At the end of June, I was shocked up when I looked across the small lake my family cottage overlooks. Normally I see a green line of trees hugging the far shore but that day a grey-blue-brown haze shrouded the shoreline, the air smelled like burning plastic and smoke from a campfire, and the sun was orange and yellow. It felt apocalyptic.  I have been coming up to this cottage for more than 70 years, and this had never happened before. A quick check of the internet confirmed that it was smoke from wildfires burning far away in northeastern Ontario and Quebec. I was not surprised though because climate scientists have been warning for decades that climate change is “settled science”, temperatures are rising, becoming more variable, and with the increase in ‘weird weather’, there would be more extreme weather events.

It is uncontroversial that climate change has resulted in increases in the area of land burned by forest fires. Higher temperatures mean longer wildfire seasons, drier forests, and more wildfire smoke. As of July 12th, the total area of forests burned in Canada so far is greater than one-and-a-half times the area Nova Scotia and the wildfire season is far from over.  Because the wildfires are now larger and more intense, smoke from them travels further, affecting far away urban areas such as Toronto, Chicago, and New York. Far more devastating though is the disproportionate impact of wildfires to nearby indigenous communities.

IQ Air revealed what I suspected. The air quality from the smoke was unhealthy. I was advised to shut my windows and stay indoors. Wildfire smoke adds to the pernicious effects of the polluted air in Ontario caused by emissions from trucks, buses, and cars, homes and businesses, power generation, and other processes that rely on fossil fuels. According to the World Health Organization, air pollution is the single largest environmental health risk.

Although I knew about the immediate and longer-term health effects of climate change, the anxiety, stress, sadness, and anger I felt as I looked across the lake gave me a visceral understanding of how my friend with two young children and a baby must have felt as she tried to protect their still-developing lungs from the harmful effects of wildfire smoke by keeping them indoors with the windows closed. The kids wanted to be outside with their friends. Even worse off were people, who were told to pack an emergency go bag and leave their homes uncertain about the future of their homes, their livelihood, and their community. About 88,000 people were displaced from their homes because of the Fort McMurray fire in 2016. Investigations of the impact of wildfires on mental health, have shown increased rates of mental health disorders including higher rates of depression, PTSD, and generalized anxiety that persisted in some individuals.

It is too early to know the full impact of the current wildfires. However, a report by Health Canada 2021 estimated that air pollution resulted in 15,300 premature deaths per year from 2014 – 2017. Premature deaths and illnesses included in their estimates included respiratory illnesses (acute, asthma, bronchitis), cardiac disease, lung cancer, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. This is likely to be an underestimate because the report did not include other diseases linked to air pollution such as Alzheimer’s disease, other forms of dementia, Parkinson’s disease, and difficulties during pregnancy including miscarriage, premature birth, and low-birth weight.

Reducing greenhouse gas emissions such as by increasing the use of green technologies and phasing out technologies that rely on the combustion of fossil fuels will be good for the climate and the environment, and at the same time will have significant health co-benefits. It will reduce deaths and illnesses caused by air pollution, extreme weather events, and other consequences of climate change that otherwise will increase. The benefits resulting from reductions in air pollution would begin immediately, accrue over time, and will have a greater impact in the areas where the reductions in air pollution were implemented.

This is not the direction of the Ford government. The Ford government has prioritized policies that favour fossil fuels over green energy technologies. In 2018, shortly after winning its first election, the Ford government cancelled green energy initiatives at a cost of over $280 million to Ontario taxpayers, claiming that Ontario didn’t need the energy they would generate. Now, only 5 years later, the Ford government is soliciting bids for gas-powered electrical generation plants because the government anticipates increased demand for energy. What? Talk about a head-snapping change in direction!

Extracting natural gas and then using it to power electrical plants is bad for the climate, our health, and may end up leaving Ontario taxpayers on the hook for their development if the federal government introduces legislation prohibiting the construction of power plants that rely on fossil fuels. Put simply, businesses will profit, taxpayers will assume the risk, and their health will suffer.

The document titled, Powering Ontario’s Growth: A clean energy plan for Ontario’s future, does not layout an energy plan. Rather, it is a political document that tries to justify what it has decided to do. It has no specific plans for developing green energy sources such as wind and solar but focuses on using natural gas and on its plans to build small modular nuclear reactors (SMRs), a technology that is still under development.  In that document, the term cost-effective is used 25 times, but climate change only once (to support SMRs), and health is not even mentioned. As this latest document confirms, the Ford government still has no credible plan to deal with climate change and its consequences for the planet. The health, safety, and economic welfare of the people of Ontario will suffer.



Norman W. Park is Professor Emeritus, Clinical Psychology, York University, and a member of SCAN!’s Education Committee.

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