We are past the point where “stopping” climate change is really possible. With global temperature rise already above 1 degree Celsius and the window on keeping warming below 1.5 degrees rapidly closing, the consequences of decades of political inaction and corporate malfeasance are already making themselves known. Every month it seems like another part of the world is being hammered by one catastrophic climate impact or another, from flooding in Puerto Rico and Pakistan to the extreme heat that melted asphalt in Europe this past summer to the wildfires raging across western North America.
In the face of this new reality, climate organizing needs to evolve. For me, this reality really struck home last summer when extreme heat and wildfires ravaged the part of Canada that I call home. Watching devastation in my own backyard in real time, I realized that spending most of adult life as climate organizer had done little to prepare me to support my community in actually dealing with the impacts of climate change. Sure, we could organize around these impacts to demand more from the government, but that didn’t feel like enough. I spent a lot of sleepless nights thinking about this and, eventually, it led me to head back to school to become a paramedic.
Through my schooling, and now working as a first responder, I came to another realization: If we want to build the kind of mass movement that can tackle this crisis, we need to think about equipping communities with the skills and tools to deal with climate impacts. What’s more, we’ll need to do this in a way that empowers local solutions and forces governments to do what’s necessary to meet the climate emergency. There’s no single silver bullet to make this happen, but one place to start is by training people to respond to the disasters on the ground and leveraging these response networks to build lasting power.
The idea is pretty simple. When climate impacts happen, they tend to quickly overwhelm emergency services. Floods and fires can shut down roads, cutting communities off from emergency medical and rescue services. Like COVID-19 did, extreme climate events create more patients than emergency services can handle. The result is loss of life and livelihoods, some of which could be protected if community level responders were prepared to step in.
Volunteer responders save lives
Take, for example, last fall’s severe flooding in the Fraser Valley region of British Columbia, Canada. In November 2022, an extended period of heavy precipitation, called an atmospheric river, delivered unprecedented rainfall all over the Pacific Northwest. Major highways were washed away, towns and farmland were submerged and people were stranded on patches of pavement caught between rockslides and new raging torrents. But despite this massive climate disaster, there was minimal loss of life. One explanation is that the region’s paid emergency services did a monumental job of responding. That is without doubt. However, that’s only part of the story.
The major cities in southwestern BC are surrounded by a lot of wilderness. The mountains, rivers and forests of this part of the world are renowned for their potential for outdoor adventure, and every year tens of thousands of people venture into them. That leads to hundreds of mountain rescues, and thanks to that, this part of BC has one of the most robust networks of volunteer Search and Rescue teams anywhere on earth.
In almost every community that was impacted by this flood there were dozens of well-trained volunteers who could provide emergency medical, rescue and evacuation services to their communities. These volunteers — deployed by boat, helicopter and everything in between — worked around the clock, playing a critical role in minimizing loss of life and supporting people and families forced from their homes.
In the end, fewer than 10 lives were lost during this disaster. That’s extremely low when compared to flooding of this scale in other parts of the world, where death tolls can be in the dozens or even hundreds.
With the threat of climate disasters on the rise, as the result of our governments’ inaction, BC’s model of volunteer first response is worth studying and replicating. It has the potential to both save lives and build the kind of community networks that the climate movement desperately needs to scale up its power.
What could it look like?
Every single community is going to be exposed to its own unique risks when it comes to climate impacts. In some places fires and smoke may be the main risk, in others it could be rising seas and super storms or floods and water-borne illness or extreme heat and droughts. In some parts of the world, the risk may even be extreme cold events, such as in places where the temperature has rarely ever dipped below freezing.
Given this reality, efforts to prepare for climate impacts will need to be strongly informed by the local context. Nevertheless, despite the range of risks, there is a common denominator. Every one of these disasters either cut people off from, or overwhelm, emergency medical services — and when that happens, preventable losses of life occur.
During the 2021 heat dome in BC, hundreds of people died preventable deaths. Many experienced heat illnesses, where the body’s core temperature rises so high that it interferes with proper bodily functions. The immediate life-saving intervention for heat illness is actually pretty simple: aggressively cooling the person down. But, that wasn’t widely known during BC’s heat emergency. Had it been — and had organized and trained first aid responders been acting as an auxiliary to emergency medical services — a lot of lives might have been saved.
Think about it like this: In the same neighborhoods in Vancouver, BC, where a lot of deaths occurred during the heat dome, there is a toxic drug crisis. Opioid overdoses, which can lead to respiratory arrest and death, are a regular occurrence. While too many people still die due to the toxic drug supply, there are a lot fewer deaths than there used to be because of a simple intervention. Community members have been trained to administer Naloxone, a life-saving drug that reverses an opioid overdose.
Now instead of only relying solely on first responders and an underfunded, overstretched medical system, bystanders can save a life immediately and buy time for the medical system to catch up. Community efforts to train individuals and groups in Naloxone administration and establish a reliable supply in these communities has saved hundreds of lives. Training cadres of “climate first responders” to provide immediate life-saving and stabilizing first aid in climate disasters could do something similar.
The good news is that much of the training already exists. We already have a litany of curriculum to train the public to perform bystander first aid in situations where responders have limited resources and where additional help may be hours or days away. These are the exact same situations that communities find themselves in during a climate disaster. Though we don’t have data on how much loss of life could be prevented with trained first aid responders in a climate disaster, things like the heat dome and flooding in BC do at least give us the basis for the hypothesis that training communities in remote first aid could save lives.
This same hypothesis could also extend to other skill sets in rescue and disaster preparedness and prevention. Many communities already have and train volunteer fire departments in skills like fire and flood response, and no doubt some of those skills could be trained up in communities facing increasing risks due to climate change.
This isn’t an entirely new idea. In the Pacific Islands, climate organizers have pioneered a project to create and distribute small solar power packs that can keep communities powered during extreme storms. In Turkey, community members figured out how to build effective volunteer community auxiliary units to support responders dealing with extreme wildfires. In the U.S., Occupy Sandy emerged and provided necessary relief to communities in the wake of Hurricane Sandy.
From emergency response to political power
As climate impacts become more common, the number of people concerned about the climate crisis is rising. But, that rise in awareness is coming alongside a rise in climate anxiety. While in the past we may have struggled to get people to care about climate politics because of dozens of other concerns and distractions, we now struggle to get people to care about climate politics because of the urgent threats that climate change is posing to their lives, livelihoods and homes. It’s hard to get people to sign petitions or show up to rallies when they’re stacking sandbags or packing go bags to flee a wildfire.
Simply building up the capacity of communities to respond to climate impacts won’t be enough. Without more action from our governments, these crises are just going to get worse. Governments need to do more to stop global temperature rise and to prepare for the climate impacts we’ve already baked in. This means aggressive legislation to end fossil fuel use and a just transition for communities and workers. It also means expanding emergency services to deal with climate disasters and upgrading and rebuilding infrastructure to weather the storms to come. And, lastly, it means rethinking our approaches to migration — both within and across borders, as climate impacts forcibly relocate millions of people.
As we’ve seen, none of this seems to be what our governments actually want to do. The limited wins we’ve seen on climate change have come from people organizing to force them to happen, and the next phase of wins won’t be any different.
That means we need to build a bridge between responding to ongoing climate impacts, preparing for future impacts and organizing to stop them from getting worse. In other words, we need to build movements that have the tangible, hands-on skills to protect their communities in the case of climate disasters, but can also turn around and mobilize those same communities to force the government to act.
This bridge could be built on three pillars:
1. Preparation. Climate organizers need to find ways to provide the support and training communities need to feel prepared to respond to climate impacts. This might mean providing it themselves, or finding local partners and allies who can do so. This would build resilience, connection and empower both individuals and communities to feel equipped to protect themselves in the case of climate disasters, providing tangible tools for overcoming climate anxiety.
2. Local power. Organizers need to find ways to support communities to campaign for local climate solutions that truly serve their needs. As we just saw when Hurricane Fiona hit Puerto Rico, community solar projects provided power when the rest of the grid started to fail. This kind of community solution takes the empowerment and connection from the first pillar and turns it into localized, systemic community power and resilience.
3. A bigger, louder movement. Weaving these local fights together into regional, national and international movements that can demand the highest levels of action from the highest levels of government is critical. These wins take local resilience and spread it as wide as possible by forcing governments with the greatest amount of power and resources to deploy it at the scale a climate emergency demands.
Put another way, organizers need to be training people to treat their community for burns and smoke inhalation during a wildfire. Those same people need to be supported to organize their community to demand more funding and resources for fire prevention in their community. And, that community needs to be part of a national movement that is connecting the dots between worsening wildfires and governments continuing to finance and allow fossil fuel expansion. In a lot ways, this would be borrowing from the model that migrant justice organizers have worked off of for years, responding to direct threats to their communities and building that into the long-term power needed to win systemic changes to immigration policy.
We are long past living in a world where trying to stop the climate crisis altogether is possible. The climate has changed, and we need to change our organizing and movements to deal with this new reality. That’s a frightening reality, especially when each day the news seems to bring a fresh story of climate disasters happening somewhere around the globe. Yet, it can also be empowering.
In a disaster, communities pull together like never before. The power that exists in those moments has the potential to be transformative. What’s more, at a time where the climate movement feels a little bit like treading water, that might be precisely the kind of energy that’s necessary to gain some new momentum. We can harness that power by acknowledging that, if we’re in a climate emergency, maybe we need some climate first responders.