Cooling centres are not a solution to climate change

While moderately helpful, are the clearest sign that we’ve resigned ourselves to climate catastrophe.

Flooded traffic sign
We are watching the world burn from the comfort of a cooling centre. PHOTO: Kelly Sikkema, Unsplash

By: C Icart, Peak Associate

Are you ready for an extreme heat wave? Last year’s heat dome made many British Columbians painfully aware that they weren’t. Upwards of 600 people died in what was deemed “the deadliest weather event” in Canadian history. As a response, cooling centres began to pop up around the Lower Mainland. That those centres are so necessary is hugely dispiriting. They’re a sign that we’ve accepted warming as a factor in our day-to-day lives, and have resigned ourselves to middling strategies aimed at making the summer season livable. 

Projections show that temperatures rising above 30°C will only become more and more common in the coming decades. The latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report also warned the rate of warming is outpacing our response. What this means is we won’t be able to adapt our lives and infrastructure quickly enough to prevent climate change from dramatically changing the ways we live our lives. In essence, cooling centres will not save us from climate catastrophe. And while they’re an important initiative that will save countless lives, they’re still flawed for reasons outside of climate action.

Not everyone is at the same risk during warmer weather. People with pre-existing health conditions, limited mobility or other disabilities, and people who are poorly housed are among the most at risk from extreme heat. For these people and others, cooling centres aren’t the silver bullet. A 2022 report to the BC Climate Action Secretariat on the need for mitigation strategies isolated a number of hurdles to cooling centres’ effectiveness. These barriers to the service include poor awareness of the facilities, limited accessibility, worries about discrimination, and a lack of guarantee that visitors could bring belongings and pets with them. Cooling centres, far from being a climate solution, aren’t even widely deployable enough to protect the most vulnerable.

If we’re resigning ourselves to climate catastrophe, there are some mitigation strategies that could be more effective than cooling centres. Preventing buildings from overheating needs to be considered in the design stage. For instance, using lighter coloured materials helps reflect the heat off buildings. Ensuring that trees surround buildings also helps reduce in-building temperatures. The restoration of urban tree canopies helps improve heat resiliency. Air conditioning will save lives in the short term. Still, it will significantly increase greenhouse gas emissions and contribute to climate change, ironically increasing the frequency of extreme heat events. These are just the beginning of cooling alternatives that should be applied across the province.

Members of our communities are dying, and the longer our governments remain inactive, the more it signals that the most vulnerable members of our communities are disposable. The City of Vancouver recommends frequently checking on “older adults, people with chronic illness, people living alone, and vulnerable neighbours” to ensure they are safe in the summer heat. I will follow those recommendations; however, like cooling centres, it’s the tip of the iceberg when it comes to climate adaptation, and a call to action to address the more pressing and critically necessary task of mitigation. We don’t have to resign ourselves to a future where cooling centres are the only things keeping a large contingent of the population from dying. We can, and should, demand better.