Forest fires have forced the evacuation of Fort McMurray, Alberta, ground zero of Canada’s “tar-sands” oil industry. Some may, while lamenting the tragedy, nevertheless see a certain poetic justice there. Others say that is tasteless even to bring the politics of climate change into such a tragedy.
Even Green Party leader Elizabeth May felt compelled to clarify a remark to reporters in which she had said that the fire was “of course” linked to climate change.
“Some reports have suggested that wildfires are directly caused by climate change,” she wrote in her clarification. “No credible climate scientist would make that claim and neither do I.”
She’s right. No credible person would make such a claim and no one has. Forest fires are endemic to northern Canada. They stem from many causes, including the terrifying combination of dry underbrush, hot temperatures and strong winds that combined to assail Fort McMurray.
A 2012 Alberta government report noted that, among other things, the age of the province’s coniferous forest has made it more susceptible to fire.
But climate change is hardly irrelevant. If the world’s leading climate scientists are correct, global warming raises the probability of extreme weather conditions occurring – from drought to ice storms to floods to the kind of unseasonably high temperatures experienced this spring in Fort McMurray.
As Trudeau noted last week: “It’s well-known that one of the consequences of climate change will be a greater prevalence of extreme weather.”
So why then the reluctance to talk about the role of climate change in the context of Fort McMurray?
Probably because it seems too much like a kick in the teeth to those who’ve lost so much already to point out that their livelihoods are implicated in creating the ideal conditions for forest fires to wreak such devastation, to the extent that climatologists are now saying that these fires are becoming “the new normal“.
It is an unpleasant conversation to have. But have it we must.Human beings have a long history of destroying that have sustained their way of life.
The key thing to remember is that human beings are not disposable. Acknowledging this, and recognizing that these disasters destroy people and their way of life means doing all we can to minimize future disasters of this sort. But if our activities are making these disasters worse through climate change, we must change those activities. And that means that we must stop this fossil fuel folly, this race to extract all the oil we can from the land. We must, with the greatest possible speed, transition to more sustainable forms of energy.
It also means, though, that we don’t throw the people who are currently working in the fossil fuels industry on the scrapheap. Instead, we must make sure that as we wind down our dependence on oil and other fossil fuels – which will take some time in any case – we make jobs available for them in the clean energy sector, or elsewhere.
Ideally, in fact, we would find ways for them to make a living doing what they really want to do. I’ll warrant that most of the folks in Fort McMurray migrated to take jobs there not because they were yearning to work those jobs there, but simply to feed their families, because the current economy offers them few other options. That must change too.