ON THE THIRD DAY of the astonishing and historically unprecedented heatwave that brought Death Valley level temperatures to the Interior of British Columbia, I ventured onto my back deck to do some emergency hand watering of wilting plants.
There I discovered that the plastic overflow trays under the plant pots in which I grow my kitchen herbs had simply melted. So had the gaskets and glue in the adjustable head on the water wand I’d neglected to hang up. Every seam now sprayed disconcerting leaks.
Elsewhere on Vancouver Island people reported vinyl blinds melting, windows frames warping, window panes overheating and blowing out, the tempered glass in car windshields simply disintegrating. And on July 13, news media reported that BC Hydro cables to Vancouver Island were damaged during the timeframe of the heatwave, causing a reduction in power delivery.
BC heatwave as illustrated on the Weather Network
It wasn’t just here, of course. In Oregon people reported it got so hot the infrastructure began to melt. The plastic insulation on power cables sloughed off. Asphalt roads and concrete sidewalks heaved and buckled. Wags fried eggs on car hoods for their Twitter feeds.
But it wasn’t so amusing for others.
In the aftermath, BC’s coroner has reported at least 719 sudden deaths, many of them apparently associated with heat-related medical emergencies for seniors in sweltering rooms without adequate ventilation. There are likely more deaths yet to be tabulated. But the number confirmed so far was equivalent to an Air India disaster a day over the heatwave weekend.
Why authorities didn’t anticipate this grim consequence as the disaster unfolded and overwhelmed ambulance services is a reasonable question. Only 20 per cent of British Columbians have air conditioning, so it wasn’t rocket science to predict that low income seniors in older housing would be extremely vulnerable to the heat.
I haven’t seen the distribution figures but my informed guess would be that statistics will ultimately show a correlation between the deaths and poorer neighbourhoods. Poorer people can’t afford the air conditioners that the wealthy buy during heatwaves.
The World Health Organization has been issuing grim warnings about the lethal consequences of heatwaves. It says they killed more than 166,000 people between 1998 and 2017. One summer-long heatwave in Europe killed 70,000 people in 2003. Another that lasted 44 days killed 56,000 in Russia in 2015. A 20-year medical study published in the medical journal The Lancet says that extreme temperature variations caused by global warming now cause more than five million deaths a year.
A paper published June 4 in the respected science journal Nature analyzed data gathered over 28 years from 732 locations in 43 countries. It attributes 37 per cent of deaths related to heat exposure around the world between 1991 and 2018 to global warming caused by humans.
While more air conditioning might help keep individuals who have them alive, air conditioning itself has consequences beyond this obvious benefit. The International Energy Agency (IEA) points out that if the rest of the world were to begin running air conditioners at a similar level to the US, which spends $30 billion a year to power air conditioners, that alone would add about two billion tonnes of carbon dioxide a year to the atmosphere. That’s because air conditioners are colossal electricity hogs. One IEA analyst told The Guardian newspaper in 2019 that during the previous year’s heat wave in Beijing, 50 per cent of that vast city’s electrical budget (much of it from burning natural gas, though other parts of China rely on coal) was diverted to powering air conditioners.
Smashed temperature records call for decarbonization
In the June heatwave, Lytton became the hottest place ever recorded in Canada at 49.6 degrees. It was just one of 59 heat records set around the sweltering province from Victoria—at 38.3, hotter than Hyderabad; Port Alberni—at 41.3, hotter than New Delhi; Fort Nelson—at 35.8, hotter than Mumbai.
Just across the border from Osoyoos—at 45 degrees, already hotter than Uttar Pradesh, itself sweltering under a June heatwave across North India—a satellite sensor recorded a ground temperature near Wenatchee of 63 degrees. That’s the reading you get from your instant thermometer when the steak on the grill hits medium rare.
Many of my media colleagues responded to these temperatures across BC, Washington and Oregon as a freakish event, a one-in-a-millennium marvel, the stuff of exclamatory headlines and breathless news clips, then shock and recrimination at the entirely predicable human toll.
But examining my melted plastic trays, I concluded that we just got a glimpse not of an exception but of the hellish new normal about to descend upon us courtesy of the relentless physics of global warming.
Though “climate change” or “climate emergency” is the politically preferred language these days, they seem almost Orwellian euphemism and dissimulation, suggesting we can have our cake and eat it, continuing to enrich ourselves with fossil fuels and enjoying the conveniences they bring while enthusiastically talking the talk about reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
John Horgan and the New Democrats and the hapless Liberals and whoever they pick as a new leader can talk themselves blue about their green commitments, an endless blah, blah, blah of mission statements about carbon emission caps and magical thinking about electric futures, but their inability to fully embrace decarbonization means we should expect all this to get worse, not better unless we intervene as citizens.
The truth is, our politicians are not stupid; they know what has to be done; but they don’t have the stomach for it.
BC’s energy resource development heading in wrong direction
Despite our self-congratulatory self-image as the greenest province, British Columbia remains a leading producer and exporter of that dirtiest of fossil fuels, coal. In the last 10 years, the province has produced and exported close to 300 million tonnes of coal. Loaded into hopper cars, that’s one giant coal train that would circle the Earth at the equator.
Coal awaiting shipping at Westshore Terminal
Then there’s oil, 100,000 barrels a day, making BC the fourth largest producer in Canada.
And natural gas: five billion cubic feet a day, 32 percent of all Canadian production, much of it coming from a single field—the Montney Formation—in the Peace River district which contains 400 trillion cubic feet of gas, 392 trillion cubic feet of which remain as the recoverable reserve.
This massive reserve is actually a driver of development and production in Alberta’s oil sands. Its natural gas liquids are used to dilute bitumen from Alberta’s oil sands so that it can be transported by pipeline and shipped by tanker. Mining that bitumen still generates 70 megatonnes of greenhouse gases a year. The Alberta government says it’s capping emissions—at 100 megatonnes.
Thus, BC will be a critical enabler of the increased shipment of dilbit—diluted bitumen. Right now, about 300,000 barrels of crude oil and refined petroleum products flow through the existing pipeline every day.
There’s another way to think of this. Natural gas liquids supplied from BC are enabling the flow of 129,000 tonnes per day of greenhouse gas emissions from Alberta. How? Because one barrel of dilbit, refined and burned, yields about 431 kilograms of carbon dioxide. Thus, when the current twinning of the pipeline is complete and another 590,000 barrels a day begin to flow—a tripling of the export of oil—the greenhouse gas emissions being exported will increase to about 385,000 tonnes a day.
Oh, and there’s liquefied natural gas (LNG), also high on the province’s development agenda. It’s touted as a clean alternative to burning coal or oil. That’s generally true, but the devil is in the details.
LNG Canada’s project in Kitimat is now under construction (Photo by LNG Canada)
Every 42-gallon barrel of LNG yields about 236 kilograms of carbon dioxide. The standard LNG tanker carries about 150,000 cubic metres of cargo. So each anticipated tanker leaving BC laden with natural gas will actually be shipping 223,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide for release into the atmosphere.
Then there’s the methane—it’s the largest component of natural gas and it’s 25 times more potent as a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. Methane leaks during production and BC’s oil and gas industry is a major source of methane emissions in the province.
There’s no getting around the relatively simple math on these matters, although it’s maddeningly complicated by the way government and industry report using different values, scales and terminologies, and by the different greenhouse gas emission coefficients for different products.
A cynic might think that there’s some sinister reason for reporting in barrels, cubic metres, cubic feet, metric tonnes, gallons, short tons, long tons, litres, pounds and kilograms which require a mind-numbing array of conversions. But perhaps this is less a sinister attempt to complicate and confuse than it is representative of the heedless, unthinking, topsy-turvy evolution that got us into this mess in the first place.
In any event, the politicians in our successive provincial governments have been the leading proponents of the magical disconnect between what we do and what we say when it comes to mitigating global warming.
Part of it is because investors, governments—and by extension the rest of us—are deeply addicted to the revenues and convenience that flow from fossil fuel commodities which have come to permeate almost every human activity.
Reducing our reliance on fossil fuels will mean massive inconvenience
A genuine shift to green energy globally will have immense financial implications for oil producing countries. One study by a prominent think tank estimates a genuine pivot to green energy would mean a cumulative total revenue loss for oil-producing countries of $13 trillion by 2040. Some countries would lose 40 per cent of their total government revenue.
So there’s clearly a significant conflict.
Hence, we tolerate the spin from politicians. Like that from Premier Horgan, who talks the politically correct green line we demand while simultaneously mowing down old growth forests that actually do mitigate against global warming, all the while prosecuting and preparing to stuff into courtrooms those few who are brave enough to object.
BC continues to mow down forests that mitigate against global warming (photo by Alex Harris)
Let’s put a little of this into the context of physics. Burning one tonne of BC coal produces more than two tonnes of carbon dioxide gas, a principal greenhouse gas driving global warming. So burning 300 million tonnes of BC coal contributes roughly 600 million tonnes of greenhouse gas. Where it’s burned—whether in steel mills in Japan or thermal generating plants in China—is completely irrelevant. Pretending it’s not part of BC’s carbon footprint because it’s been exported to some other less environmentally responsible jurisdiction doesn’t matter—or help.
As the recent heatwave illustrated, we all share the same atmosphere and what goes down is bound to come around whether in the form of the recent heatwave or the emissions of fossil fuel particulates that one research paper published last month estimates killed a million people in 2017.
Wait a minute, I hear, how can burning one tonne of coal produce a weight of carbon dioxide greater than the coal itself?
For those of us who should have paid more attention in high school chemistry class, the atomic weight of carbon is 12. The atomic weight of oxygen is 16. When carbon oxidizes, which is what’s happening when you burn it, one carbon atom combines with two oxygen atoms which yields a weight of 44 for carbon dioxide—about 3.7 times the weight of the original carbon.
It’s all more complicated, of course. Coal isn’t pure carbon and different types of coal have different concentrations of carbon, but generally speaking, the laws of physics dictate that burning coal creates twice its weight of carbon dioxide.
Carbon dioxide, of course, is a volatile gas that disperses widely and thus has a greatly amplified effect, trapping heat in the atmosphere.
So when we hear politicians pumping their own tires about their efforts to mitigate global warming while simultaneously promoting their success at generating revenue from commodity exports, the leading of which in BC are timber products—former sinks which stored carbon—and fossil fuels which amplify carbon emissions, we are actually being sold a talking point rather than a solution.
And we accept this, of course, because actually reducing our reliance on fossil fuels for transportation, food production, energy to power everything would be massively inconvenient. For example, consider the ubiquitous cell phone. A cell phone has a particularly high carbon footprint due to the mining for the metals needed to make them; and also the massive amounts of energy used by immense data centres, servers and networks (upon which all our devices rely)—not solar energy, not yet, though there is a push in that direction. Use your cell phone for an hour a day for a year and the energy needed will contribute about 1.3 tonnes of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere. Now multiply that by five billion users worldwide.
Let’s say you decide to send me an email commenting on these remarks. You just added four grams of carbon dioxide to global greenhouse gas emissions. Doesn’t seem like much until you multiply by the 306 billion e-mails sent in 2020, which are expected to increase by 70 billion before 2025.
Let’s say you like these remarks and forward them as an attachment to 65 people on your contacts list. Using a formula worked out by a BBC analyst, that amounts to driving a kilometre in a car. The average e-mail user contributes 136 kilograms of carbon dioxide per year. In total, e-mails alone contribute as much carbon dioxide as seven million cars on the road.
The lethal heat threshold
Contemplating this background to our previously unprecedented but potentially soon to be commonplace heatwave got me thinking again about a troubling research paper I read last year in the journal Science Advances by three scientists from British and American universities and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory at the California Institute of Technology.
The title of the paper was “The emergence of heat and humidity too severe for human tolerance.”
It started with the fact that when high temperatures are combined with high humidity there’s a lethal threshold beyond which human beings cannot survive because their bodies are unable to shed sufficient heat.
The term used for this threshold is “wet bulb.” The condition takes its name from an experiment in which a thermometer is covered with water-soaked cloth over which air is passed. The lower the humidity index, the faster water evaporates, cooling the thermometer. The higher the humidity index, the slower water evaporates and the warmer the thermometer will be. This relationship between temperature and humidity determines the ability of the body to shed excess heat through the evaporation of perspiration.
The researchers determined that a wet-bulb temperature of 35 degrees marks the upper physiological limit beyond which the human organism cannot survive. Climate models, they report, projected that the first wet-bulb temperatures would begin to occur around 2050. But when they examined the actual weather station data from around the world, they found to their alarm that wet-bulb temperatures are already occurring in some coastal subtropical locations and that extreme humid heat overall has doubled since 1979.
“Our findings indicate that reported occurrences of extreme TW (wet-bulb temperature) have increased rapidly at weather stations…over the last four decades and that parts of the subtropics are very close to the 35 degree survivability limit, which has likely been reached over both sea and land,” the researchers say. “These trends highlight the magnitude of the changes that have taken place as a result of the global warming to date.”
Simon Lewis, professor of global change science at University College of London, pointed out in a Guardian article that in 2020, the 35 degree wet bulb limit was reached in both the Middle East and Pakistan’s Indus River Valley.
Stop the magical thinking—cut emissions in half, soon
It doesn’t take a great leap of imagination to reach the conclusion that in a rapidly warming world, coastal places like Vancouver and Victoria may not be the climate havens their residents have liked to think. They may, in fact, be more susceptible to lethal combinations of intense heat and high humidity.
Clearly, we need to aggressively undertake the kind of planning that apparently did not take place before the just-finished heat wave that fried BC, Washington and Oregon, and killed enough British Columbians to qualify as a major disaster—although models have been predicting just such events for some time.
A key component of that planning is going to be up to us as citizens. It’s essential that we start telling our politicians to stop the magical thinking, stop the dissimulation and euphemisms and start talking seriously about what we have to do to address the coming climate events which, 50 years ago, scientists told our federal government posed a greater threat to the survival of humanity than thermonuclear war.
Like Winston Churchill or not, one can’t help but admire his speech telling the British people that for the imminent war against the Nazi, “I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat.” That’s the kind of direct talk we need from our politicians and each other as we face up to what lies before us.
We need to get our imaginations onto a war footing in response to what’s coming. That means getting serious about cutting our carbon dioxide emissions in half and in doing it over the next 30 years; reducing our personal carbon footprints; revising our assumptions about travel, diet, transportation, housing and the consumer society of planned obsolescence. It means actually thinking about the consequences of what we do, for example preparing and planning for cooling refuges for those in the population who cannot afford air conditioning.
Magic and wishful thinking won’t let us evade the hellish future we’re creating. Only action will do that. And the place to start is with the politicians who are afraid to be decisive on the painful decisions that must be made.
Stephen Hume has spent half a century as a journalist writing about Western Canada, the Far North, BC and the Island.