City of Vancouver responds to climate change threat to human health

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      By now, many British Columbians are aware of potential environmental and economic effects of runaway global warming.

      More extreme weather events, rising sea levels, and frequent forest fires are just three threats created by rising greenhouse-gas emissions.

      However, the health effects of climate are less well understood. It’s an issue that Australian author and climate-change researcher Tim Flan­­nery has addressed in his new book, Atmosphere of Hope: The Search for Solutions to the Climate Crisis.

      In a recent interview with the Georgia Straight at SFU Harbour Centre, Flannery explained that he worked very closely for several years with Tony McMichael, who coauthored reports on health impacts for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

      “They range from direct impacts, deaths through heat waves and so forth, and on to the impacts on fires—and deaths and smoke inhalation from fires—right through to psychological impacts for farmers who are dealing with years and years of below-average rainfall and trying to make things work,” Flannery said. “So they are very, very, very widespread and pervasive.”

      He noted that a major concern with burning fossil fuels is the release of particulates.

      Research shows that tiny particles measuring less than 2.5 microns in diameter go deep into the lungs and in some cases can even enter the bloodstream.

      According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, many scientific studies have linked particulates to premature deaths, nonfatal heart attacks, aggravated asthma, irregular heartbeats, decreased lung function, and increased respiratory symptoms.

      “In places like northern China now, we’re seeing longevity decrease by about five-and-a-half years, on average,” Flannery said. “That’s before the big cancer that we know is inevitable and is going to come off the back of breathing all of those particles.”

      He added that even in a country like the United States, the health impacts of burning fossil fuels run into the hundreds of billions of dollars.

      Here in Vancouver, Mayor Gregor Robertson is well aware of the potential health impacts of climate change.

      In a phone interview with the Straight, he said that the city is already taking steps to implement recommendations in its climate-change adaptation strategy.

      “We divvied that up into three main pieces, one being the extreme-weather and heavy-rain events, two being sea-level rise, and three being prepared for heat,” Robertson said.

      One approach to address heat is beefing up the urban forest. The mayor’s political party, Vision Vancouver, promised in the last election campaign to plant 150,000 new trees by 2020.

      He also pointed to a pilot project called the “cooling parklet”. (A parklet is a platform that extends from sidewalks into street parking that can include benches, tables, and landscaping.)

      “We’re looking at vulnerable neighbourhoods with heat risk—without tree canopy to deal with the hot days,” Robertson said. “These parklets would have shade and seating and water fountains, possibly water-misting devices. So, obviously, there’s a win-win with more permeable surface to deal with rainfall and also being a good little island of cool on these hot days.”

      Last summer’s drought demonstrated that Vancouver isn’t immune to blistering heat.

      One of the city’s responses was to create “cooling stations” in public facilities, including libraries and community centres.

      “It’s not something I was expecting, even seven years ago as mayor, that this would happen so quickly,” Robertson said.

      The city’s climate-change adaptation report noted that a 2009 heat wave caused an estimated 122 “excess deaths” in Vancouver and an increase in emergency-room visits.

      “Vancouverites are generally less acclimatized to high temperatures and therefore have a lower threshold for health effects,” the report stated. “Vulnerable populations such as older adults, infants and children, those with chronic illness and socially disadvantaged communities are also at higher risk.”

      In late August, the Lower Mainland experienced a brutal windstorm, leaving a half-million B.C. Hydro customers without power.

      Events like this were anticipated in the climate-change adaptation strategy. It stated that “emergency management and response capacity will need to cater to more frequent, simultaneous and extreme disasters.”

      Robertson plans to attend the UN’s COP21 climate conference in Paris in late November and early December, claiming that “national leaders in politics and business aren’t moving anywhere near fast enough.”

      He said mayors from around the world plan to share stories and best practices as well as push national leaders for a “bold agreement” to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions.

      “That’s why sending signals from our cities is so important,” Robertson said. “We’re on the frontlines of this. We have to raise the alarm bell and implement change on the ground as boldly as we can.”