By Jennifer Deol
As of Sunday, 4 million acres in the western US have been scorched by deadly wildfires of an unfathomable scale. These climate-fuelled blazes have created the world’s poorest levels of air quality in the Pacific Northwest, and blanketed communities across Canada.
The smoke-filled skies are a stark reminder that the climate emergency is at our doorstep. It is an emergency that compounds with a global health pandemic to force our communities into an unprecedented chokehold.
I, like so many across BC, woke up to a heavy blanket of smoke on Sunday hanging over my hometown of Kelowna, BC. With no immediate respite in sight, and another wave of smoke projected to cloud over us from the US over the coming days, I am reminded of the 2018 wildfire season. The sky was clouded with smoke for nearly three weeks that summer. We went days without seeing the sun.
My family, along with other farmers, farm and migrant workers, have been working long days under a blood-coloured sun during the peak of harvest season, where the air quality has remained at very high risk. Despite wearing a mask, and having an air purifier in our home, my family has spent the last few days with smoke-filled lungs because we can’t be inside in the middle of harvest. This isn’t our first wildfire season but it has been particularly difficult to relive this nightmare all over again, in the middle of a pandemic.
It’s a physiological reaction to panic when you feel yourself breathing smoke into your lungs. I am thinking of all of the people with respiratory health issues who can’t go outdoors at this time without risking their safety, including those recovering from COVID. I am thinking about the hundreds of street-involved people who have been failed by the state’s inaction on the housing crisis. I am thinking teachers who are unable to open windows or doors or take their students outside, and, as a result, facing heightened risks of COVID outbreaks in their classrooms due to the lack of ventilation.
Here are some of the heartbreaking accounts flooding social media of people grappling with the Big Smoke of 2020:
It has been 457 days since Justin Trudeau officially declared a climate emergency. Instead of moving climate action forward at the scale science and communities demand, his cabinet has shelved their climate plans ahead of the Throne Speech and continues to sink tens of billions of dollars into the Trans Mountain pipeline.
This summer alone, the deadly wildfires on the Westcoast of North America and unprecedented floods in South Asia have displaced millions who will never recover what they have lost. Shelving our climate commitments and pouring billions of dollars into a climate-wrecking pipeline is akin to pouring gasoline on communities at the frontlines of the climate crisis.
That’s why we need to divest from institutions that cause us harm — like the fossil fuel industry — and invest in a green and just recovery that puts people and the planet first. This pandemic has shown us that in the face of a crisis, we do have the power to retool and reimagine our society to build back better.