As a Canadian, I feel for the many suffering who have been displaced in the fires in Northern Alberta. Although we do not know the proximate causes, much of the damage has centered in a town famous mostly because of its sudden influx of wealth from the oil sands, Fort McMurray. There are two things that I want to talk about in this post. One is the role of good news and the other is the role of causes.
When crises and disasters like these happen, it is sometimes hard to recognize the importance of positive news, because it may seem that focusing on positives belittles the suffering of those immediately affected. In this case, one of the things that I appreciated was hearing about the responses of Syrian refugees. What was really touching to me was reading about one child in particular:
When she told her five-year-old son, Elie, about what was happening in northern Alberta, he collected his toys and said he wanted to give them to other children who didn’t have toys.
There aren’t many situations in which I feel patriotic; Canadians are not raised to think that this is a major virtue. But when I read about something like this, where intercultural empathy has led to taking in these refugees and it was returned by the refugees themselves, it strikes me as demonstrating the best of Canada’s values.
The other thing I want to talk about is about the role of climate change—which is, of course, the theme of the blog. Here I feel more mixed: on the one hand, talking about the conditions that made this more probable seems insensitive to those currently suffering; on the other hand, scientifically speaking, these changes matter and an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.
However, I disagree with Martin Lukacs at the Guardian, who wants to immediately name names and point out those most responsible, namely, the energy corporations that disproportionately are responsible for extraction and production:
To remain mute about those responsible for this devastation is not an act of sensitivity toward the citizens of Fort McMurray. It is to stand idly by while these corporations move on to claim their next victims. To argue, as prime minister Justin Trudeau has, that making the connection between climate change and this infernal fire isn’t “helpful,” is not a gesture of statesmanly maturity. It is the prevarication of political cowards.
I am less sure that is true. I hope that these kinds of disasters will lead those who deny climate change to look into the conditions that increase the probability of such events; I think that this harsh shaming rhetoric won’t change minds. Part of the tension is in his piece; while these energy producers do contribute greatly, we need to remember that accusing them shouldn’t let all of us (especially those of us in the industrialized world) shirk our own share of the causal responsibility. Considering only the supply side means that we might forget the role that our demand plays.
Canada stands to potentially gain significantly (and disproportionately) from climate change, since it could open up new areas for agriculture (in fact, in my home province of British Columbia, vineyards are part of the landscape now—I can tell you this is definitely a new thing). But even in a place where there are benefits, this fire does represent a new set of risks that we should be aware of, even if we don’t want to:
there is little doubt that global warming has affected the frequency and intensity of fires, and lengthened the fire season in Alberta, as it has elsewhere in North America.
That is something that, as Canadians, we need to face, even if it is frightening. Maybe it will lead us to question the way we produce and consume energy.