Recent climate change-exacerbated heat waves in the western Canadian province of British Columbia have left hundreds dead. According to British Columbia’s chief coroner, of the 719 sudden deaths between June 25 and July 1, many were “older individuals living alone in private residences with minimal ventilation.” Many people waited hours for emergency medical assistance. Studies show that excessive heat disproportionately harms people belonging to marginalized groups, including older people and people with disabilities.
Municipalities and First Nations across British Columbia set up cooling centers in the past weeks. However, older individuals, homeless people, and those with disabilities or chronic medical conditions, may not find it easy to relocate, even temporarily. Many rely on continuity-based services and have specific accessibility requirements. For those outside of urban centers, access can be even more difficult.
Canada is warming at twice the global rate, making heat waves more frequent and intense. Rapid warming has contributed to a 58.4 percent increase in heat-related deaths of people over 65 in less than two decades in Canada, with similar negative trends in the United States and Germany.
While there is no reporting yet on the impacts of this year’s extreme heat on people with disabilities, during the 2018 Montreal heat waves, 25 percent of those who died had schizophrenia. People with psychosocial disabilities have two to three times higher risk of death during heat waves, in part because of the impact of certain medications on the body’s ability to thermoregulate.
The need for a comprehensive climate response is urgent. The provincial government of British Columbia is currently accepting public feedback on its draft Climate Preparedness and Adaptation Strategy. The existing strategy does not mention heat-related impacts on older people and people with disabilities. The city of Vancouver is developing a 2050 Climate Change Adaptation Strategy.
Officials should actively consult with and include recommendations of older people and people with disabilities, among other groups, including in rural, remote, and Indigenous communities. It is essential that those most at risk of extreme heat and other climate-related impacts are among the leading voices in planning and response to ensure the rights of their communities are upheld.