The heat is on in Toronto. And it will come back.
This week’s arrival of the Heat Dome system, which punished the West Coast and burned down Litton, BC, is not an aberration. Historically temperate, the city is being reshaped by climate change. The future will bring more frequent and more punishing heat.
And we are not ready.
Local politics in the Greater Toronto and Hamilton area consider extreme heat to be a topical issue. But within a generation Toronto is likely to be a more hot spot. A 2012 study by consultants from the City of Toronto made harsh predictions. Between 2000 and 2009 the city had temperatures above 30 degrees Celsius, an average of 20 days each summer. After 2040, that number is projected to more than triple – 66. Maximum temperatures in the 2000s averaged around 37 degrees; Between 2040 and 2050 it will be 44 degrees.
These are dramatic numbers, and more current climate-change models mean the news is likely to get worse. The result is that the Toronto of 2050 may feel like the Washington of today.
“We needed to be concerned about the heat long before the heat didme,” says Elliot Capel, who was the City of Toronto’s chief resilience officer from 2017 to 2019. “Excessive heat is a silent killer.”
This is important information, and yet it is no more present in political discourse at Toronto City Hall, or at Queen’s Park.
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Mr. Capel is an expert in resilience, society’s ability to cope with adverse events, particularly the effects of climate change. While in downtown Toronto, he oversaw the city’s first resilience strategy.
That 2019 document identified a serious threat within the city’s old slab apartment blocks. More than 700,000 Torontonians live in towers over 35 years old. Many are poorly insulated; Most lack air conditioning. “Those buildings are the hottest on the hottest days, so there is a risk of exposure,” says Mr Capel, who is now director of climate change at consultancy WSP Canada. “They are also populated by vulnerable people: older people living alone, new Canadians, people facing social and economic barriers. This is an extreme risk.”
The Toronto Resilience Strategy recommended a large-scale renovation of these towers – linked to a broader effort called tower renovation – and help build social networks to support vulnerable people. Subsidies are needed for all this.
What has happened since 2019? Not much. Tower Renovation Ideas has generated less than two dozen renovation projects in total.
City Councilor Josh Matlow’s office has reached out to apartment residents in his North Toronto ward, and helped create a pilot program to ensure vulnerable residents are checked in during heatwaves. He is also pushing for stricter rules on landlords. “Toronto needs a maximum temperature bylaw,” he says, “and we all need to put our heads together to make sure the energy needed is green and that retrofit costs are not passed on to renters. “
And yet, to date, Toronto has focused on fighting climate change (by reducing greenhouse gas emissions) rather than tackling its immediate effects.
To be sure, the city government is trying to work on resilience. The current effects of climate change “are at the heart of the work we are doing in planning,” says Jane Welch, acting manager of policy in the City Planning’s Office of Strategic Initiatives. A new Toronto Green Standard goes to city council next week; It controls the energy performance of new buildings and reduces carbon emissions. But only one of its three metrics is directly related to making buildings better insulated and more comfortable.
Another policy in Toronto City Council this month will boost tower retrofit efforts, with $13 million from the Federation of Municipalities of Canada. But that is a drop in the bucket.
There are many tools that can make Toronto or any major city more resilient in the heat. Some include buildings. Others include trees and green infrastructure – paved roads and the conversion of their middle into gardens. These stay cooler than concrete, and can also absorb storm water while averting flooding.
And then there’s the topic of social infrastructure: public places to gather, out of season, and connect to social services. Libraries in Toronto already fill this role.
We need this more, all this, urgently. Too often, policies related to climate change are politicized and undermined by conservatives. Some may view climate change as someone else’s problem and not as a Canadian issue or a Toronto issue. But it’s here – even in summer – and it’s not going away.
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