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Crippling heat wave in Canada blamed for at least 100 deaths

Parts of Washington state, Oregon, and Idaho spent another day on Wednesday baking in sweltering temperatures, as a dangerous heat wave in Canada begins to ease in parts of British Columbia, Alberta and Manitoba. David Phillips, senior climatologist at Environment Canada, the Canadian government department responsible for environmental policy, joins Judy Woodruff to discuss.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Parts of Washington state, Oregon, and Idaho spent another day baking in sweltering temperatures. Rolling blackouts continue in the city of Spokane, Washington, which hit a record 109 degrees yesterday.

    President Biden lamented the brutal heat during a virtual meeting with the governors of Western states.

  • President Joseph Biden:

    The extreme heat we're seeing in the West is not only a risk amplifier for wildfires. It's a threat in and of itself. People are hurting. It's more dangerous for kids to play outside. Roads are buckling under the heat. I need not — again, need not tell all of you.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Meantime a dangerous heat wave in Canada is slowly starting to ease. It scorched the Pacific Coast province of British Columbia, with temperatures 30 to 40 degrees Fahrenheit hotter than normal. One city recorded a reading of 122.

    The plains of Alberta and Manitoba provinces have also been blasted. At least 233 people died in British Columbia between Friday and Monday alone. That's about 100 more than the normal four-day average.

    Joining me now to discuss this is David Phillips. He's senior climatologist at Environment Canada. It's the Canadian government department responsible for environmental policy.

    Mr. Phillips, thank you so much for joining us.

    Tell us, what is Canada dealing with right now?

  • David Phillips:

    Well, Judy, it's unprecedented. Historically, we have never seen this before. The last warm temperature that we have always talked about in Canada was back in Yellow Grass, Saskatchewan, back 84 years ago.

    And we have seen this week, just 400 records have been broken in the west. And that's just the warm temperatures during the day. And these are not just a half — a 10th of a degree warmer than the previous record. We are seeing just — it's like a different world for us here.

    We are the second coldest country in the world and the snowiest. And we are dealing with something that we're not used to. And it's so extreme, it's long-lasting, and, as you mentioned, it's beginning to have health effects, environmental effects, and certainly economic effects.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And what do you know about the science that's behind this heat wave? What is causing this? And, of course, everybody wants to understand, is it connected to climate change?

  • David Phillips:

    Well, Judy, it is really a dome.

    It's like putting a dome stadium over an area from the Arctic Circle down to California. And what happens in that dome is, the air gets trapped. Nothing can — it can't leave. It gets progressively warmer. It squeezes down and just gets hotter and hotter. And no weather can get in the way.

    And, of course, we often say — well, every time we see an extreme event, we say, well, is this climate change? And I think we have hidden enough behind the fact that we say, well, climate change doesn't create weather, it doesn't create heat waves and forest fires and hurricanes.

    But, Judy, what it does is, it contributes to it. There are many factors that create extreme weather, and physical factors, but now we're realizing that there's human factors. And this heat wave would not have been as — nearly as brutal and deadly if it hadn't been for what's coming out of our tailpipes and smokestacks.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Who is most affected?

  • David Phillips:

    Judy, it's the elderly, of course. It's infants, who don't have the sweat glands. It's outdoor workers. It's the homeless. It is people with health-related illnesses.

    And that's why we're seeing so many deaths, but a lot more emergency entrances. And, you know, we still have lockdown situations in Canada. And so breathing through a mask in these kind of temperatures is just — you know, it's just brutal. And people don't go outside. People are moving from their homes to hotels because they don't have air conditioning.

    There's only less than half the people in Western Canada have air conditioning. So it's something we have never dealt with before. And we're trying to cope with it. And the only good news is that, maybe in five or six days, it will be history. But, boy, the — it will take its toll before we get there.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    It sounds as if you're saying the government and the people of Canada were just not prepared for this.

  • David Phillips:

    Well, it was well-forecast, Judy, but it's just so fundamentally different.

    It's like rewriting the climate of Canada to have to deal with this. And so you don't want to overdesign and underdesign. You sort of want to match the existing conditions. But this is really a dress rehearsal, almost the opening act of what we're going to see more of. I hope we learn from it to say, hey, this occurred once. It could occur again. And it won't be 83 years before we break another record.

    So I think we need to prepare for it.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    You do expect this kind of climate, this kind of weather to return in the future?

  • David Phillips:

    Absolutely, Judy.

    Weather repeats itself. And so, if you get this — if it's physically possible to get this, it could only ramp up that much more and more frequently. So I think this is a kind of a lesson from nature. It's giving us a heads-up. And, hopefully, we're smart enough to pay attention to it.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    David Phillips, environmentalist with the Canadian government, thank you very much.

  • David Phillips:

    You're welcome, Judy.

    Back in the U.S., the medical examiner of Multnomah County reports that 45 deaths were due to extreme heat since Friday.

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