Canada’s western province of British Columbia is once again reeling from devastation linked to climate change. Following this summer’s deadly heat and rampant wildfires, record rainfall this month has triggered massive flooding, displacing more than 17,000 people and killing at least three.
The disastrous flooding has made clear the urgent need for an inclusive and rights-respecting response to climate emergencies.
Media reports have highlighted how British Columbia was slow to respond to the flooding, and how marginalized and at-risk populations, including older people and people with disabilities, people with chronic and urgent health conditions, and First Nations, have been stranded without adequate government support.
These reports echo experiences from this summer’s heat dome, when temperatures soared to record-breaking heights across British Columbia, killing almost 600 people. The BC government was similarly slow to respond then, and as Human Rights Watch documented, the lack of coordinated and targeted support for people with disabilities and older people contributed to unnecessary suffering and possibly deaths.
When I interviewed Ember, a 69-year-old woman with a physical disability from South Surrey in September, she described the pain and fear she felt during the extreme heat wave: “I have never been so sick in my entire life... I couldn’t do anything.”
Canada’s federal and provincial governments have human rights obligations to prevent foreseeable harms from climate change and ensure safety and protection during extreme weather events. While the provincial government’s own climate assessments have warned of risks posed by heat, fire, and floods, the BC government has failed to adequately prepare and respond. They are not alone. A 2021 national assessment found “large gaps” in climate change preparedness across Canada.
These events in British Columbia have proven that the current roughly 1.1 °C temperature increase above pre-industrial levels is already a lethal threat. As the BC and federal governments respond and prepare their future adaptation strategies, it is essential that they address the needs of marginalized populations and that the voices of those most at risk of climate-related impacts are included in planning. But preparing for climate impacts alone is not enough. Unless Canada and other governments around the world do everything they can to rapidly reduce emissions, including by ending support for oil and gas, more devastating climate catastrophes are to come.