels of government. The communities who are most exposed to these risks are disproportionately low-income, with a much higher proportion of people of colour and people with disabilities than the city as a whole.
It is hard not to wonder what the response from government would be if it was Ancaster that faced higher temperatures and higher rates of morbidity and mortality from heat exposure, rather than the downtown core.
We also cannot afford to close our eyes to the impact of extreme heat on our neighbours who live in encampments. They, too, are more likely to be people of colour and people with disabilities, and they are made doubly vulnerable to extreme heat events.
The burdens of climate change are felt by all of us, but they are not felt equally.
Sophie Geffros is a PhD candidate in Geography at McMaster University and a resident of Ward 1