Canada’s Climate Emergency Impacts People in Poverty

Our climate crisis can no longer be on the backburner of people’s minds.

Flooding that used to occur once every one hundred years is now occurring twice a decade. New reports have found that Canada is heating up twice as fast as the rest of the world. With wildfires, tornadoes, and deadly heat waves, there’s no question that although climate change affects everyone, it can be the most detrimental for people living in poverty.

As a young social work student, I see now, more than ever, people – especially young people – are taking up the call to stand up against the climate emergency. Young people are going on strike every week around the world calling for leaders to take charge for a better future.

There are important movements happening all around Canada, but what seems to be missing from most of these discussions is what climate change policy will mean for the most marginalized.

The intersection between poverty and the climate crisis is perhaps the most evident through the increased cost of living – for example the cost of food – caused by ongoing and destructive climate shifts. Concretely, the ways that we have been growing food are not sustainable and have to be changed. Lands that were once used to grow crops are not able to support the same harvests. Currently, over 4 million people in Canada are experiencing food insecurity. Single-parent households headed by women, people who are racialized, and Indigenous peoples are some of the people most affected. In Nunavut, food insecurity has increased and currently affects 46% of the territory’s households. For those already affected by food insecurity, reduced availability, caused by climate change, will make it even more difficult to put food on the table.

Food insecurity isn’t the only issue facing low-income individuals who feel the effects of climate change. There is a deep interconnection between poverty, income, housing, and climate change.  As stated by Craig Johnson on the impacts of climate change and people’s ability to relocate, “one’s ability to decide fundamental questions about life, livelihood and well-being requires a freedom from poverty, intolerance, persecution and other forms of human deprivation.”

 When the announcement comes that there is going to be a major, dangerous weather event, many are told to relocate, pack up their families, and wait until it’s safe to return. Even with the very real threat of danger to stay, why then do some people remain in their homes to weather the storms? For many people living in poverty, packing up and abandoning their homes, even temporarily, is not feasible. Finding somewhere to go, packing belongings without a vehicle, risking losing all that you have while you are gone, is not possible for many people living low-income and puts them at greater risk of harm from climate change.

And what about the people that do leave their homes? Poverty is a key factor for those relocating – particularly if they don’t have resources to find a new place to live. While there is no official international definition of a climate refugee as of yet, climate refugees are understood as people that are forced to flee or relocate due to catastrophic climate events and they are becoming more and more prominent.

The call for urgent action against our climate crisis is gaining support – but what we must remember is how the climate crisis intersects with poverty. Climate change affects us all – but those experiencing poverty are at the most immediate risk. Keeping this issue on the backburner creates a recipe for the kinds of disasters we are already seeing. The smoke alarms are ringing and with a federal election around the corner, it’s time we think about the future and demand strategies to enact real change and climate policies.

Laura Hnatiw is a Placement Student at Canada Without Poverty in the Carleton Bachelor of Social Work program.