Across the world and the Salish Sea, heat waves and smokey skies are becoming regular parts of our summers. We know the deadly cost of these events: the Heat Dome of 2021 was the deadliest weather event in Canadian history; at least 619 people died as a consequence of the extreme heat from June 25th to July 1st. The town of Lytton burned to the ground and is still struggling to rebuild. Over a billion sea creatures are estimated to have died in the heat. This was a climate disaster: this heat wave was amplified by human activities that are changing the climate and supported by a lack of bold climate action on the part of our governments.
Why is Georgia Strait Alliance advocating for extreme heat protection?
Why a maximum temperature, and why 23°C?
We went with 23°C because not everyone in rental housing will be healthy; disabled people are more likely to be renters than the average, and more than 30% of Canadian renters have either a long term illness or a disability. Whether because of the impacts of their conditions directly, the role of medical aids, or the effects of the medicines they take, these are the people who face difficulties physically regulating temperature. When we talked to people in neighbourhoods vulnerable to heat last summer, so many said their pre-existing conditions were worsened by warmer temperatures.
Why an indoor air quality standard, and what would that standard look like?
The World Health Organization guideline on air quality recommends a specific standard for PM2.5, the fine particles that are of most concern from wildfire smoke (annual PM2.5AQG level of 5 µg/m, 24-hour PM2.5 AQG level of 15 µg/m) that we believe should govern indoor air quality.
Why make this mandatory? Why put this burden on landlords?
Beyond emergency measures like portable AC, the long-term solution must be a thorough retrofit program. Heat pumps (which both heat and cool, and do so at extremely high levels of efficiency) are better solutions for cooling than portable air conditioners. Landlords BC, an industry organization, has a lengthy report discussing the use of heat pumps in multi-unit buildings, and it’s well understood that these devices will work at the scale of an apartment.
There is a lot you can do around regulating temperature with building envelopes and materials, like cool roofs or insulation. For air quality measures, there are important steps we can take to limit indoor exposure to PM2.5: strong seals on windows and doors to limit smoke particles from entering, room pressure control, HVAC systems with upgraded filters, and the use of portable HEPA units. These upgrades are beyond the ability of tenants to enact, and must be done at the building level.
Won’t landlords just pass on the cost burden of cooling to tenants who struggle to afford rent as it is?
Right now homeowners in BC have a number of cost-saving measures available to them for upgrading to heat pumps, with funding coming from the BC government, the federal government, BC Hydro, and FortisBC. There are no rebate programs for renters, they cannot on their own get a heat pump installed and there are also no broadly available programs for multi-unit buildings. We know, however, that this kind of retrofit program is going to happen. Landlords BC, an industry association, is working with the City of Vancouver and the BC government on a retrofit pilot project, and have talked in the press about needing funding for further retrofits. We believe that it must be part of the climate transformation BC requires: a program of sufficient scale to both lower energy usage across buildings, one that defends the rights of tenants, and protects the lives of people throughout the province.
What does an emergency outreach program look like?
Also clear is that while anyone can suffer from the impacts of heat and smoke, some neighbourhoods are more at risk than others (Vancouver Coastal Health has a number of maps and case studies that touch on these and other climate-related health hazards). These geographic clusters provide an immense opportunity: you can do direct outreach into these neighbourhoods to prepare for and provide crisis response during heat and smoke events.
GSA has already experimented with this idea: both last and this summer, we’ve had teams of community organizers knocking on doors in at-risk neighbourhoods in Burnaby, Nanaimo, Richmond, Vancouver, and West Vancouver. We’ve asked people about their experience with extreme heat events, and we’ve provided maps of community cooling areas and tips for dealing with the heat. We’ve reached thousands of people with a small budget and minimal capacity. The government of BC can surely fund something larger and more effective to inform and provide resources for these neighbourhoods.
Part of that resource package must be portable air conditioners for those most at risk. While heat pumps and at-scale retrofit programs are the gold standard, we cannot let people suffer illness and risk death while those are designed and implemented. Air conditioners will save lives, and we cannot leave people at risk when the tools exist to save their lives.
What is the government of BC doing right now to provide mechanical cooling to most at-risk?
Nonetheless, it demonstrates that the province of BC knows the right thing to do is provide cooling for people in neighbourhoods at risk. Now we must build the community of advocates that will make them do it right. Regulation, funding, and scale are all desperately needed to save lives right now and in the future.