Last week, the tiny town of Lytton, British Columbia, made international headlines for breaking national heat records three days in a row. It hit 46.6 C on June 27, 47.9 C on June 28 and 49.6 C on June 29.
The next day, a wildfire engulfed the town, burning at least 90 per cent of it to the ground and killing at least two people.
That same weekend, the BC Coroners Service reported 777 sudden deaths during a one-week period amidst the heat wave — about triple the normal number for late June. Chief Coroner Lisa Lapointe said the extreme weather was considered “a significant contributing factor.” Some climate experts have said it was the most extreme heat wave in modern history.
Upon being asked about the deaths (at a press conference celebrating the end of B.C.’s COVID-19 state of emergency), Premier and provincial NDP Leader John Horgan responded that “fatalities are a part of life.” He suggested that “it was apparent to anyone who walked outdoors that we were in an unprecedented heatwave” and argued that “there’s a level of personal responsibility.”
This sort of personal responsibility rhetoric has been deployed with regard to climate change for decades. In B.C., you can get rebates for buying electric cars (assuming you have the money to buy a car in the first place). Single-use plastics like straws are banned in many municipalities (despite people with disabilities patiently explaining that they’re necessary medical items for many). We compost and eat less meat, and commit to walking or cycling more, while vaguely believing that the province is doing something to help.
In reality, the provincial NDP isn’t dedicated to fighting climate change — not on the major, systemic level that we need to prevent ongoing climate catastrophe, where once-in-a-century events are becoming twice-in-a-decade ones.
Horgan, at a dedicated heat presser on July 6, admitted the province “didn’t think of it as catastrophic hotter weather.” They ignored the warning signs, didn’t do enough to respond to the short-term crisis and now have to deal with longer-term devastation.
The B.C. NDP’s climate policies, outlined below, have been disastrous.
Funding Fossil Fuels With Tax Dollars
Advocacy group Stand.earth recently released a report examining fossil fuel subsidies in B.C., which highlights how the government has continued to fund the very industry responsible for the apocalyptic heat and preventable deaths.
Since the NDP took control in 2017, they’ve more than doubled the amount spent on fossil fuel subsidies. The report notes, “In 2020 – 21, the NDP government spent more subsidizing fossil fuels ($1.3 billion) than it did on its climate change program ($1.1 billion), a trend that is predicted to increase dramatically through 2024.”
Around a third of these subsidies go to the Deep Well Royalty Program, which supports fracking in deep gas wells. But fracking isn’t a reliable source of clean energy: it can leak methane, causing more greenhouse gas emissions than getting the same amount of energy from burning coal.
While B.C. has separate subsidies designated to help reduce methane leaks through better infrastructure ($71 million in 2020-21), the report notes that “overall emissions from a growing natural gas sector will continue to skyrocket, making it impossible for B.C. to reach its climate targets. Furthermore, this subsidy violates the polluter-pays principle and will lead to other taxpayers covering the costs of the oil and gas sector to comply with environmental laws and regulations.”
What’s more, southwest B.C. literally isn’t built for extreme weather. Historically, temperatures have been moderate year-round — warm but not hot summers (so, few people in the Lower Mainland have air conditioning), and cold but not freezing winters. When these extreme weather events occur, we’re reliant on energy to stay safe: fans, freezers and air conditioners in the heat; electric fires, ovens and central heating in the cold.
BC Hydro said the extreme heat was responsible for three days of record-breaking demands for electricity, as millions across the province cranked their fans hoping for some respite from the heat.
“Demand reached 8,516 megawatts, shattering the record that was set before the heat wave began by more than 600 megawatts,” the eerily chipper press release states. “Adding 600 megawatts is the equivalent of turning on 600,000 portable air conditioners.”
The NDP’s current policies means that the energy we’re using to stay alive is the same as the energy that caused this destruction in the first place.
Fighting Fire With Inaction
Hotter temperatures mean drier forests, making them more prone to both lightning- and human-caused wildfires. Experts have been warning for years that the province needs more action on fire management.
But, as Ed Struzik points out in The Tyee, little has been done, with most recommendations over the years being ignored.
The federal government did invest about $5 million into the “development of a wildland fire research network,” Struzik notes, and B.C. has earmarked $5 million for a wildfire research chair. But that’s a fraction of the money being spent on paying off fracking companies.
Much of B.C. is still covered by old-growth, temperate rainforests, crucial to keeping forest ecosystems healthy and resilient. Logging practices like clearcutting make the whole landscape hotter, and more prone to both flooding and fire. Logging in B.C. produces about 46 million tonnes of CO2 every year, which isn’t being offset by the forest’s natural carbon sink powers because climate change and wildfires mean forests are now emitting more carbon than they’re absorbing.
While B.C.’s 2019 Strategic Climate Risk Assessment report flags logging-based risks like heat waves and wildfires, it never connects industrial logging to rising temperatures.
Researcher Peter Wood told The Narwhal, “[The province] actually did look at how climate change would impact the profitability of the logging sector and they have quite detailed consideration of how that might prevent harvesting operations and how flooding might hurt their mills.”
So, B.C. is thinking about how climate change could damage future profits of the timber industry, but not about how the timber industry is contributing to climate change.
Saying The Right Things, Doing The Wrong Things
This is all indicative of the B.C. NDP’s climate change approach: They say the right things, but don’t act on it.
They can promise to defer old-growth logging, while still arresting more than 360 land defenders at Fairy Creek who say the measures aren’t enough.
They can pledge to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 16 per cent by 2025, while funding rampant expansion of fracking.
They can create working groups to engage with Indigenous knowledge on climate solutions, while Indigenous people are disproportionately affected by climate change.
In Lytton, Chief Matt Pasco of the Nlaka’pamux Nation Tribal Council said the province took hours to get in touch with leaders in his community after the fire began. When they did, they asked about his cattle. “My cattle mean more to this province than Nlaka’pamux people,” Pasco said.
It’s a horrifying sentiment — that the NDP care more about lost revenue than lost lives — but it’s hardly surprising.
Horgan insists these hundreds of horrifying heat deaths are an issue of personal responsibility, because it means he — and his government — are therefore not responsible. The policy choices his government has made indicate that energy companies are apparently not responsible, either.
Under current leadership, more people in this province will die from extreme weather events — be they fires, heatwaves or floods. And the ones profiting will be the companies who helped cause it in the first place.
Who needs Conservatives when you’ve got the B.C. NDP?