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The record-setting day when global heating surpassed COVID-19 as the existential crisis

After the last four years of wildfire, we all know what comes next. The good news? There’s literally nothing like an extreme heat wave to galvanize public concern over climate change

Here, in descending order of national significance, are some things that happened in British Columbia on Monday: the town of Lytton logged the hottest temperature ever recorded on Canadian soil, 47.5 degrees Celsius; Vancouver, where I live, set its own personal best, breeching 40 degrees around four in the afternoon; the Vancouver School Board decided to close all schools, something not even COVID-19 could convince them to do this year, marking the first time in this city’s history that classes have been cancelled due to heat; and I got my second COVID-19 vaccination.

That last detail may seem irrelevant to discussions of a heat wave, but here’s why I include it: Monday, June 28, 2021, the day the heat wave climaxed, marked a tipping point. Not for the Earth’s life systems, but for the public’s attention. Monday was the day global heating surpassed COVID-19 as the existential crisis at the forefront of our thoughts.

It obviously wasn’t my own second jab that tipped the scales. It just symbolized a larger inflection point. On the day reinforcements arrived in my immune system, B.C. recorded just 38 new cases of COVID-19. More than 80 per cent of the adults in this province, and three quarters of the entire country’s citizenry above the age of 12, have now received at least one dose. Canada is now more vaccinated than almost any other country on Earth, and in most of the country we’re starting to feel it. That’s not to say this pandemic is over or out of the news cycle — new variants, plus the fact that many nations outside Europe and North America are now entering their deadliest phase of the pandemic, ensure this story still has legs. But here and for now, in the realm of our daily awareness, the novel coronavirus has finally lost its novelty.

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The global climate crisis is on the opposite trajectory. This heat wave just obliterated records across the entire western half of North America, not just for heat but also for its geographic scope and longevity. It would be dangerous enough on its own, but it isn’t on its own. After the last four years of wildfire, we all know what comes next. It will take a meteorological miracle — a week of summer rains with no lightning, stretching from Los Angeles to Whitehorse — for all this bone-dry timber not to erupt in a scale of flame we used to call unprecedented. And that’s before hurricane season gets going, soon to be priced into global insurance markets, or the enormous and underreported drought devastating much of North America’s most fertile farmland hits food prices and supplies.

Anyway, that’s the bad news.

The good news is that there’s literally nothing like an extreme heat wave to galvanize public concern over climate change. This was one finding to emerge from a recent (and otherwise depressing) study published in the journal Global Environmental Change, which examined the disconnect between Americans’ belief in climate change and evidence thereof. The study found that even among those Americans who do acknowledge climate change, a distressing number fail to connect extreme rain or flooding or hurricanes with any bigger picture. 

“We found that only one type of weather affected Americans’ beliefs that they had experienced global warming: hot, dry days,” explained Jennifer Marlon, one of that study’s authors, in a follow-up article for Yale Climate Connections. The point being, Marlon noted, that “these weather events are potential conversation starters about climate change.”

No comparable survey has been done in Canada. Overall, the reality of climate change may be more accepted here than in the United States, but that generalization conceals an ocean of indifference. In the leadup to the last federal election in 2019, survey after survey found that despite a majority of Canadians wanting our government to do something about climate change, very few wanted the solution to impact their personal lives. In this CBC poll, for instance, two thirds of respondents named fighting climate change as a top priority, but only half of those same people were willing to spend $9 a month on the issue.

Every last drop of ice cream before it melts

When my five-year old daughter’s second-last day of kindergarten was kiboshed by the heat wave, she got to spend the day playing in a waterpark with her best friend instead. We stopped for ice cream on the way home. It was a fabulous experience in every way except for its failure to generate concern about a warming planet.

Rather than try, I told her yet another story she’s too young to grasp. I told her how, when I was a kid growing up in Edmonton, schools closed when it got too cold outside instead of too warm. We called them snow days, and I enjoyed them exactly as much as she enjoyed her sun day. The main difference is that I look back on those snow days with a double nostalgia, for both childhood and winter itself, because -40 C days almost never happen in Edmonton anymore. By contrast, my daughter can rest easy. Plus forty days aren’t about to be a regular occurrence in Vancouver, but with 12 more years of school to come, her first sun day is unlikely to be her last.

It’s tempting to think of our politicians and CEOs as grown-up versions of children on vacation: gleefully devouring their spoils, concerned only with consuming every last drop of ice cream before it melts. And lord knows many of our leaders have much to answer for. Here in B.C., we’re logging the last trees on this continent that don’t burn, our ancient coastal rainforests; next door in Alberta, the provincial government is explicitly guided by an ideology of climate change denial. Federally, we have a Liberal government that shuts down coal even as it builds new oilsands pipelines. Still, without letting those leaders off the hook, spare a thought for the bind they’re in. Many are good people, doing their best to triage a world full of rising emergencies. They don’t have as much power as we think, and most of what they do have, rests with us.

Whatever else these hottest days are good for, surely one opportunity they present is the chance to use that power — to talk to those leaders and to our friends about what a heat wave like this means, and what we’re willing to do about it.

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