Climate Emergency: The Time to Act is Now
Helen Boyd RN, MA & Raluca Radu RN, MSN
In the summer of 2021, British Columbia experienced extreme heat between June 25th and July 1st (longer in some areas) where recorded temperatures reached about 40 degrees. Records were set on June 28th in Squamish which reached a temperature of 43 degrees, Port Alberni at 42.7 degrees, Victoria at 39.8 degrees and, on the 29th of June, 49.6 degrees in Lytton[i]Daily Data Report for June 21, 2021., which was the highest temperature ever recorded in Canada[ii]Weather Summaries.. Experts resoundingly agreed that these extreme temperatures would not have happened were it not for climate change[iii]AP- Northwest Heatwave Impossible Without Climate Change.. In BC, 719 people, or triple the usual number, died during this heat dome[iv]CBC News. "Hundreds Died During BC Heat Dome...". Recently released details from a coroner's report attribute a staggering 595 deaths due to the temperature[v]BC Government Report. November 1, 2021.. Many were older adults, lived alone and were unable to cope with the extreme heat. The social isolation of these individuals prevents them from being able to access any supports or mitigation strategies that may be available[vi]Can J Public Health. "Social connection as a public health adaptation to extreme heat events." December 2020.. While we cannot predict when or how often these types of heat emergencies will happen, climate change is clearly accelerating the pace of such heat events and vulnerable populations are disproportionately affected.
BC also had a deadly 2021 fire season, having experienced many such seasons over the last several years. On June 30th, the day following the record-high temperature, the intensity and speed of a fire in Lytton eradicated much of the town, leaving an entire community without housing and infrastructure. Wildfires raged this year across the Interior of the province, leaving many people homeless and forced to breathe dangerously smoke-filled air. It should also be noted that 2019 was another particularly dangerous wildfire season, also impacting housing for affected areas and air quality for much of the province.
In the autumn of 2021, BC's western coast was then hit with what is known as a 'bomb cyclone', so named because of an extremely rapid drop in barometric pressure. As with the summer heat dome, this extreme drop in pressure and the sheer size and depth of the low pressure registered astounded meteorologists. Wind and rain slammed into the Pacific Northwest resulting in damage and, sadly, loss of life when two people in the Seattle area were killed when a falling tree crushed their vehicle.
In the last week, BC was ravaged by torrential rains, resulting in flooding, landslides and sadly again loss of life. Between November 14th and 17th BC saw a 300 percent[vii]Global News. B.C.'s record-breaking rainfall generates 'mind-boggling' data: Environment Canada above normal rainfall for November which resulted in landslides, flooding, infrastructure damage to highways and rail lines, loss of livelihood, and loss of life. People have been displaced from entire cities (Merritt and Lytton), in many communities already devasted by the summer wildfires. The 2021 wildfires were in fact a contributing factor in the landslides that occurred as the hills were made bare of trees and other forms of natural slope protection.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), between 2030 and 2050, climate change is expected to cause roughly 250,000 additional deaths due to heat exposure, malaria, malnutrition and diarrhea.[viii]WHO. Fact sheet on Climate Change. The WHO has also noted that, in the 21st century, there is no greater threat to human health than climate change. Carbon dioxide (CO2) and greenhouse gases (GHGs) have been released into the atmosphere in enormous quantities which in turn contributes to the Earth’s warming and/or extreme fluctuations in weather patterns[ix]NNPBC Position Statement: "Engaging BC Nurses with Climate Change Issues". As a result, the quality of air, water and food is impacted, leading ultimately to a negative influence on human health.
These recent examples of the impacts of climate change are fresh in our collective consciousness and underscore the depth to which we are in a climate emergency. As nurses, we hold the public trust, ranking as the most trusted health profession year after year. Our work as nurses allows us to utilize our scientific, evidence-based knowledge to explain the potential impacts of climate change to patients' and clients' health and wellbeing.
The impacts of climate change will only continue to affect our everyday practice. Especially during the COVID-19 pandemic, as British Columbians are displaced from their homes due to wildfires, extreme temperatures, and flooding, left without food or belongings, our communities are vulnerable. Citizens are forced to find safe shelter where they are not exposed to COVID-19 and where they have access to water and adequate nutrition. Not only this, but extreme climate change events will continue to be felt more intensely over time and it is fundamental for nurses to understand the basic principles of health effects related to climate change[x]R Radu. Understanding Climate Change in Nursing Practice: An Educational Tool for Nurses. January 2020..
Moreover, we have the opportunity to use our collective voice to advocate for policy change that will reduce the levels of greenhouse emissions and carbon dioxide and ensure that policy makers are aware of the very real impact on health and wellness when we neglect our climate and the planet we live on. We as nurses know that we must integrate a systems-wide approach rather than a reductionist one. We must focus on all the parts of health care and the environment collectively and determine ways to address the system as a whole moving forward.
Quite simply, our role as nurses is clear, we must raise awareness amidst the public of the climate emergency, take direct action in our healthcare systems and communities to mitigate the impacts of climate change and advocate for policies that protect the health of people and our planet. The time to act is now!
Questions for Nurses[xi]Ibid:
- How can you as a nurse and resident of BC enact change within your workplace(s) and your community?
- Do you currently engage in environmentally sustainable activities at your work and/or home? If so, in what ways?
- Which climate impacts in BC concern you most?
- How comfortable do you feel with the concept of Ecoliteracy and its relevance to your nursing practice?
- How do you think a nursing professional association such as NNPBC can be most effective in representing nursing’s climate change concerns in the wider policy context?
Helen Boyd is a registered nurse and mental health therapist who is passionately committed to conserving and enriching our planetary health for generations to come. She is the BC Representative of the Canadian Association of Nurses for the Environment (CANE) and Board member of the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment (CAPE). She is currently enrolled in graduate studies in Science and Policy of Climate Change at Royal Roads University with a particular focus on climate justice advocacy.
Raluca Radu is a registered nurse and a full-time lecturer at the University of British Columbia, where she teaches in the BSN program and is proud of being the lead instructor of the Nursing 290: Health Impacts of Climate Change course. Raluca has served as an Executive Board Member for the Canadian Association of Nurses for the Environment (CANE) from 2019-2021. She is also part of a national ad-hoc group that is working towards integrating planetary healthcare in Canada. She is an advocate for initiatives that safeguard the environment and that empower individuals to take bold action to preserve the beauty that Mother Earth holds.
- The Canadian Association of Nurses for the Environment
- Understanding Climate Change in Nursing Practice: An Educational Tool for Nurses
- NNPBC Position Statement: "Engaging BC Nurses with Climate Change Issues"
- NNPBC Blog: "Nurses for Planetary Health: A Call to Action"
|↑i||Daily Data Report for June 21, 2021.|
|↑iii||AP- Northwest Heatwave Impossible Without Climate Change.|
|↑iv||CBC News. "Hundreds Died During BC Heat Dome..."|
|↑v||BC Government Report. November 1, 2021.|
|↑vi||Can J Public Health. "Social connection as a public health adaptation to extreme heat events." December 2020.|
|↑vii||Global News. B.C.'s record-breaking rainfall generates 'mind-boggling' data: Environment Canada|
|↑viii||WHO. Fact sheet on Climate Change.|
|↑ix||NNPBC Position Statement: "Engaging BC Nurses with Climate Change Issues"|
|↑x||R Radu. Understanding Climate Change in Nursing Practice: An Educational Tool for Nurses. January 2020.|