Image credit: A woman walks her dog along the Ottawa River in Ottawa as smoke from wildfires obscures Gatineau, Que., in the distance on Tuesday, June 6, 2023. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

This could be the worst summer of our lives, if we’re lucky

The wildfires in North America are fuelled by climate change, impacting our health.

This article was previously published in the National Newswatch

So this is climate change: old familiar landmarks like the Peace Tower and the Brooklyn Bridge, swallowed by an orange miasma on a June afternoon in 2023.

We thought it would be a polar bear struggling on a distant ice floe, or maybe sea level rise in 2080, long after we were gone. Turns out it’s school recess cancelled today, because the air is too toxic for young lungs. It’s a woman on a stretcher in a hospital hallway whose heart can’t take it. It’s N95 masks on the street—again.

The current wildfires in North America are fuelled by climate change. The fires are burning more trees at a hotter, higher temperature than ever before. Unusual heat waves in May across most of Canada created this tinderbox, and the wildfire season started earlier, and in places like Nova Scotia, that don’t usually see large wildfires this early.

Much of eastern North America are getting familiar with the effects of this climate-fuelled bonfire, in the form of orange skies and itchy eyes. If only it were that benign: mild irritation and some cool photos for Instagram.

It’s much, much worse. Particulate matter, the kind that’s making the air the colour of a satsuma, is small enough to enter our bodies. It can irritate the lungs, which is bad for kids with asthma or anyone with respiratory conditions, but particulate matter can also get into the bloodstream, causing damage that can even cause a stroke. You can’t hide from it indoors: indoor air quality, unless you’re running HEPA filters continuously, is equally affected.

Globally, at least 9 million people a year die from the effects of air pollution. As the planet burns, that figure can only rise.

Orange skies over Manhattan are spurring fresh alarm over climate, just as it did when the left side of North America was choking on smoke two years ago: Do more. Do it now.

There’s an uncomfortable truth here, which deserves to be articulated, even though I don’t like it: Even if we did it all tomorrow, somehow snapped our fingers and magicked every last molecule of greenhouse gas pollution out of existence, we would still be dealing with our decades long affair with fossil fuels for years to come. Forests would burn, summers would get hotter, species would still struggle.

For some people, this is where the nihilism sets in. For me, this is where I double down on the need for action in Canada and globally. If we act quickly, with the tools and technology we have at hand, we can make sure this summer is as bad it gets.

This means we need to get serious about reducing emissions and adapting to our new and scary climate. Policy to address the former—such as the Clean Electricity Regulations and the oil and gas cap—are expected soon. And the final National Adaptation Strategy is due in just a few weeks. Let’s hope these lungfuls of smoke parliamentarians are currently huffing gives the federal government courage to make these policy pieces powerful and stringent.

Think of the June wildfires of 2023 as the mild heart attack in the 50-year-old smoker. It’s time to stop pretending our habits aren’t affecting our health.

There’s an old Simpsons meme where Homer corrects Bart complaining about “the worst summer of his life” and reminds him it’s the “worst summer of his life so far.” Acting quickly on climate policy won’t put out the wildfires raging in Canada right now. But lowering emissions could stop conditions from getting worse. From more people dying from smoke inhalation. From more communities being wiped out by fire and flood.

Let’s make 2023 the worst summer of our lives, full stop. Let’s make sure our climate doesn’t get any worse.