By James McCarten
Crippling heat waves are an annual fixture in the United States – but it’s not every day the White House announces a detailed strategy to confront them.
So far, it’s been an extreme-weather summer across the continent: brutal heat, a barrage of tornadoes, flooding in the U.S. northeast and an unprecedented wildfire season in Canada.
This weekend in the U.S. promises to be no different, with temperatures in California’s record-setting Death Valley predicted to reach a scorching 52 C.
That’s why the Biden administration is introducing what it calls an “all-of-society response” to help manage a challenge it says is only getting worse.
In Ottawa, the federal government is also getting ready with a strategy geared towards helping the most vulnerable, including older Canadians, Indigenous communities, inner-city residents and people who work outside.
The U.S. plan includes new research centres to help underserved communities prepare for future heat waves, as well as work on a national strategy focused on equity and environmental justice.
“Millions of Americans are being impacted by extreme heat waves, which are growing in intensity, frequency and duration due to climate change,” the White House said in detailing its plans.
The first six months of 2023 included no fewer than 12 separate “weather and climate events” each costing more than US$1 billion, it said.
“The situation is alarming, and it requires an all-of-society response to ensure that communities have the support they need to plan, prepare and recover from these extreme weather events, which are costing the U.S. billions of dollars every year.”
The administration also plans to gather mayors and Indigenous leaders from across the country to meet with emergency response officials in the coming days to talk about what additional tools they may need.
Like in the U.S., the federal government in Canada has staked much of its reputation on enunciating and enacting a comprehensive response to climate change, both in terms of its root causes as well as its consequences.
The government is spending more than $55 million on the problem over the next five years, including $13 million on new heat-resilient health systems, Environment and Climate Change Minister Steven Guilbeault said in a statement.
“Because of these actions and more, by 2026, 80 per cent of health regions will have implemented evidence-based adaptation measures to protect health from extreme heat,” Guilbeault said.
“To ensure everyone, even the most vulnerable, is helped, the response needs to happen at the community level.”
The government’s climate change adaptation plan describes extreme heat as creating the deadliest weather-related events in the country, blaming the 2021 “heat dome” in B.C. for at least 619 deaths in the province that year alone.
B.C. announced last month it would spend $10 million to help the province’s utility provide portable air conditioners to people who face the greatest risks to their health when the mercury climbs too high.
As a result, B.C. Hydro expects to install 8,000 such units over the next three years for people with low incomes who are medically vulnerable to heat.
In the U.S., nearly 109 million residents – about one-third of the population – were under extreme-heat advisories, watches or warnings on Wednesday, the National Weather Service reported.
And there’s no relief in sight: building heat in the U.S. southwest in particular “will become extremely dangerous by this weekend” and persist for the next eight to 14 days, the agency warns.
“A few locations could even approach their all-time heat records and register top-10 hottest days as the heat wave peaks.”
In the southeast, temperatures of 43 C and higher are forecast across the region with”`unusually warm water” in the Gulf of Mexico and the western Atlantic Ocean fuelling “persistent, oppressive humidity” along the coast.
In Florida, the record surface water temperatures offshore are fuelling concerns about a busier-than-expected hurricane season, since warm, humid air is a key component in how the storms form and grow.
But even in a hurricane-prone part of the world, it can be hard to get people to heed the danger, said David Merrick, director of the Emergency Management and Homeland Security program at Florida State University.
Because extreme heat so often affects a large swath of people at once, it might prove to be a more effective messenger about the perils of climate change, Merrick said.
“From a disaster standpoint, it’s very hard to get people to pay attention to a threat or hazard or a topic that doesn’t impact them directly,” he said.
Sustained heat waves “will perhaps wake people up to the realization that this is something that we need to put resources into, that we need to change the way we do things.”
A newly updated congressional research report on the Canada-U.S. relationship acknowledged some of the common concerns the two countries share when it comes to the impacts of climate change.
Both face “increasing forest fires and habitat losses, public health effects of heat episodes and expanding disease vectors, increasing costs of cooling and risks to coastal communities due to more intense storms and sea-level rise,” the report says.
Melting sea ice in the Arctic is also creating both “opportunities and concerns,” it adds, “due to the effects on Indigenous populations and increased commercial activity, shipping, tourism and risks of associated accidents, as well as dramatically changing ecosystems.”
Experts and lawmakers in both countries have also been pushing their respective governments to define sustained periods of extreme heat as a natural disaster.
Rep. Ruben Gallego (D-Ariz.) introduced legislation last month that, if passed, would do just that, ensuring affected regions would qualify for federal emergency assistance.
“Every summer, we are experiencing hotter and longer heat waves in (Phoenix),” Gallego said. “Despite the too often deadly effects of this heat, Arizonans are left to deal with the impacts themselves, and it is draining their resources.”
Natural disasters that currently qualify for federal help include hurricanes, tornadoes and storms, flood events including tidal waves, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, landslides, mudslides, snowstorms and drought.
And a report last year by the Intact Centre on Climate Adaptation at the University of Waterloo urged Ottawa to do much the same, given that Canada is warming at twice the global rate and that its urban centres are the hot spots.
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