Earlier this summer, pandemic restrictions in Canada began to loosen and my wife, Beth, and I decided to take a trip to British Columbia to visit family and friends we hadn’t seen in eighteen months. At the end of June a devastating heat dome – caused when high pressure clamps hot air over a region for days or weeks – struck western North America, overturning countless temperature records and sparking hundreds of wildfires. We thought about cancelling our trip, but in late July we packed up the car and drove west. Our first stop after leaving Calgary was Chilliwack, just outside Vancouver, ten hours’ drive away. It’s a spectacular journey past the mountains and lakes of the Canadian Rockies, but the landscape was almost invisible behind the pale wildfire smoke. For hour after hour, we saw no more than a vague outline of the peaks that we knew surrounded us. Outside Revelstoke, a small resort town, we stopped to watch helicopters waterbombing the Three Valley Lake fire, one of 277 then burning in B.C. Thick, jaundiced smoke billowed above the trees. We had planned to stop for a night in Kamloops, just south of the Sparks Lake fire, then the biggest in the province at 56,000 hectares (by mid August it had grown to 91,000 hectares, well over half the area of Greater London), but news reports suggested the hotel space was needed for evacuees. Instead, we pressed on along the Coquihalla Highway, which was closed because of wildfire for several days in August. The smoke finally thinned as we arrived in Chilliwack.
The heatwave that sparked this situation was unlike anything in living memory (or longer) in this part of the world. Lytton in British Columbia broke Canada’s record temperature three days in a row, reaching 49.6ºC on 29 June, nearly 5ºC higher than the previous record, which had stood for eighty years. During the last 126 years, Seattle hit 100ºF (37.8ºC) only three times; this June, it passed that figure on three successive days. The effects were immediate and devastating. More than a thousand people died of heat-related causes, including 570 in British Columbia, where the ambulance service was overwhelmed. Many elderly and vulnerable people, unable to get help, died alone in sweltering apartments. Others sought shelter at ‘cooling stations’ – air-conditioned public places such as recreation and community centres – but they usually closed at night, even though darkness brought little relief. Public health officials, at a loss for anything better to say, told people to soak their clothes and sheets to keep cool.
In the north, permafrost melted. On the coast, heat-stressed trees shed their leaves and an estimated billion marine animals perished. In the mountains and the interior, wildfires erupted, while high heat and humidity created the conditions for thunderstorms. Enormous pyrocumulonimbus clouds formed above the fires, causing lightning and high winds. In the night of 30 June, B.C. and western Alberta experienced more than 710,000 lightning strikes (about 112,000 of them hit the ground). To put that in perspective, the UK records on average fewer than 60,000 cloud-to-ground lightning strikes per year. In these conditions, forests in western Canada, already thick with tinder-dry fuel after decades of fire suppression, might as well have been soaked in gasoline.
The most destructive wildfire in B.C. was the one that burned through Lytton the evening after it broke Canada’s temperature record for the third day in a row. Driven by high winds, the fire moved so quickly that many people had just minutes to get out. Some estimates suggest the flames were moving at up to 20 kph. Two people died; hundreds lost their homes. In Chilliwack I joined a friend who was delivering supermarket vouchers for evacuees. Maria Adams, a teacher who lives just north of Lytton, showed me a picture she’d taken on 29 June, of a neat road, lined with trees and painted fences, and cars still driving towards the smoke that was beginning to billow over the town. She had been getting ice cream with her granddaughter, but knew immediately they had to get out. They fled north, first to her house, then to Lillooet, just under an hour’s drive away. From there she took another photo, showing a thick tower of smoke rising in the distance. ‘It looked like an atomic bomb went off,’ she said.
Wildfires have caused a state of emergency in B.C. in three of the last five years. Some are sparked by lightning, some by arson, some by sheer stupidity: one man didn’t feel like mowing his lawn this year, so he set it on fire (that one was put out before it spread). Many fires in California are started by shoddy electricity infrastructure; the fire in Lytton is thought to have been sparked by a train. (It was still burning almost two months later; the evacuation alert for Merritt, 60 km away, wasn’t lifted until 21 August.) Forests in this part of the world are fire-adapted: they need to burn in order to release nutrients from debris and to open the canopy to sunlight. Some trees, such as lodgepole pine, have cones that only open after fires. Some insects lay eggs in burned-out trees, supporting birds such as the common nighthawk (which is not a hawk, not nocturnal, and, after a recent steep decline, not very common). If forests like this don’t burn regularly, a stock of old, dry wood builds up, which makes any fire that eventually breaks out much worse. The problem is not fire itself, but the ferocity, number and extent of recent fires, along with our habit of building houses right up against wild areas.
The likelihood and intensity of these events is greatly exacerbated by climate change. In some forests in the western US, a 1ºC rise in the average temperature could bring up to a 600 per cent increase in the median area burned every year. There are feedback loops to worry about too: more heat means more fires, which mean more emissions, which mean more heat. The wildfires in 2017 and 2018 released more CO2 than all other sources in B.C. combined. In the long run, a large proportion of the emissions from forest fires are absorbed by regrowth. But it isn’t clear we have a long run.
After leaving Chilliwack, Beth and I drove six and a half hours east to Nelson, B.C. I had spent a lot of time studying smoke radars and the map of wildfire activity. We knew there was no route through the mountains that avoided the fires, but their ubiquity was still shocking. We soon drove into dense smoke from the Garrison Lake fire, just past the town of Hope. The sky was brown, visibility poor, breathing difficult. A couple of hours later, we skirted a 6000-hectare fire that was threatening the tourist town of Osoyoos, just north of the US border. We drove along roads scarred with bright red fire retardant. In the area surrounding the towns of Castlegar and Nelson, forty minutes apart, there were six ‘wildfires of note’ (meaning they threatened public safety).
A former refuge for US draft dodgers, Nelson is wedged between Kootenay Lake and the Selkirk Mountains. It’s a beautiful place, but the smoke meant the town had the worst air quality in Canada during our visit. B.C. had recently lifted the rule requiring masks to be worn inside and I expected a neat reversal, that people would wear masks when they went outside. It wasn’t like that. Smoke didn’t seem to have the immediacy of viral infection. Unless you already have respiratory problems, you can worry about the effects in a matter of years, not a few days.
There was little to do in Nelson except sit inside and watch the world burn. In Siberia, people were fighting fires that dwarfed anything in North America. Italy, Greece, Turkey, Algeria, California, Syria, Lebanon, Tunisia were all on fire. Meanwhile, there were devastating floods in Germany, Belgium, China, Chad, Niger, Cameroon and many other places. Madagascar was suffering its worst drought in forty years, with 400,000 people at risk of starvation. There is a delay between the emission of greenhouse gases and the consequent warming of the climate. Past emissions have already committed us to a certain amount of future warming. We won’t get heatwaves as bad as those of 2021 every year, but they are going to come more often, and with greater intensity. This year is not the new normal; if anything, we will never have it so good again.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released the first part of its sixth assessment report, The Physical Science Basis of Climate Change, in August, ahead of the next UN climate change conference, COP26, to be held in Glasgow in November. Leaks from the second and third parts of the IPCC report, on impacts and mitigation, which are due next year, appeared at the same time. Agence France-Presse, which received one of the leaks, summarised the IPCC’s assessment of what’s coming: ‘Species extinction, more widespread disease, unliveable heat, ecosystem collapse, cities menaced by rising seas’. The IPCC estimates of carbon budgets give us a good idea of what needs to happen to limit warming to 1.5ºC above pre-industrial temperatures, the level at which many of the worst outcomes might be avoided. Emitting no more than 300 to 400 billion tonnes of CO2 in total from 2020 onwards gives us a 67 to 83 per cent chance of staying below 1.5ºC by the end of the century; 550 billion tonnes would give us an 83 per cent chance of staying below 1.7ºC. At present around 36 billion tonnes are emitted every year. To avert disaster, emissions need to peak by 2025, according to the IPCC, and drop rapidly to at least net zero by 2050. The UN secretary general, António Guterres, released a statement that amounts to a programme:
There must be no new coal plants built after 2021. OECD countries must phase out existing coal by 2030, with all others following suit by 2040. Countries should also end all new fossil fuel exploration and production, and shift fossil-fuel subsidies into renewable energy. By 2030, solar and wind capacity should quadruple and renewable energy investments should triple to maintain a net-zero trajectory by mid-century.
Earlier this year, I felt unusually optimistic about the future. Trump had been ousted; China had committed to net zero by 2060. The United States, the EU, Canada and the UK had all strengthened their short-term commitments. Outside the Republican Party, there was little outright denialism (although the Conservative Party of Canada recently voted against recognising the existence of climate change). Pension funds were divesting from fossil fuels, and activist investors, pushing for more climate action, had installed three directors on Exxon Mobil’s board. But now gloom has overtaken me. Despite advances in renewable energy, the world’s dependence on fossil fuels has hardly changed, when taken as a proportion of total energy use. Since the pandemic began, G7 nations have spent more money supporting the fossil fuel industry than supporting renewable energy. Canada is one of the worst culprits: it emits three times as much per capita as the UK and is still making substantial investments in fossil fuels. Earlier this year, the G20 failed to reach an agreement to phase out coal; large emitters such as India and Russia have yet to set net-zero targets. Developed countries haven’t met their commitment to provide developing countries with at least $100 billion in annual climate finance by 2020. There is also the possibility of a trade war between the EU and the US over carbon border adjustments – a mechanism to prevent the shifting of investment from countries with aggressive carbon mitigation schemes to those with more relaxed ones.
The speed and scale of response to the Covid-19 pandemic could be seen to point up our failure to take action commensurate with the threat of climate change, but the comparison doesn’t seem quite right. Climate change doesn’t provide the same clarifying moments as a pandemic, and if we expect COP26 – or a summer of heatwaves – to be such a moment, we will be disappointed. The question is how to move forward when the urgency created by each climate disaster is so easily lost. When we arrived back in Calgary, the air was hazy, the sun going down. The pink sky was a beautiful sight, as long as you didn’t think about it too carefully.
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