Wildfire smoke intensifies young people’s climate dread

Lilian Dart tried to be hopeful as her nephew blew out his birthday candles last week, she writes, but she couldn’t shake her niggling fear for the future
Wildfire smoke descended on Lilian Dart’s neighbourhood last week, rendering the sun a hazy red dot. Dart moved her nephew’s second birthday party indoors as caution during the period of poor air quality.

On June 5, I hosted my nephew’s second birthday party at my home in the south end of Peterborough. The back deck and yard offered the perfect setting: shaded mis-matched chairs, a grassy lawn, and a cool northern breeze. After picking up the pastel-coloured streamers, baking a cake, and wrapping the gifts, I began to set up the party. However, as I stood outside beginning to decorate, a dull headache set in and my eyes began to burn. 

It was wildfire smoke. The campfire-scented haze descending over the region, originating from forest fires in Québec and Northern Ontario, was hanging thick in my backyard. 

I checked the air quality index for Peterborough: moderate-high risk. My brother and I decided to move the party indoors. It was an easy back-up plan, but the reality of contingency planning a toddler’s birthday party due to smoke from wildfires (which are becoming more intense and frequent due to human-caused climate heating) was devastating.

As I write, there are 390 fires blazing across settler-defined Canada, 186 of which are characterized as “uncontrolled.” According to federal officials, this year is on track to be the worst wildfire season in history. Already, fires have burned over 3.7 million hectares of land compared to the 10-year average of approximately 272,000 hectares. While the peak intensity of the wildfire season is expected during the hot and dry days of July and August, we find ourselves in this unprecedented situation just one week into June.

“Unprecedented.” I am twenty-six, and in my lifetime that word has become commonplace as each new season brings new weather extremes.

From older generations, my peers and I hear that our twenties are meant for exploration, deepening relationships, establishing a career path, and embarking on a journey of self-discovery. However, there is a growing feeling of dread among my twenty-something counterparts. 

We read the IPCC reports and projections. We connect the dots between the heating climate and the “once-in-a-lifetime” disasters that now emerge annually. And increasingly, we live the effects of climate change in our everyday lives.

We question the ethics of having children of our own in a world that feels on the brink of collapse, and we worry about what adulthood might look like for the nieces, nephews, and other children in our lives. There is a growing sense of hopelessness bubbling up as we think about the future habitability of our planet. How can we plan for our future? It feels so far out of our grasp.

The link between this year’s wildfire surge and climate change is clear. Escalating temperatures, shifting precipitation patterns, and prolonged droughts create optimal conditions for the exacerbation and proliferation of fires. And the biggest contributor to climate change? Fossil fuels

The smoke hanging over my city last week laid bare the contradictions of the present moment. Canada is on fire, and fossil fuel production (and profit) continues to grow. Canada is on fire, and the government continues to subsidize the oil and gas sector. Canada is on fire, and the federal government continues to approve new oil and gas projects. Canada is on fire, and business continues as usual.

The reliance on fossil fuels transcends levels of government; in Peterborough, too, we aren’t transitioning quickly enough. In 2019, city council declared a climate emergency and “expressed support for greatly accelerating timelines and [considering] new actions and proposals to significantly lower GHG emissions.” 

Along with the emergency declaration came a new goal: Council wanted to reduce the Peterborough community’s greenhouse gas emissions by 45% from 2011 levels by 2030. But a city report released in March revealed that we are nowhere near reaching this goal. According to the report, the current “best-case scenario” based on present policies and initiatives is a reduction of 14%. “Additional action is needed from higher levels of government” to reach more ambitious goals, the report states.

Passing the responsibility to other levels of government like this is unacceptable. It’s true that municipalities don’t have direct control over their community-sector emissions, but they do have tools at their disposal to encourage the right choices. 

For example, the city report indicated that over 55% of the Peterborough community’s GHG emissions originate from on-road transportation. Municipal decisions influence what mode of transportation people choose, and I wish the recent report had kickstarted conversations about how Peterborough could better allocate its resources through urban design that encourages active transportation, neighborhood densification, and infrastructure that discourages the use of cars. 

But instead we hear it’s up to other levels of government. Where is the urgency? Where is the accountability?

Despite the fact that the serious and devastating effects of climate change have inflicted other parts of the world for decades, Central Ontario has remained relatively unscathed. The recent wildfire smoke that fell onto our city provided a tangible preview of what scientists predict is to come. Upon reflection, I wonder what life will look like for us in 10, 20, or 30 years. I wonder how many of my nephew’s birthday parties will have to be celebrated inside due to climate-change-fuelled natural disasters. I wonder what it will take for decision-makers to assume responsibility and radical action towards a livable future. As my nephew blew out the two small candles on his frosted cake, I tried to remain hopeful. 

But I am scared.


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