I’m looking out my window at a November morning. It has the cozy feel of a thick fog that muffles my view of anything beyond the house across the street. But there’s something wrong: the air doesn’t smell crisp and clean like November. It smells like I’m sitting downwind of a campfire.
Most of BC has experienced that gray blanket this summer. In central BC it’s a black blanket. Whatever the shade, it’s the colour of our green forests burning. Many people’s lives have been disrupted by the smoke. Even without the immediate risk of flames consuming our homes and communities, we experience anxiety and increased health risks.
I think of seniors and others with health issues being confined to their homes, often alone and isolated. They worry for themselves, and fear for their community. I think of parents with young babies, wondering if they should go somewhere with cleaner air; but where?
I think of children kept inside during their summer vacation, looking outside at their trampoline covered in ash. They wonder why bad air has closed the children’s outdoor pool today.
I think of the economic impacts. The festivals and tourism operations that saw a hot, sunny summer morph into a gray zone of lost audiences and visitors, and dwindling revenues. I think of the forests and their inhabitants, their loss of life and our loss of comfort and beauty.
I think about the discomfort I feel, the sense of foreboding that seeps out of the ominous gray around us, this shadowless world. I am facing the fact that this is our new summer experience. Except it will keep getting hotter and one day the fires will again come close to Nelson. Maybe too close.
When we think about adapting to our changing climate, we often think of floods, droughts and fires, and how we can keep ourselves safe. Firesmarting and wildfire treatments. Installing bigger pipes. Emergency preparedness.
Those are important. But social stresses need attention too. In coming years, anxiety and apprehension will increase. What we have come to know as normal will change, and humans don’t like change, especially if it’s unpleasant. Feeling threatened, we often act in our own interest, focused on our own survival.
That’s not what we need to do. Humans are also designed for love and connection, and are happiest when helping others. I haven’t given up on climate change mitigation, changing our ways to allow a future for some life on this planet. Working together with that goal of the common good is one way to tame our fear and anxiety, to remember we are not hopeless victims, we can change.
I hope when the rains fall and the winds blow, and our sky is blue again, we will not forget. And we especially will not forget when we cast our votes on Oct. 20. Canadian cities have done much good work around climate change. In the upcoming municipal election campaign I’ll look for council candidates who are as troubled as I am and who understand the pivotal role local leaders have. I’ll support those who speak with conviction, knowledge and passion about the issue of climate change. Because surely, surely, this summer has shown us the primary importance of that issue.
Climate change must be the lens through which every decision of a city council (and ideally every legislature) is examined. Sidewalks to pave? Consider alternatives to cement; it emits considerable carbon dioxide in its production. Pipes to replace? Size matters, a lot. Snowplow schedules? Let’s moderate our expectations of every street perfectly plowed. Water? Maybe it’s time for meters to control consumption. Cars, trucks, nowhere to park? More public transit options.
Cultural funding? Culture is critical for building understanding and community; it gives beauty and meaning. Street people? This is only the beginning; before long, climate migrants will begin moving north and how will we respond to those newcomers? Lack of affordable housing? It’s bad now, but may get much worse. Inaction on climate change by the provincial and federal governments? Municipal organizations need to push harder.
I want to elect a council that will ramp up the leadership shown by past councils who earned acclaim for their work on climate change, such as the EcoSave program. But that work seems to have slowed down, and we need it to grow and be the focus for governance decisions.
We need to remember the choking smoke of our 2018 summer. We need to elect community leaders with the drive to help us change our emissions-blasting actions, and help our community prepare, both physically and socially, for the future. A future that is already here.
Donna Macdonald served 19 years on Nelson city council until 2014. She is the author of Surviving City Hall, published in 2016.