Smoke blankets the province as mega-fires devour withered pine forests. Dust bowls scour the Okanagan, increasingly resembling the Sahara.
When rain relieves parched land, it comes in hurricane-driven torrents. Hills slide down on homes and water wells are poisoned. Plagues and pestilence march north, carried by rodents, insects, birds and humans. Disease thrives while flood levels rise.
Welcome to B.C. in 2050 when the strong will survive but the most vulnerable could die.
The above scenario may sound like apocalyptic, but evidence suggests blights of biblical proportions may be coming, due to climate change, according to a new government-commissioned research paper, Climate Change and Health in British Columbia.
Developing a “made in B.C.” health-care response to avert deaths in the most vulnerable aboriginal and rural populations will be the focus at a Simon Fraser University-sponsored dialogue on Friday, moderated by public-health specialist Tim Takaro, one of the paper’s authors.
Takaro and scientists at the meeting also want to engage the public, which they believe sees climate change as only a “moderate risk.”
“It’s like the proverbial frog in a beaker,” Takaro said. “If you turn up the heat slowly, you can boil it and it won’t even jump out.”
Takaro points to the New Orleans flood of 2005 as the “poster child” for botched emergency response and a textbook case of the poorest citizens suffering the most.
Similar disasters could ravage reserves and remote areas in B.C. because personal-health levels, access to care and emergency preparedness there are so comparatively poor, Takaro says.
“We have to improve the resiliency of the most vulnerable,” he says.
Climate-change disaster already threatens 103 aboriginal communities in the middle of a massive swath of trees killed by mountain-pine beetles, which have run amok recently in warmer winters.
Leonard Thomas, president of the B.C. First Nations Forestry Council, warns that in his area of Fort St. James, “most of the bands have very little in fire-protection measures.”
Thomas has asked the federal government for more than $100 million to carve buffer zones in dead pine forests surrounding vulnerable villages.
Simon Fraser University forest-fire expert Ken Lertzman says his computer models show that, as summers become hotter and drier, devastating blazes such as the Kelowna fire of 2003 could occur 10 times a century, compared to two or three times in the past century. He warns that summer 2009 is already off to a fiery 2003-like start.
One of Takaro’s co-authors, SFU groundwater specialist Diana Allen, says she’s most concerned that the predicted warmer, wetter and wilder weather will spread infectious disease and pollute drinking water.
Climate-change science shows torrential rainstorms such as the one that caused the massive boil-water advisory of November 2006 in the Lower Mainland could become one-in-three-year events rather than one-in-20-year events.
Allen says Lower Mainland officials responded well to the turbidity crisis, avoiding any deaths. But similar situations could be fatal on reserves and in rural B.C., where citizens are responsible for their own drinking water and communications infrastructure is poor.
“These reserves don’t have the monitoring systems or awareness,” Allen says.
Another paper co-author, Kate Bassil, is studying the effects of heat waves on seniors in Chilliwack, Hope and Abbotsford.
Climate-change science suggests that, by 2050, heat stroke will replace freezing as the biggest extreme-weather killer in B.C., with the elderly and urban poor most endangered.
Bassil says outreach to isolated seniors must be improved to guard against the kind of heat-wave deaths seen in European and U.S. cities.
The Climate Change and Health paper also warns that increased air pollution will pose a health threat among the elderly and young.
John Yap, minister of state for climate change action, told The Province his government’s primary response to climate change “is meeting aggressive targets to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions.”
“We believe climate-change impact is far-reaching,” he says.
University of Victoria scientist Andrew Weaver says he believes future generations won’t question climate-change warnings, but the message often gets tuned out today.
“Sometimes we feel like a bunch of Noahs shouting, ‘The rain is coming,’ and no one is listening,” Weaver says.
Both Weaver and Takaro say the greatest health-care impact on B.C. in the future could be the increased service needs of millions of climate-change refugees fleeing from equatorial regions, which will become uninhabitable.
“We’ll have problems, but we’re going to look like an oasis to some,” Takaro says.