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Climate Change Was a Factor in the Fort McMurray Wildfire but You Don’t Have to Be an Asshole About It

The inconvenient truth for environmental activists attempting to politicize the fires.

Image via Wildrose Leader Brian Jean


We all know that you know that climate change is very likely a factor in the still-growing wildfires in Fort McMurray.

It's really neat that you use the word "anthropogenic" on first dates and binge watch Josh Fox documentaries and once shook Naomi Klein's hand. You are a smart human.

But please, please, please just shut the fuck up. For like 10 seconds. Or the time it takes to mutter "350 million parts of carbon dioxide" a good two or three times under your breath.

Yes. Climate change is very likely a contributor to the size and speed of the absolutely devastating fires that have covered 85,000 hectares and forced over 80,000 people to evacuate.

Of course.

A mild winter resulted in drastically reduced snowpack, drying out trees that are adapted to burn in order to spread their seeds. Boreal forests are burning faster than they have in 10,000 years, with fires starting earlier and ending later.

Shit will almost certainly get worse in coming decades as drought and pine beetles spread. Scientists have been predicting this for years.

This is all well and good. And very much worth talking about. But now is probably not the time.

For starters, climate change is hellishly complex.

Debra Davidson, a professor of environmental sociology at the University of Alberta, emphasizes that it'll be difficult to find a climate scientist who would explicitly attribute the Fort McMurray fire to climate change, even though forest fire activities are one of the few ecosystem changes that have been clearly linked to climate change.

Scientists measure long-term patterns not single extreme events, averages not aberrations. They operate under the assumption of uncertainty and that their research may be disproven (it's called the scientific method in case you skipped all of high school science).

As a result, Davidson suggests attempting to link the two is "not helpful" as there are dozens of possible factors and the association only "adds to all of the confusion about climate change."

Elizabeth May, leader of the federal Green Party, also made that point while clarifying a previous and clumsily delivered statement that the fires are "very related to the global climate crisis" by stating: "Some reports have suggested that the wildfires are directly caused by climate change. No credible climate scientist would make this claim, and neither do I make this claim."

Take the element of wind.

The fire wouldn't have been able to spread nearly as far and as quickly without powerful winds gusting up to 70 km/h. An inconvenient truth for environmental activists attempting to politicize the fires: climate change has and will continue to decrease wind speeds, not increase them.

Then there's the ongoing "super" El Niño—the extreme power of which is arguably caused by climate change—that is likely contributing to the excessively high temperatures that created the conditions for the fires.

There may be opportunities in the future to parse out the specific impacts of climate change from those caused by the El Niño (it's roughly estimated that El Niño accounted for no more than ten percent of anomalous warming in 2015, which was a record year for warming). But it's currently very, very tricky.

Such ambiguity should also throw into question the bullshit spouted by the AAA-grade assholes about the "irony" or "karma" of fires burning down the centre of the Canadian oil industry (which in addition to being deeply ignorant about the climate impacts of the Athabasca oilsands has some pretty fucking cruel undertones that seem to blame workers trying to feed their families for decades of dumbshit decisions made by industry and governments).

"The fires which are happening in Alberta are as much as a result of a coal-fired power station in China or me going to Greece on holiday," says George Marshall, author of Don't Even Think About It: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Ignore Climate Change. "It just doesn't work like that."

Even if it did work like that, spouting off about climate change as the fires are literally still burning and people are still living in what are effectively refugee camps after escaping from Mad Max-like conditions will almost certainly backfire.

It's difficult enough to make people care about climate change in the best of times.

The issue has been dubbed the "perfect moral storm" and with good reason: it's massive in scale, implicates our lifestyle choices, often distorted by pre-existing assumptions, and may require short-term pain for long-term gain.

Feelings of fear, anxiety, and guilt can be easily triggered while thinking or talking about it. As a result, people have to be in the right headspace to contemplate it.

So maybe not after watching your house and city burn down to the ground.

"We can think about it as a collective state of trauma," says Renee Lertzman, a psychosocial researcher specializing in climate and environmental engagement. "What we know about how people are when traumatized and in the midst of a trauma is that's the time when we're least open and available and capable of making higher-level cognitive reasoning process."

Lertzman notes that people will be in survival mode, most concerned about obtaining food, shelter and clothing for themselves and their families. It's crucial, she says, to focus on expressing compassion and empathy.

Shouting about climate change (or any concept not immediately related to fulfilling those needs, really) can come across as not only tone deaf but antagonistic.

It's also grounds for exacerbating feelings of Western alienation. Albertans are highly sensitive to others telling them what to do, especially when it involves the already wounded industry that accounts for one-quarter of its GDP and serves as a foundational part of its cultural identity.

Ignoring such realities can breed further resentment and lead to people being even less likely to consider conversations about climate change with it coming across as a near-conspiracy concocted by "urban elites" unconcerned about the day-to-day struggles of workers.

People tend to listen to people within their in-group who they trust, not politicians from Vancouver Island or Twitter users from Lethbridge: social change, Marshall emphasizes, tends to occur through very personal, small-scale interactions between people who know each other, well before disasters hit, not quips from @IHateTheTarSands.

But for now, those very people are driving up and down Highway 63 delivering free gasoline to stranded survivors, giving money to the Red Cross, organizing fundraisers, donating toiletries and clothing to Edmonton Emergency Relief Services and, yes, even crafting shitty but widely circulated memes. Climate activists should perhaps take heed.

Follow James Wilt on Twitter.