Listening to the latest “What on Earth?” podcast episode from CBC and, among other things, they are discussing the heat dome that killed upwards of 600 people in British Columbia in summer 2021.
The heat dome also extended east over Alberta, and amiskwaciwâskahikan (where I was living at the time) was in its grips for about five days, give or take. My partner and I were living on the eleventh floor of an older apartment building, which had no air conditioning.* It was a corner apartment, so the breeze coming through was enough to cool us on the hottest days up until that point; we had a fan to aid air circulation, and so we were mostly fine. Or so we thought.
Summers in Alberta had become treacherous, not because of heat, but because of wildfire smoke. When the wind was coming from the west (which it often was), the smoke from those burning BC forests would invade our air. 2018 was the first time I saw the sun completely blocked out by smoke, and amiskwaciwâskahikan looked like a scene out of Blade Runner 2049.** The next year, I was flying on pain meds for most of the summer so I didn’t really pay attention but the weather seemed not to be so bad, and neither was the air quality horrendous. Early fall 2020 brought a few smoky days, and so we negotiated the chances of lung damage due to smoke vs lung damage due to COVID when going out.
Similarly, the 2021 heat dome in amiskwaciwâskahikan was preceded by a few smoky days that had us closing windows and using our fans and air purifiers constantly, though the temperatures rose in the apartment and the air – though clean – was stale and gross.
That week, we had to choose between breathing in lung-damaging smoke particles and heat stroke/exhaustion. Though opening the windows barely made a difference: the wind was hot, in addition to being smoky. I remember laying on the floor of our north-facing room (the coolest in the apartment) with the fan on me. One night, we went out for food (sadly, the restaurant’s AC had broken, which was a commonality to many ACs in the city at that point, as they were not used to being run so frequently) and then spent the evening at the local park dabbling our feet in the artificial stream to cool off.
Now, I neither have asthma nor – despite my prior injuries – bodily frailty at the same level as an older person; my lungs, heart, and all vital organs work very well. The smoke in amiskwaciwâskahikan was not that bad (according to the gov’t of Canada Air Quality Health Index, to which I gave HEAVY side-eye because I could smell it and was feeling ill from it already) and so I can only imagine what it was like in towns in the BC interior.
Choosing between a miserable immediate death due to heat vs a slow descent into infirmity over a lifetime due to inhaling toxic particles – and the immediate relief isn’t even that great – is not a great choice to have to make. And yet, it’s a reality that many people have been living with for years, in places like India and China.
The climate catastrophe future is here and has been for some time, it’s just unevenly distributed, to augment a Gibson quote.
*Strange to me, but a lot of buildings out west don’t have AC built in. Which should not be so strange, on second thought, since I lived in Tkaronto in the 90s and our house did not have AC at all. In fact, we only installed AC in our Guelph home several years after we had moved there, and I at the time thought it was unnecessary (my mother disagreed – I see her point of view, now). Then, when I went to Tkaronto for school and work later in life, none of the buildings I lived in then had AC – my roommate and I installed a window unit in our apartment in 2013, but for the most part, all older houses/buildings in Canada just don’t have the capacity for it, because it wasn’t necessary (even in Tkaronto, which is getting more humid and swamp-like by the year) until the turn of the century.
**I was at the time living in a century home in a housing co-op. There was neither AC nor an airtight building envelope, so after two days, enough smoke had leaked in past our walls that it didn’t really make much of a difference between indoor air quality and outdoor air quality. Sorry, lung integrity. The Canada Air Quality Health Index recommendations to stay indoors to avoid the smoke were pretty useless in that scenario.