Sunday, May 8, 2016

Climate change and the Canadian City destroyed by wildfires

Watching the shocking images and footages of the terrible destruction and human suffering caused by the wildfires that have destroyed the City of Fort McMurray in Alberta Canada, I am reminded of Wendell Berry's poem The World Bought and Sold.

I dream by night the horror
That I oppose by day.
The nation in its error
And by its work and play

Destroys its land, pollutes
Its streams, and desecrates
Air and light. From the roots
It dies upwards, our rights

Divinely given, plundered
And sold by purchased power
That dies from the head downward
Marketed hour by hour

That market is a grave
Where goods lie dead that ought
To live and grow and thrive,
The dear world sold and bought

To be destroyed by fire,
Forest and soil and stone.
The conscience put to hire
Rules over flesh and bone

To take the coal to burn
They overturn the world
And all the world has worn
Of grace, of heath. The gnarled

Clenched and forever shut
First of their greed makes small
The great life. Hollowed out,
The soul like the green hill

Yields to the force of dearth. 
The crack in the despot's skull
Descends into the earth,
And what was bright turns dull

Wendell Berry (from Leavings)

Fort McMurray is at the heart of one of the world's largest climate destroying industries- the Alberta Tar Sands industry. It is a city and region reliant on fossil fuel extraction. The region has the world's third-largest reserves of oil. As much as a quarter of the country's oil production has been halted by the fire, raising concerns about the effect on the Canadian economy.

The New York times reports:

"....the blaze has consumed whole swaths of Fort McMurray, ranking it as one of the most devastating fires in Canada’s history. The fast-moving flames turned many of the city’s homes — and the baby photos and wedding albums and other treasures that could not be packed in time — into little more than charcoal."

20,000 homes have been destroyed and the entire population of 88,000 people was forced to evacuate through a post apocalyptic landscape, in what is the largest wildfire evacuation in the history of Alberta.

The fire is still spreading and threatens to break out into neighboring provinces of Saskatchewan and the Northwest Territories.

The shocking irony for the suffering people of Fort McMurray, whose city has been destroyed by wildfires and quasi apocalyptic conditions, is that the fires are the result of unseasonably hot weather conditions resulting from rising temperatures caused by climate change and greenhouse gas emissions.

Writing in Climate Central, Brian Kahn provides a sober context for the Fort McMurray wildfires:

"What’s happening in Fort McMurray is a perfect encapsulation of the wicked ways that climate change is impacting wildfire season. A drier than normal winter left a paltry spring snowpack, which was quickly eaten away by warm temperatures. That left plenty of fuel on the ground for wildfires to consume."

Scientific America reports that the Fort McMurray wildfire is indicative of a warming planet and is the latest in a lengthening lineage of wildfires in the northern reaches of the globe. 

It quotes Mike Flanagan, a wildlife researcher at the University of Alberta:

"This fire is consistent with what we expect from human caused climate change affecting our fire regime".

Writing in New Yorker magazine, Elizaberth Colbert writes that raising environmental concerns in the midst of human tragedy is to risk the charge of insensitivity. However, she argues that failing to acknowledge the connection is to risk another kind of offense. She writes:

Though it’s tough to pin any particular disaster on climate change, in the case of Fort McMurray the link is pretty compelling. In Canada, and also in the United States and much of the rest of the world, higher temperatures have been extending the wildfire season. Last year, wildfires consumed ten million acres in the U.S., which was the largest area of any year on record. All of the top five years occurred in the past decade.

In Slate magazine, Eric Holthaus links the fires directly to climate change and analyses why people are so hostile and unwilling to accept science that links wildfires to climate change. He writes:

"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."

Drew Brown writes about what he calls the 'black irony' of the Fort McMurray wildfires:

"Hardcore environmentalists will no doubt spend a lot of time stressing the black irony of having the Mecca of the Canadian oil industry go up in flames to a climate change-induced wildfire. But those concerns will fall on deaf ears until the immediate human tragedy at play here in northern Alberta has subsided."

The other 'black' irony is that the burning of Fort McMurray coincides with a political offensive by those who support fossil fuel extraction and burning to expand the tar sands pipelines across Alberta. The governments of Alberta and neighboring British Columbia are also planning major expansions in fossil fuel production.

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