An unprecedented heat wave has struck western North America. Thousands have died and infrastructure has buckled under the record temperatures set in all regions. The extreme heat has also led to an ecological disaster with upwards of 1 billion maritime animals perishing. But this did not have to happen. The blind profiteering of the capitalist system has created the climate crisis and has completely disarmed us in the face of its effects.
The deadly heat
The area worst hit by the heatwave has been the province of British Columbia, Canada where 500 people died in just five days, collapsing in the heat. Chief Coroner Lisa Lapointe stated that 719 “sudden and unexpected deaths” occurred during the first week of the heat wave, which represents a 195 per cent increase over normal periods.
The heat wave has been so bad that the entire town of Lytton burned to the ground after recording the hottest temperature in Canadian history of 49.6°C, far surpassing the previous record of 45°C set in 1937. Lytton and the surrounding area was home to nearly 2,000 people, 1,000 of whom have been forced to evacuate. While authorities claim that it was a freight train passing through the town which sparked the fire, it is clear that this was only possible due to the unbearably hot and dry conditions.
Similar scenes are now seen in the western U.S. where wildfires spurred by the incredibly hot, dry weather have spread through many states. In some instances, firefighters reported that it was so hot that the water they deployed to deter the fires would evaporate in the air before reaching the ground.
This deadly heat has also literally warped local infrastructure in many places. Pictures of park benches and even sidewalks bending and buckling under the extreme heat have been circulating around social media.
The people who are dying from this heat wave are overwhelmingly elderly people. The hot weather, combined with COVID-19 as well as the dismal conditions in old folks’ homes and long-term care facilities, has proven to be a cruel, deadly mix. Many elderly people had to wait hours for assistance as health services were already stretched way beyond their limits.
Although the worst of the heat has passed, heat warnings are still in effect in large areas of the British Columbia interior, which are also struggling with wildfires, floods, droughts and poor air quality. The effects of this heat wave will be felt into the summer. And the devastation, death, and destruction inflicted by this heat wave will be felt by millions for years to come. After the smoke clears, many people are asking the question: What was responsible for this?
Climate change: A capitalist creation
Scientists are saying that this heat wave would have been nearly impossible without climate change. A new report stated that climate change has made heat waves such as this 150 times more likely to occur. Extreme weather events like this generally should only occur once in a thousand years. But the effects of climate change make heat waves such as this more frequent and more powerful. Indeed, nine of the hottest years on record have occurred in the past 10 years and it looks like 2021 will make that 10 out of 10.
But this situation has not fallen from the sky. Everyone knows that the phenomenon of global warming is a human creation. But what is not widely known is that climate change is not simply a human creation, but the creation of human society organized in a certain way. Capitalism, the dominant economic system around the world for the past couple of hundred years, has massively accelerated our impact on the environment and it has gotten to the point where things are spinning out of control.
It is becoming obvious for many that the “individual responsibility” preached by liberal and reformist politicians is completely insufficient to tackle such a massive problem which requires a huge overhaul of the entire way in which society operates. This is evident from the fact that 100 companies are responsible for 71 per cent of global carbon emissions. This is a capitalist problem. The popularity of the slogan “System change not climate change!” is an example of this growing consciousness that the capitalist system is the real culprit here.
While any society can be hit with extreme weather, the way in which the society is organized will enable or disable that society to respond and more importantly to prepare for extreme weather events. Therefore, not only has capitalism created and exacerbated extreme weather patterns, but it has also rendered us completely unprepared for such predictable occurrences.
It is the most vulnerable in our society that are the most prone to die from heat. The fact that there has been such a shocking surplus of deaths reveals a larger structural problem. Of all the deaths in British Columbia, half were in the Fraser Valley, including cities such as Surrey and Abbotsford, and a quarter were in Vancouver. While the heat was more intense in the interior, the interior of the province is accustomed to high temperatures in the summer and housing and infrastructure are better equipped to tackle the heat. Coastal areas such as Vancouver are far cooler on average, which means most of Vancouver’s infrastructure is not equipped with air conditioning or any cooling system. To give an example, only 19 per cent of residents in Vancouver have air conditioning.
The majority of those dying are working-class seniors, isolated residents, and those with pre-existing conditions/disabilities. Seniors who live in care homes or alone are particularly at risk. Air conditioning in care homes is not the norm. These buildings have no ventilation or other methods for cooling except for fans or cracking windows, which do effectively nothing to lower the temperature. Vents in certain buildings continued to blow hot air into the rooms, with building owners advising tenants to put wet towels over the vents to keep cool instead of shutting it off. A man who visited his wife’s care home has also raised alarms over the situation in the care homes, stating that his 68-year-old wife’s room got up to 36.5°C at night. The management said the cut-off point for keeping people in their room was 40 degrees! This is well above a lethal temperature, particularly for the elderly.
As always, it is the poor and working class who have suffered the most through this heat wave. Looking at a heat map of Vancouver, there is a clear dividing line between the hottest and the coolest neighbourhoods in the city. It is an invisible dividing line which has coded itself into the very design of Vancouver’s infrastructure: the class divide. The areas of Vancouver which get the hottest are primarily poor and working class areas, such as Marpole, parts of Richmond, Downtown Eastside, and the South East. At-risk areas also extend to Surrey, Abbotsford, and New Westminster. It is no coincidence that these are largely the same areas where COVID infection was highest.
Areas such as these are subject to “urban heat islands”. These highly urbanized areas often lack trees and greenery, which act as a natural cooler. With nothing to obstruct it, the buildings, roads and sidewalks capture heat and release it in the night, keeping these areas far hotter for far longer. In a heat wave, these areas are essentially trapped in an oven, with the buildings getting just as hot as outside. These areas also often lack other essential infrastructure to tackle a heat wave, such as public fountains with cool water, cooling stations, air-conditioned public areas, and so on. By contrast, the richest neighbourhoods in Vancouver, such as West Vancouver, have lots of trees and greenery, as well as more access to air conditioning and cooler housing. These neighbourhoods can be colder by as much as 20 degrees!
Working class neighbourhoods also have higher rates of drug addiction, disability, health issues and homelessness, which are all contributing factors to death by heat. On top of this, it is the workers who must go to work in the sweltering heat, and return home to an apartment or house that is likely just as hot. The overwhelming majority of those killed or hospitalized by the heat wave are the poorest and most vulnerable layers of the working class.
As a result of this, we have seen the total collapse of the province’s and cities’ emergency systems as emergency lines are overwhelmed and paramedics, first responders, and nurses are unable to keep up. The emergency line experienced more than 3,600 calls over 48 hours at the peak of the heat wave, about double or even triple an average night. This is on top of the opioid crisis and the pandemic, which both had already been pushing the system to its already weak limits. Families waited from two to up to six or even 11 hours for anyone to arrive. Paramedics often arrived at the scene long after someone had died. “By the time we got an ambulance crew, there were quite a number of times where the person had already gone into cardiac arrest and ultimately passed away before we could do anything,” a first responder in Vancouver said. The emergency system has been in a crisis for decades. All that was required to break it was this first test.
Ambulances were forced to sit and wait at hospitals for their patients to be admitted as the hospitals quickly overflowed. A paramedic recalled that he saw someone sitting on the floor in need of help for six hours while waiting. This meant an ambulance service that was already only working at 70 per cent capacity had even fewer resources on the streets.
Years of austerity have brought the emergency system to its brink. During their time in power, the BC Liberals, the main representatives of the capitalists in the province, slashed wages, jobs, benefits, and ambulances in operation, drastically crippling the province’s emergency infrastructure. This has left workers with little resources, low pay, and long hours, which contribute to chronic burnout and understaffing. The BCEHS (British Columbia Emergency Health Services) is so understaffed that between 25 to 30 per cent of ambulances in Vancouver were not even in operation at this time. Seventy-five per cent of the province’s paramedics are employed on an “on-call” model, which means they are paid a $2 stipend unless they are actively on call. Combined with rising costs of living in British Columbia, this has made being a first responder an impossible career path for many. This results in the existing labour force being stretched beyond capacity, and in situations such as a record-breaking heat wave, that means hundreds of unnecessary deaths.
This heat wave has not only brought attention to the fact that the effects of climate change are impacting us here and now. It has shown us how capitalism has left us unprepared for a predictable event such as this.
A preventable tragedy
In response to this crisis, one paramedic said, “It’s not like it was a tsunami or an earthquake or a volcano eruption. This is something we predicted and nothing was done about it.” This is 100 times correct and shows what every working class person already knows.
While the BC Liberals governed B.C. for a long time and gutted social services, leaving us largely unprepared for this heat wave, they aren’t the only ones to blame. British Columbia is the only province in which the NDP (Canada’s labour party) is in power. In the face of this tragedy, the response from the BC NDP government has been nothing short of scandalous. Despite the fact that this event had been forecasted a week in advance and the government warned of the risks, they did nothing to prepare. When confronted with the question of whether or not the BC NDP was prepared, Horgan responded by saying “fatalities are a part of life”. Horgan even had the audacity to emphasise the role of personal responsibility, stating, “it was apparent to anyone who walked outdoors that we were in an unprecedented heat wave and again, there’s a level of personal responsibility”, and that residents must “look after themselves and others”.
These comments were naturally met with massive outrage from the population. Five hundred people do not just suddenly die as “part of life”. Many of the deaths during the heat wave have been excess deaths, beyond what would occur normally. Entire towns are not burned down due to “lack of personal responsibility”. In fact, people had no choice but to take personal responsibility as they were left completely unassisted by the government. The only culprits who have lacked personal responsibility throughout this heat wave are the government and capitalists.
The government has faced criticism since 2009, where 110 people died in one week due to heat, for not being prepared to deal with heat waves. A 2012 report from the B.C. Centre for Disease Control called for the government to declare a heat health emergency if temperatures were forecast over 29 degrees for more than two days. The 2019 climate report from the B.C. government warned that lasting temperatures of 32 degrees or more could result in more than 100 deaths. Both the Liberals and the NDP have heard from scientists and researchers the need to implement emergency plans and properly fund social services to respond to situations like these, and neither has listened or taken action.
Documents that had been sent to the government included plans of action to prevent the death toll from ever reaching the numbers they did in 2009. The calls include repurposing buildings such as swimming centres, malls, theatres, and other buildings with cooling to be open to the public, as well as checking in with and providing free transit to cooling centres for those with disabilities, the elderly, and the homeless, and to distribute air conditioning to areas disproportionately impacted by heat, among other several other basic measures.
These recommendations went largely unheeded. The only measurement the government took was the creation of cooling centres around the province, as well as reminders to stay hydrated (as if we could forget). While these are good actions, they are nothing compared to what was needed. Warnings and information for how and where to access cooling centres, and who should use them, were poorly implemented. The information that cooling centres had been opened was given primarily through social media, the internet and TV. As the government did not adequately warn people of the heat, many people did not consider or were not aware of the cooling centres. This is shown by the fact that hotels sold out across the city, as residents clearly did not have a good understanding of just how hot their buildings would be.
Cooling centres also have the disadvantage that they tend to be inaccessible to those who need them most: the homeless, the elderly and the disabled. As the Vancouver City Planning Commission wrote in their letter to the government on July 5th: “[…] Cooling stations are not a reasonable, viable or harm reduction solution to disabled and/or elderly people living in poverty but who are housed. People who are at heightened risk of mortality or harm from the impacts of these should not be told to go out to seek relief during air quality and heat alerts that warn them to stay inside”. The letter warned that “Failing to act and create policy that reflects the reality of people’s lives can and will cause people who would otherwise be alive to die”.
Workers themselves have been speaking out about how utterly incompetent and unprepared the government was. A petition launched by a paramedic calling for the head of the BCEHS to resign has reached over 9,000 signatures. “I have never seen paramedics and dispatchers as angry as they are right now […] Everyone is absolutely livid and disgusted with the response,” the paramedic said. The petition pointed out the fact that the BCEHS had not declared an emergency and opened its 24/7 emergency operation centre until the day after temperatures began to decrease! Had this centre been open, it would have freed up resources and labour for setting up cooling stations, manning ambulances and reaching more people.
A paramedic stated in an interview that “The ambulance service didn’t seem to do anything to prepare for it at all […]There were no initial attempts to top up staff, call-takers, or dispatchers. That’s why we ended up with effectively this collapse of the last few days.” Tory Clifford, president of the paramedics union, also criticized the BCEHS: “We knew the heat was coming … and [BCEHS] never really prepared”. Paramedics even reached out to firefighters and police officers to cover for them as hospitals filled up and they simply could not tend to the patients. Beyond handing out water bottles, no preparations at all had been made.
There is nothing about these fatalities that is natural: it is a product of a capitalist system that is killing us through climate change, through austerity, and through poverty. The collapse of the emergency system, the lack of preparation and coordination between health officials, and the conditions that lead to heat deaths are all a product of the capitalist system, which having unleashed the forces of climate change upon humanity has no ability to stop it. As long as the BC NDP accepts the limits of the system creating climate change, neither they nor any other government on earth will be able to respond effectively.
Socialism or climate catastrophe
From the extreme cold in Texas earlier this year to the extreme heat in the West, the effects of climate change are hitting us here and now. This is no longer an abstract debate where right-wingers can deny that climate change is real. It is here and the effects are being felt by all of us. This is a dress rehearsal for the future to come.
In order to prepare for climate change and be able to manage the worst of its effects, what is needed is both a fully funded, properly staffed emergency system, coordinated government planning, and a dramatic overhaul of society’s infrastructure from manufacturing to housing to transit. We must provide decent housing with sustainable air conditioning and cooling and build cities capable of self-cooling and equipped to deal with weather emergencies. We must fully fund and equip emergency services with the resources, staffing and funding they need. We need to transition to a fully green economy in time to prevent the worst effects of climate change.
However, capitalism stands in our way. Rosa Luxemburg is famously known to have said that the choice before humanity is “socialism or barbarism.” The climate crisis certainly is another example of this. The money and resources for this all exist, but they are hoarded in the hands of the perpetrators of climate change: the capitalist class. In order for us to prevent horrible tragedies from extreme weather events, we need a new system. We need socialism.