The small town of Lytton, British Columbia, has always been one of the hottest places in Canada. But this week, with the temperature hitting a high of 49.6 C, it’s one of the hottest in the world — and it’s giving the rest of the country a preview of what our climate future might look like. In the midst of a brutal heat wave that has engulfed the Pacific Northwest this week, and killed nearly 500 people already in Canada alone, Lytton’s record-breaking heat and the subsequent wildfire that destroyed much of the town and surrounding First Nations stands out as a terrifying reminder of just how deadly-serious climate change can be.
B.C. Premier John Horgan seems to need that reminder more than most. Earlier this week, he told reporters that “fatalities are a part of life,” a comment that he was forced to walk back almost immediately. But this heat wave is another indication that climate-driven fatalities are going to be an even bigger part of our lives going forward. And as bad as it is in places like Kamloops and Lytton, it’s worse in other parts of the world. Take the approximately 200,000 people living in Jacobabad, Pakistan, where, as The Telegraph’s Ben Farmer wrote, “its mixture of heat and humidity has made it one of only two places on Earth to have now officially passed, albeit briefly, a threshold hotter than the human body can withstand.” That list of places is sure to grow in the years and decades to come, and while Canada won’t be on it any time soon, we will have to contend with the impact of hotter and more humid summers.
Unfortunately, the worst may be yet to come for Western Canadians with this particular heat wave. That’s because B.C. and Alberta’s forests getting put under the broiler has massively increased the risk of forest fires, which could very quickly send Jason Kenney’s “best summer ever” up in smoke. As Yan Boulanger, a forest ecologist for Natural Resources Canada, told the Canadian Press, Western Canada’s wildfire risk maps are “extremely extreme right now.”
Once this so-called “heat dome” lifts and we can all get back to thinking a bit more clearly, we need to ask some pointed questions about how we’re going to adapt to this new normal — and what it means for climate policy going forward. The federal government’s decision to move up the timeline on the phaseout of fossil fuel vehicle sales by five years, to 2035 from 2040, is a step in the right direction. But it should be clear to all but the most stubborn holdouts that we need to be taking bounds, not steps, if we’re going to get ahead of this slow-motion disaster.
That means a hard stop on catering to climate skeptics who have retrenched from outright denial to now accepting the science but ignoring its conclusions. They will point to China or the United States or some other actor’s behaviour as an example of why we don’t need to act decisively, move quickly or behave boldly. And while it might be tempting to assume the evidence right in front of our sweating faces will be enough to convince them to abandon this sort of climate filibustering, it’s far more likely they will double down on their logical fallacy of choice. If they insist on living in the past, so be it.
It will be left to the rest of us to push the broader climate conversation past promises about net-zero emissions targets that are 20 or 30 years in the future and focus far more on what we can do today to actually reach them. We’re at the point where that doesn’t just mean other people making sacrifices. We all have to entertain the possibility of changes to our own lives, whether it’s giving up some long-distance travel, getting rid of a car, or finding ways to use less energy.
The choice on the table isn’t between making sacrifices and maintaining the status quo, much as some people might want to believe otherwise. It’s between making relatively small sacrifices now or much bigger ones in the future — or worse, saddling our children and grandchildren with our sorry legacy. The sooner we come to terms with the reality we’ve helped create, the better we’ll be able to adapt. If there’s one thing that’s a near-certainty, it’s that the records getting broken this week won’t be the last of their kind.