Human Rights Watch calls heat dome "foreseeable" in report blasting governments' responses

The international human rights organization says that the B.C. and federal governments failed to protect seniors and people with disabilities

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      An international human-rights group has condemned the B.C. and federal governments' "failure" to protect older British Columbians and people with disabilities during a summer heat wave.

      According to Human Rights Watch, the B.C. government did not have a heat-action plan during a blistering heat dome from June 25 to July 1.

      In a report on its website, Human Rights Watch also stated that there was a “lack of access to cooling and targeted support for at-risk populations”.

      The B.C. Coroners Service concluded that 569 people died of heat-related causes from June 20 to July 29, including 445 fatalities during the heat dome.

      Human Rights Watch described the late June heat wave as an “extreme and foreseeable” event.

      “People with disabilities and older people are at high risk of heat stress, but they were left to cope with dangerous heat on their own,” Human Rights Watch senior disability rights researcher Emina Ćerimović said on the group’s website. “The Canadian authorities need to listen to and provide much better support for people with disabilities and older people before disaster strikes again.”

      Human Rights Watch pointed out that under the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, federal and provincial governments have an obligation to ensure equal rights for those with disabilities, including seniors, during natural disasters.

      "Under this treaty and the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights, everyone has the right to the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health," Human Rights Watch declared. "The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights requires governments to protect the right to life, including from foreseeable threats."

      It also noted that research published in the Lancet in 2018 noted that "rapid warming had contributed to a 58.4 percent increase in heat-related deaths of people over 65 in Canada in less than two decades".

      Human Rights Watch conducted remote interviews with 31 people in B.C. in advance of publishing the report. This included 13 people with disabilities, seven older people, and two family members of older people.

      Five of the seven older people and 12 of those with disabilities stated that the heat dome had a significant impact on their physical and mental health.

      Fourteen said that they are experiencing “trauma, anxiety, or depression because of their experience and the uncertainty of how they will survive future heatwaves”, the report stated.

      Human Rights Watch interviewed a 54-year-old Golden, B.C. resident named Edward Macarthur, who lives alone in a camper van with two dogs. He is described as “a spinal cord and traumatic brain injury survivor, and he uses a cane to walk”.

      In addition, he has post-concussion syndrome and Tourette syndrome.

      “Unable to find help or shelter in Golden, Edward decided to evacuate,” wrote Human Rights Watch senior web producer Paul Aufiero. “He drove through forest fires for 12 hours to reach the coast, thinking the sea breeze might help him and his dogs keep cool.

      “But authorities use bylaws to stop people from camping in certain areas, like the beach, which prevents unhoused people like Edward from finding safety in coastal towns during a heatwave,” Aufiero continued. “Police threatened to ticket and tow his van, throwing him and his dogs on the street. He pleaded and explained his condition, but they still insisted he leave.”

      As a result, Macarthur returned to Golden, where he was helped by friends.

      Another person interviewed was Paul Caune, executive director of the disability-rights group Civil Rights Now in Vancouver. Caune relies on a power wheelchair and a ventilator to cope with his muscular dystrophy.

      “I cannot escape the heat in the place where I live,” he said. “My AC wasn’t strong enough, it was not cooling, and I was getting overwhelmed by heat, my feet swollen quite dramatically, my legs started to hurt, and I nearly called the ambulance.”

      He has since bought a new air conditioner.

      The previous Canadian temperature record—set during the Depression on the Prairies—was shattered in several B.C. communities during the 2021 heat dome.

      A new record high was set in Lytton at 49.6° C shortly before the Fraser Canyon community burned to the ground in a June 30 wildfire.

      Climate scientists who contribute research to the World Weather Attribution website concluded that the heat dome over B.C. “was virtually impossible without human-caused climate change”.

      “The observed temperatures were so extreme that they lie far outside the range of historically observed temperatures,” they wrote in a paper. “This makes it hard to quantify with confidence how rare the event was. In the most realistic statistical analysis the event is estimated to be about a 1 in 1000 year event in today’s climate.”

      The scientists stated that there were two possible sources.

      First, it was a “very low probability event, even in the current climate with already includes about 1.2°C of global warming”.

      Alternatively, the heat dome was linked to “nonlinear interactions in the climate”, which “have substantially increased the probability of such extreme heat, much beyond the gradual increase in heat extremes that has been observed up to now”.

      Some have suggested that a slowing down of the jet streams—due to warmer Arctic temperatures in summer—played a major role in trapping heat over B.C. for an extended period of time.