For days now, a grey pall has descended on Metro Vancouver. The North Shore mountains are barely visible from many parts of the region. The sun, meantime, appears like a tangerine behind a gauze-like veil, a shroud created by wildfire smoke now blanketing Southern B.C.
It could be worse for local dwellers. They could be living in the Interior and northern parts of the province, where the source of that smoke has sent hundreds of people fleeing from their homes and put thousands of others on evacuation alert. So blotted out is the sun, 10 in the morning can often look like 10 at night. As of Tuesday, there were nearly 600 fires burning across the province, where a state of emergency has been declared.
Air-quality alerts are now a daily fact of life. Dozens of planned outdoor events, including marathons, have been cancelled because of the health risk. People with lung conditions have been flooding emergency rooms in extreme distress. It would all be alarming if it wasn’t so familiar.
In fact, the current situation appears to be the new reality in the West, where in some areas blue skies are unheard of for weeks on end. This has been happening for years – except today, the fire season is longer, the plight of those living in the most vulnerable areas even worse than before. The cost of house insurance in some of these places has become so prohibitive that people are gambling on living with no coverage at all. Meantime, the price tag to cut back forests to build buffers around some of the more exposed towns is estimated to be in the multi-billions.
This is not, of course, a Canadian problem alone. The entire planet is on fire, literally and figuratively. Last year was a record-breaking season for wildfires in the United States. This year might be just as bad. Infernos are tearing across Colorado, New Mexico and other western states. In Europe, nuclear reactors have had to be shut down because the river water used to cool them is too hot. Electricity grids around the world have crashed, the consequence of heat waves.
The planet is on course to record its fourth-hottest year, with the only ones warmer being the three previous. Seventeen of the 18 hottest years on record have occurred since 2001, with man-made climate change credited as the culprit. Some are calling this the new normal. Others believe the worst is yet to come.
“We are living in a world that is not just warmer than it used to be,” Daniel Swain, a climate scientist at the University of California, Los Angeles, told The New York Times. “We haven’t reached a new normal. This isn’t a plateau.”
Amid this potential calamity, you would think the world’s leaders would have been shaken into action. Instead, industrial CO2 emissions grew to record levels last year. The climate accord reached in Paris two years ago now doesn’t seem to be worth the paper it was written on. The United States has pulled out and U.S. President Donald Trump is praising coal and deriding the benefits of clean energy alternatives such as wind power. Meantime, in our own country, the loudest voices on climate change are, regrettably, politicians of a conservative bent who have joined together to fight the federal government’s carbon tax.
Despite the emerging crisis created by an ever-warming planet – heat that is causing an increasing number of fatalities each year, temperatures that are destroying crops, fires obliterating homes by the thousands – leadership is missing. The condition we are likely to leave this planet in for future generations is shameful.
I know that Canada is a small player in the grand scheme of things. And what we do to reduce GHG emissions will make an insignificant dent in bringing about overall change. But that is hardly the point. We have to do our part. We have to have the moral conviction to address this problem before it’s too late – if it’s not already.
There isn’t a bigger issue before us. And those politicians who oppose plans to reduce emissions such as a carbon tax need to be held to account. They need to tell us what they will do to halt the destruction we are now witnessing.
Instead of cheesy buck-a-beer campaign pledges, our political leaders need to consider the real-life consequences of climate change, ones that are both lighting up our skies and darkening them at the same time.
NATIONAL AFFAIRS COLUMNIST
The Globe and Mail, August 21, 2018