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BC's heat wave a reminder to prioritize the disabled community in the green building space

British Columbians were brutally shocked by the horrors of climate change last summer when an unprecedented “heat dome” trapped the province in a lethal extreme heat event. The BC Coroners Service has attributed 619 deaths between June 25 to July 1, 2021 as related to the heat dome.

The BC Coroners Service convened a death review panel to investigate the excess mortality during the 2021 extreme heat event and recently published their findings. Notably, 98% of the deaths occurred indoors, 90% of the deceased were 60-years or older, many had chronic illnesses, and most were in homes without adequate cooling systems. The majority of the deceased lived alone in private residences.

Justifiably, since the heat wave, there has been an upswing in momentum in the green building space. In particular, many are connecting retrofits with climate resiliency.

But I see an elephant in this room. The people most likely to purchase retrofits, or build an energy efficient home, are not the people who were impacted the most by the heat wave.

I lived through the heat dome too and, yes, I was incredibly uncomfortable and stressed for several days, but I am not the one who fell through the policy gap. In fact, it is the people least likely to go through the expensive and complicated process of retrofitting their home who were the ones dying from the heat: disabled people.

Through a series of interviews conducted by The Maple, disability writer and policy analyst Gabrielle Peters illustrates the unique suffering disabled people faced during the heat dome. Reading Peters’ stories, it is important to remember that there is a great deal of undocumented pain and distress not captured by merely reporting deaths. Indeed, Dr. Melissa Lem of the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment estimates for every person who died, another 10 likely suffered heat-related sickness.

Peters also discusses the inadequacies of government responses to the issue, criticizing that telling people to purchase cooling measures such as fans and air conditioning units overlooks that stores ran out of these potentially life-saving appliances. Furthermore, and keeping in mind the majority of decedents from the heat wave had cognitive or mobility impairments, there are major accessibility barriers preventing many disabled people from travelling to the store to purchase an expensive appliance or from travelling to a cooling centre.

Peters was recently interviewed by Capital Daily and further detailed the ableism in the BC’s response to the heat wave, and even of the death review panel. Peters reports that while they were invited to provide recommendations to the death review panel, the event was inaccessible due to the drop of masking requirements, and their emailed recommendations were rejected.

But what does this have to do with the green building sector?

The disproportionate deaths of disabled and elderly people highlight the need to include these neglected communities in the green building sector. As we advocate for mass retrofit campaigns and stronger building codes in the name of climate change adaptation and mitigation, we must remember to prioritize certain demographics.

It is nice and important to make sure we are are well-off and comfortable during the heat wave, but our goal post should be to use our knowledge and skills in energy efficiency and thermal regulation to ensure the disabled and elderly people who live alone make it through the next heat wave, and that they do so without suffering from the associated exhaustion.

As we move to make all buildings in Canada low-energy and resilient to climate change, we should remember that some communities deserve prioritization.

While the heat wave may seem like an anomaly, British Columbians have become uniquely aware of the unpredictability of climate change. In the last year alone, the province has seen entire communities destroyed by wildfire or displaced by flooding. Indeed, despite this year’s cold and wet spring, Johanna Wagstaffe, Senior Meteorologist with CBC News, says we cannot rule out another extreme heat event near the back end of the summer.

To learn more about the role of passive buildings in extreme heat events, check out PBC’s previous article on the topic. We explored some of the nuances in the issue with discussions of passive house performance and the applicability of earth tubes and retrofits.

Articles on the PBC website reflect the views of the author and not necessarily those of PBC.

Raidin Blue is a summer technical writer for PBC. He earned his MES at York University and B.Sc.Hon. from the University of Saskatchewan.

Image: "Sunset .. Vancouver Island heat wave" by Nick Kenrick.. is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Charts: Author's own creation using data from the British Columbia Coroners Service.