By Dr. Dawn Hoogeveen, Kerri Klein, Jordan Brubacher, and Dr. Maya Gislason
Summary: BC is already experiencing climatic changes which are predicted to become more widespread and significant over time. From flooding to drought to an increase in extreme weather events, research points towards the inevitability of a changing environment. These changes in climate will impact populations unevenly, making housing equity a crucial principle to guide government responses. This article uses a GBA+ lens to examine the interplay of climate change and COVID-19, and how policy demands to improve housing have been clearly illuminated, presenting a catalyst for change.
In late June 2021, Environment and Climate Change Canada issued an extreme heat alert for British Columbia (BC) as temperatures broke record highs in the region. For those of us who have been tracing climate change impacts, this was no surprise. In fact, it is understood as one of many more heat waves and domes to come. This burst of warm temperatures fell on the heels of a relief in COVID-19 restrictions, as BC entered Phase 2 of its reopening plan. This move to Phase 2 was generally approached with caution, with questions about how to ‘bounce back better’ in an age where the interplay between social justice, health, and climate change impacts are increasingly visible.
But what does this mean at a population level, on the unceded and ancestral lands of what is known in settler colonial terms as British Columbia, home to a host of First Nations and Métis whose land on which non-Indigenous peoples continue to occupy? The health costs of climate change have been well documented, and research shows those who experience overlapping forms of systemic discrimination (e.g. misogyny, racism, colonialism, ageism, etc.) will continue to be at greatest risk to the impacts of climate change.
Climate change, COVID-19, and housing
In response to climate impacts and in collaboration with the Climate Action Secretariat of BC, we (researchers and practitioners from Simon Fraser University and the SHIFT Collaborative) used a gender-based analysis plus (GBA+) lens to analyze the impacts of climate change. GBA+ involves the consideration of sex, gender, race, ethnicity, religion, age, and mental or physical ability (among other identity factors) to promote socially-just policy.
Our GBA+ preliminary report on the impacts of climate change across sub-populations included statistical analysis, a case study on the social impacts of the floods of Grand Forks in 2018, and a review of climate impacts in relation to intersectionality, which we broadly understand as overlapping forms of discrimination. A key finding of our work was around housing, which in of itself is part of a much larger conversation. For the purposes of this article, our focus is on the interplay of climate change and COVID-19, and how policy demands to improve housing have been clearly illuminated, presenting a catalyst for change — or silver lining, if you will.
Policy makers across jurisdictional spaces have been drawing on a GBA+ lens, informed by intersectional theory and method, to approach climate change and COVID-19. This is timely to help understand climate impacts as GBA+ provides methods and tools to understand, plan for, and mitigate the impacts of climate change across populations.
BC is already experiencing climatic changes which are predicted to become more widespread and significant over time. From flooding to drought to an increase in extreme weather events, research points towards the inevitability of a changing environment. Changes in climate will impact populations unevenly, making housing equity a crucial principle to guide government responses.
The question of how to address housing equity remains a challenge, particularly in a province where the lines between sovereignty and equity are blurred. This begs the question, what are the commonalities between how COVID-19 and climate change impact unhoused or precariously housed populations?
When disasters such as floods and wildfires happen, it is an opportunity to challenge ‘business as usual’ values, assumptions, priorities, and practices. The extreme weather events accelerated by climate change provide a catalyst for making changes to social policies that underpin existing structural inequities in BC. Climate change also provides an opportunity to look for co-benefits that strengthen social equity and adapt to climate change at the same time. In this way, major climate events — much like the COVID-19 pandemic — create opportunities for re-assessment of social and environmental change.
COVID-19 as a catalyst for housing supports
Housing is a key determinant for how impacted and adaptive communities can be to climate change, just as housing is a key determinant of poverty. People who are housing insecure are at risk of exposure to physical impacts from climate hazards, including wildfires, floods, and heatwaves, and face significant challenges in recovering and adapting to climate impacts. One leverage point for addressing the social impacts to climate change in BC is to house the most vulnerable.
“There’s an opportunity for policy in the social realm; if we are going to be taking care of the most vulnerable communities because of climate change, then let’s advocate [to get] the most vulnerably-housed in BC—let’s start there.” – Interview Participant
Major climate events like wildfires and floods also impact the level of available housing stock in a community. In communities with already low vacancy rates, this creates problems with housing supply, especially for low-income people. Those on low incomes who have lost their housing due to a wildfire or flood, or from the economic fallout caused by COVID-19, have few options available to them.
Interviews from Grand Forks indicated that those who were most impacted by the 2018 flood were people who did not have high levels of financial or housing security, including those with low income, renters, those living in poverty, and single parents. This mirrors the impacts of COVID-19. What lessons can be learned to help policy makers create better housing security on a local level considering climate change?
Though far from perfect, intergovernmental collaborations amongst different agencies and across jurisdictions have built on relationships that have the potential to promote better housing supports moving forward. COVID-19 acted as a catalyst for deeper work and community supports between BC Housing, provincial health authorities, Health Canada, and the BC Centre for Disease Control, that otherwise might not have taken place. Through its broad reaching and devastating impacts, the COVID-19 pandemic ultimately helped governments better understand how housing impacts health.
Lasting effects in an ever-changing environment
Discussions with policy experts, frontline workers, and health care professionals working in communities impacted by climate change made it apparent that we have tended to the downstream impacts (which are critical), but neglected the upstream assessment, preparedness, and planning for how climate change or a pandemic puts people at risk. Yet how climate change impacts populations, including those who are most at risk, remains less apparent.
In late June, parts of Mount Currie and Pemberton, located north of Whistler, experienced an evacuation order due to the rise in water levels from the Lillooet River. Shortly after, wildfires reached out of control levels, burning through communities causing irreparable damage, including in Lytton where the highest ever temperature in Canada was recorded. Climate change and major environmental events are not going anywhere and we must address the cascading impacts of these events on individuals and communities. Our work on the interplay of climate change, COVID-19, and housing has begun to answer questions around the disproportionate social impacts of climate in BC, though there is much more to be done.
We know that BC spent the most on the emergency response, including the highest social support to individuals per capita – but will it continue? Or will things return to the status quo? This uncertainty is a call to action to those who work in climate change and housing, to ensure the positive policy changes under COVID-19 continue to grow and evolve to address the worsening impacts of climate change.
Dr. Dawn Hoogeveen is a University Research Associate at Simon Fraser University in the Faculty of Health Sciences. Her work examines what it means to do ethically engaged social and environmental health justice research, including on the health impacts of climate change and resource development in Indigenous communities. Dawn is a settler of Dutch and British ancestry who grew up on Williams Treaty lands near Peterborough, Ontario. She lives on unceded Coast Salish territories in British Columbia with her partner and two kids.
Kerri Klein is a process designer, learning specialist and facilitator with expertise in the human, social and equity dimensions of climate change. She has worked for the last 15 years designing and leading collaborative planning and engagement processes with a wide range of sectors and communities. She has supported dozens of provincial, regional and community climate initiatives by facilitating collaboration, learning and engagement around climate risks, health, and building capacity to adapt. Kerri is the Co-Founder and Director of SHIFT Collaborative.
Jordan Brubacher is an interdisciplinary scientist with expertise in health sciences, GIS and ecology. He is passionate about the environment and has focussed his career around studying issues at the intersection of the environment and human health. Jordan embraces the understanding that humans are not separate from the environment, but rather that part of it and that as humans impact the health of the environment, the health of the environment in turn impacts the health of humans, and so on.
Dr. Maya K. Gislason is an assistant professor at Simon Fraser University’s Faculty of Health Sciences, lead for the Planetary Health Research Group, a Michael Smith Foundation for Health Research Scholar, an Ecohealth International board member, and founder of the Research for Equitable Ecosocial Transformation (RESET) team at SFU. A defining characteristic of her research is the integration of social inequities in health scholarship, intersectionality, and gender-based analysis plus with ecosystem approaches to health.