Friday marks the fourth day of an intense firestorm in Canada’s boreal forest that has engulfed large parts of Fort McMurray, Alberta—a frontier town that serves as the base for the province’s oil sands region. Already, the fires rank as Canada’s costliest natural disaster on record, and the town’s entire population of more than 80,000 people has been evacuated. The area burned, about 250,000 acres, is now 17 times the size of the island of Manhattan. And conditions could still get worse. “The beast is still up. It’s surrounding the city,” said fire chief Darby Allen in a video update Thursday night.
That no one has yet died in the fire is a miracle, if you believe in such things. Photos of the fire from space on Wednesday resembled an explosion. On Wednesday afternoon, the fire began to create its own weather conditions, with lightning from pyrocumulus clouds likely further fueling the fire’s growth. On Wednesday evening, one of the main evacuation centers itself had to be evacuated, as the fire spread out of control. On Thursday, the fire grew in size more than eightfold, after more than quadrupling in size the previous day. Convoys of thousands of stranded evacuees are starting to be escorted by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police on the only road through the still-smoldering city, a process officials say could take four days. There’s no firm estimate on when the fire might be completely under control.
Fire is a natural part of the boreal ecosystem, but what’s happening in Fort McMurray isn’t natural. A messy mix of factors—including inadequate forestry management practices, rapid encroachment of the urban area into the surrounding environment, a particularly stagnant weather pattern, a record-strength El Niño, and human-caused climate change—all aligned to turn this fire into this continuously unfolding tragedy. And it’s that last factor—climate change—that has spawned a commentary firestorm of its own this week.
Many people have expressed outrage at the fact that climate change is being mentioned as a contributing cause to this fire. It is “insensitive” to the victims to bring up something so political at a time like this, they argue.
I want to be clear: Talking about climate change during an ongoing disaster like Fort McMurray is absolutely necessary. There is a sensitive way to do it, one that acknowledges what the victims are going through and does not blame them for these difficulties. But adding scientific context helps inform our response and helps us figure out how something so horrific could have happened. We’ve reached an era where all weather events bear at least a slight human fingerprint, which, as Elizabeth Kolbert points out in the New Yorker, means “we’ve all contributed to the latest inferno.” That’s a scientific fact. We need to talk about what we want to do with that information. Since climate change is such a pressing global problem, there’s no better time to have that conversation than now—when we can see what exactly inaction might continue to cause.
This tragedy, like all tragedies, has aspects that are contested and political. Discussing the likely causes and contributing factors of a disaster in real time help us cope, but more than that, they help us figure out the best way of preventing future disasters. Though uncertainty still reigns among those working to put out the fire in Fort McMurray, there are certain facts that we do know: Experts have warned for years that Alberta’s forests are being primed for “catastrophic fires.” We know that. In the boreal forest, once the winter snowpack melts, the exposed dry brush serves as perfect kindling—which is why this time of year marks the start of fire season. We know that. Record warm temperatures, a vanishingly small snowpack, and drought conditions—all of which are symptoms of climate change in boreal Canada—very probably made this fire worse. “This [fire] is consistent with what we expect from human-caused climate change affecting our fire regime,” said Mike Flannigan from the University of Alberta.
On Wednesday, Canada’s Green Party leader, Elizabeth May, said much the same thing: “The fact that the forest fire season has arrived so early in northern Alberta is very likely a climate event—very likely related to extreme high temperatures and very low humidity, very low precipitation … it’s a disaster that is very related to the global climate crisis.” Yet, despite this science-based assessment, May’s comments spawned a swift backlash across the country. The facts may be scientific, but we have lost the ability to interpret them as such. Climate change has been politicized, and this situation shows us just how problematic that can be.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau joined those who balked at May’s comments. “Pointing at any one incident and saying: ‘This is because of that,’ is neither helpful, nor entirely accurate,” said Trudeau at a press briefing.
Granted, from both edges of the Canadian political spectrum, there has been plenty of vitriol whenever climate change is mentioned that has not been helpful. Enviro-extremists have openly wished harm and reveled in schadenfreude with hashtags like #tinyviolins conveying a lack of sympathy for a community based on fossil fuel extraction. On the other end of the spectrum, an op-ed in the Calgary Sun offered a “Middle-finger salute to Fort McMurray climate tweeters” for offering “told-you-so mockery about climate change.”
Even journalists offering measured assessments are caught in the fray. Climate journalist Brian Kahn called the negative feedback to his very reasonable and well-intentioned article on Fort McMurray “shocking.” It’s compelled him to reach out to social scientists and communications experts in an effort to learn more about how to find the sweet spot in discussing climate change in the midst of disaster, if one exists. At any rate, he’s hoping to avoid future emails asserting that he is “a human piece of garbage!!!!” just because he is reporting the truth.
And then …
That’s when I knew this was a bigger issue than I first thought. Why was Canada so angry at people like me and Elizabeth May and other observers of climate science? For one thing, Trudeau’s comments seemed to justify their rage. One Canadian climate scientist at the University of Ottawa, Robert Way, thinks Trudeau missed an opportunity to explain the link between boreal wildfire and climate change at a moment when everyone was listening.
“There’s a difference between science communication and ‘I told you so,’ ” Way wrote on Twitter. “Trudeau messed up the former to avoid the latter.” Over the phone, Way said “even though you have to be careful about how you have a conversation, it doesn’t mean you don’t have it.”
The sensitivity here, I think, lies in Canada’s unique blend of politics as both an oil producer and a nation on the front lines of climate change. Over the past decade or so, Canada has become a major oil producing state (thanks mostly to Alberta) and the recent rise and fall of oil prices has created a kind of petrostate politics. Indeed, as oil prices have fallen, Alberta’s government has become increasingly cash-strapped, even to the point of cutting funding for wildfire prevention, as Reuters revealed on Thursday. The juxtaposition of that political environment with this specific disaster in the heart of Canadian oil country led to a clamp down on discussion. Right now, Trudeau is trying to have it both ways. Eventually, he’ll have to choose. Albertans know this and are justifiably worried about how future climate policies will affect their lives.
Beyond all of the political reasons why climate change has become such a charged topic, the social science hints at why truly accepting the threat of climate change is so difficult for so many people: Doing so means accepting that our current way of life, our means of survival, even, are potentially untenable. Accepting climate science can mean accepting that our means of supporting ourselves are impossible. In other words, accepting climate science can threaten our very identities. It is understandable that people would react with fear, anger, and, yes, even vitriol. That does not mean, however, that climate change is not happening, and we should not take it seriously. It simply means the path forward will often require intense personal sacrifice. That is no small thing.
As Jen Gerson wrote in a National Post commentary on the sensitivities in discussing climate change and wildfire, “what happened to Fort McMurray is not the fault of the people of Fort McMurray.” In the here and now, as the fires continue to rage, in some sense it’s irrelevant how much climate change has played a role. The fire is already here. But there are other potential Fort McMurrays: San Diego; Colorado Springs, Colorado; San Antonio; Austin, Texas; San Bernardino, California; Anchorage, Alaska. These are all cities with the potential for a major firestorm in the coming decades as climate change and other human factors edge disaster risk upward. We owe it to the residents of these cities, and to the future residents of Fort McMurray, not to ignore this threat.