Whew, it’s hot out there today. Toronto was the hottest place in Canada this afternoon. The humidex hit 51. Environment Canada tells me that above 45 is dangerous, and around 54 means “heatstroke imminent”. I just stepped outside to see what it’s like and … it’s like nothing I’ve ever felt before. My better half has forbidden me from cycling home in this, so I’m pondering what to do next. This feels like a taste of “Our future on a hotter planet”. So, some idle thoughts…
To many people, living comfortable middle class lives in North America, climate change is some vague distant threat that will mainly affect the poor in other parts of the world. So it’s easy to dismiss, no matter how agitated the scientists get. If you follow this line of thinking, it quickly becomes clear why responses to climate change divide cleanly along political lines:
- If you care a lot about fairness and equity, climate change is an urgent, massive problem, because millions (maybe even billions) of poor people will suffer, die, or become refugees as the climate changes.
- On the other hand, if you’re comfortable with a world in which there are massive inequalities, where some people live rich lavish lifestyles while others starve to death, then climate change is a minor distraction. After all, famines in undeveloped countries are really nothing new, and we in the west are rich enough to adapt (Or are we?).
The dominant political ideology in the west (certainly in the English-speaking countries) is that such inequality is not just acceptable, but necessary. So it’s hardly surprising that right wing politicians dismiss climate change as irrelevant. No amount of science education will change the mind of people who believe, fundamentally, that they have no obligation to people who are less fortunate than themselves. As long as they believe that they are wealthy enough that climate change won’t affect them, that is.
But doesn’t a heatwave in a Canadian (!) city that makes it dangerous to be outside change things completely? We Canadians are used to the cold. We know how to dress up, and we embrace winter through a variety of winter sports. You can’t embrace extreme heat in the same way. If the body cannot cool down, you die. No matter how rich you are.
If people start to understand that this will be the new normal, it changes the issue from a question of equity to a question of health. Our elderly relatives are at risk first. And small children. But even a healthy adult can’t avoid heat stress if the body cannot cool down enough. What’s unusual about this heatwave (and the one that hit Europe in 2003) is that it doesn’t cool down much overnight. And nighttime temperatures are rising even faster than daytime temperatures. That’s a massive threat to public health, especially in cities.
And with that thought, how am I going to get home?