By Jim Harding, PhD
Nearly 90,000 environmental refugees in once oil-rich Alberta; who would have imagined? A seemingly endless cavalcade of frightened people in vehicles spewing more carbon as they escape an inferno! And the outpouring of support from fellow Canadians, who might have once believed that Alberta was going to be the engine of Canada’s economic future.
By Mother’s Day there were already 200,000 hectares of forest turned into more carbon going into the steadily warming atmosphere. The fire zone was doubling daily. There were huge oil-storage tanks at the tar-sands which some worried were at risk of exploding. Memories of Kuwait!
No science-fiction here.
The mass media naturally focused on the human drama and largely ignored the climate crisis, comparing the devastation, with 2,400 buildings gone up in flames, to a “war zone”. The only war here is on nature with humans everywhere now facing blowback from human-induced, evolutionary-scale changes occurring on the planet.
Fly-in journalists look for compelling stories of crisis, courage and compassion. One oil-worker who had escaped the flames simply said, “we’ve got some good clean air to breath today, that’s all you need”. This was his animal self talking. Another woman calmly said it’s “the scariest thing in my life” and described the “mad panic, the panic on everyone’s faces” as people drove ferociously to get through the fire. There will be much trauma along with damaged lungs.
Meanwhile satellite images showed the smoke rising from the 200 foot flames already making it to Florida. I checked to ensure I had some good masks here in the Qu’Appelle Valley to be able to walk our dog and work in the garden if we were to get a smoke inversion, as we did for nearly a week last summer from the northern fires.
Is this going to be our new normal? There shouldn’t be anything normal about not being able to take clean air and water for granted. What have we done? And why is it taking so many people so long to catch on?
The bubbles of many Albertans were already bursting when the price of oil collapsed. Some political bubbles have also burst, most importantly around Harper’s centralized control of the Canadian state. No one saw a NDP government coming in Alberta. No one saw the Leap Document moving to the political mainstream as social democrats, easily mesmerized by their own version of “jobs at any cost”, started to seethe bigger picture.
NOT A SURPRISE
Environment Canada’s senior climatologist didn’t respond with naïve shock when asked if he was surprised by the scale of the wildfire. He simply said “not really” and reminded us that in the prairie provinces it’s been an all-time record dry winter, an earliest ever and record dry spring and that the winter was the 2nd warmest on record. He referred to the conditions as “desert like”.
We can’t attribute any particular fire to climate change, and El Nino and Alberta’s aging forests increased the chances of such a catastrophic wildfire. But, let’s not be naïve, for these influences all occur with the backdrop of steadily rising global temperatures.
Meanwhile politicians from Edmonton to Ottawa will continue to express solidarity and promise support. There will be much praise for the volunteerism; already over $80 million has been raised for the Red Cross, to be matched by both levels of government.
And there will be some heart-felt identity politics: “It’s a tough day for Albertans but we will persevere”, said interim Conservative leader Rona Ambrose.
But our special identities aren’t going to matter much or save us from the path we have placed ourselves on. It’s going to take something much deeper than reactive care or talk of “returning and rebuilding”. If the billions spent rebuilding is done in an ecologically-responsible way it will expand renewables to make Fort McMurray less dependent on fossil fuels. Then we’d know that Premier Notley means business.
Alberta’s mega-fire might surpass Quebec’s 1998 ice storm as our all-time record insurance bill. Calgary’s 2013 flooding is also on the short list. Alberta is clearly getting more than its share of the blowback from the extreme weather that is coming with fossil-fuels and global warming.
One NDP member got into trouble for tweeting that the firestorm was karma for the tar-sands. Not really; climate change won’t punish high-carbon areas as it devastates and traumatizes humans and other creatures on the planet. Most of the environmental repercussions will occur in low-carbon, impoverished regions of the world. Whether you blame El Nino, climate change or more accurately, both, the droughts presently ravaging east Africa and interior India are creating millions not thousands of environmental refugees.
The compassion for the Fort McMurray refugees may yet grow into global compassion and understanding, such as occurred over Syria’s refugees, many of whom were environmental as well as war refugees.
We continue to see new, high global temperatures and recently, each month the rise has been edging upward. Once climate changes become non-linear and the “feed-back loops” kick in, like more mega-fires releasing even more carbon, we are going to be in greater trouble. Reactive crisis management, even with great waves of compassion, will not be enough; our resilience needs to be shored up with awareness and commitment to make big changes. Unfortunately there are still a lot of people in denial, making ill-conceived incremental decisions that contribute to the crisis.
Simply put, we do not have a lot of time to face up to what greed-oriented industrial growth is doing to undermine the conditions of complex life on a planetary scale. We are well past the time of wake-up calls.
Perhaps outgrowing our nationalism and parochialism and waking up as a species is what is now required. And it must happen quickly.
Next time I’ll start a series on how neuroscience and our growing knowledge about evolution may help us get on a more sustainable path.