Better community planning needed to offset climate change


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Every year at this time, medical officers of health like me make a point of warning people to guard against the different health problems that can strike on a hot summer day.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 12/08/2016 (2370 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Every year at this time, medical officers of health like me make a point of warning people to guard against the different health problems that can strike on a hot summer day.

As the temperature soars above 30 C, we tell people they need to stay hydrated and cool in order to avoid the heat-related symptoms that can lead to heat exhaustion, heatstroke and even death.

And those warnings are more than likely going to become more common as the years go by.

Chris Walker / Emporia Gazette files Lifeguard Shea Schmidt tries to stay cool.

Changes in the climate mean Manitoba’s summers are slowly but surely becoming hotter and longer. We can now see climate data and trends recorded at weather stations across Canada through the Prairie Climate Atlas, developed by researchers at the University of Winnipeg.

The atlas shows the number of hot summer days in many Prairie locations may triple or even quadruple by the end of the century if we continue on the current trajectory. For example, Winnipeg is predicted to experience 46 days above 30 C by 2080 (right now that number is 11 days per year). As a result, in the future we can expect more drought, heat waves and forest fires and associated implications, including significant impacts on human health and the economy.

Fortunately, there are things we can do to adapt to climate change. For example, people can cope with increasing temperatures by staying cool indoors more often and restricting outdoor activity to avoid heat-related illnesses.

In addition to adjusting our individual behaviours, we can also adapt as a society.

Evidence suggests supporting healthy, equitable and resilient communities will continue to be our best adaptation strategy. In other words, communities must be able to respond to climate change and protect their most disadvantaged populations. It is important to have good responses to heat, such as opening designated cooling centres at public locations, providing information to the public through local media, distributing bottled water to people in need and operating an information line to answer heat-related questions.

Improving our built environment can also help us adapt to climate change. The protection and expansion of our urban forests and vegetation cover in cities is important to provide shade. Similarly, the use of new building practices can increase the reflection of sunlight, such as “cool” pavement or “green” roofs.

Of course, we must do more than adapt. We must also work to mitigate the effects of climate change by taking steps to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Communities can embrace “smart growth” by utilizing design that promotes walking and bicycling to increase physical activity and decrease motor-vehicle use. We can design and retrofit more energy-efficient homes and buildings. As individuals, we can reduce our carbon footprint by seeking out locally produced food and engaging in active transportation by walking, biking or using public transit.

Admittedly, that can get tricky when so much of the economy — so much of everything we do — is dependent on fossil fuels. The complexity of the problem was outlined nicely in a story in the Free Press last week. It noted even important adaptation strategies, such as air conditioning, can actually undermine mitigation efforts to cut greenhouse gas emissions.

Yet we must not shrink from the challenge.

The simple truth is we must make greenhouse gas emission reduction a priority if we are to minimize long-term climate change and its impacts on our environment and society.

At the same time, it is important to remember the benefits of these mitigation efforts will take several decades to become apparent. As a result, it is imperative we begin adapting to the changes in climate we are already experiencing by improving community planning and design efforts that promote healthy built environments.

Failure to move forward on both of these fronts aggressively will only result in more extreme climate change — and a lot more hot-weather warnings from medical officers of health such as me.

Dr. Lisa Richards is a medical officer of health for the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority.

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