The Alberta Fires: Yet Another Lost Opportunity to Talk Climate Change.

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Credit Holly Ayearst via Twitter

March 9, 2016 (San Diego) These fires in Alberta, which continue to be out of control, raise a few issues about human response to climate disasters and denial. The fire, or likely fire complex, is being fought. It has led to the evacuation of Ft. McMurray (80 thousand) and other areas. While not the largest evacuation in North American history, 2007 San Diego saw 1 million, it will likely be longer and more painful.

The fight though has not remained on the fire fight, but also on the political front. The Green Party leader of Canada correctly pointed out this drought and fire are part of the trend expected with climate change. The Prime Minister of Canada accused her of trying to politicize the disaster.

“The leader of Canada’s Green Party said Wednesday climate change was partly to blame for the wildfire devastating Fort McMurray, Alta., touching off a debate about whether it was the right time to discuss the causes of the conflagration.

“Of course,” Elizabeth May said Wednesday when asked if there was anything about the fire that is linked to global warming. “The temperature records were being smashed through last month for northern Alberta,” she said, while noting that no single event is caused by climate change alone. “It’s due to global emissions.

“Scientists will say we know with a destabilized climate, with a higher average global temperature, we will see more frequent, more extreme weather events … due to an erratic climate, due to our addiction to fossil fuels.”

This is another one of those critical moments when we have to have the discussion, while we still avoid it. As a society we need to face this. The Christian Science Monitor has pointed out the link.

If you look at Alberta’s climate trajectory over the late 20th century,” Dr. MacDonald tells The Christian Science Monitor by phone, “you see that the winters and springs are becoming much warmer than they were over the 20th century.”

Those changing weather conditions have helped create conditions that facilitate a wildfire like this one, MacDonald says. Warming temperatures have particularly affected a handful of regions, including northern Alberta, creating conditions that tend to produce kindling for a forest fire.

The other issue the article did point out directly to was aggressive fire fighting management common across north america. This has changed the nature of the forest with too much dead wood that increases the intensity of these fires. This is also a problem for the United States Forest Service that subscribes to the idea of any fire that starts in the morning is out by the evening. This theory has been used for forest management for close to a century, and it is being tested at places like the Gila National Forest where fires are now allowed to burn. This has changed the ecology as well.

The same has happened in Arizona forests.

The idea of letting fires burn is spreading to other areas of the country, though not yet to the local Cleveland National Forest, where instead we have controlled burns. The fire near Fort McMurray happened on a forest with very dense underbrush.

Warmer springs and Summer’s across that biome has led to droughts, and dead wood that is ripe for burning. While a single event cannot be used as proof of climate change, the trend of warmer springs and summers is what scientists have observed. It is what they have predicted. So now we have to examine this at both the political level and the science level. What we have to also say is that the people forced to evacuate this fire, as well as Katrina, and Superstorm Sandy, are climate refugees, just like the Pilipino people who underwent Super Typhoon Hayan.

The politics of the Alberta Fires

Climate science should have never been politicized to the extent it has. This is not a right vs left issue. This is not about progressive, environmental wackos trying to impose a way of life on the rest of us, by making us cut down on our lifestyle, and imposing carbon taxes. That said, this is exactly what it has become for many, especially conservatives who see over breaking statism as a sign of out of control government intervention in the market. In the minds of many conservatives the great communist revolution that was to destroy capitalist as we know it has been replaced by the great environmental crusade of our times, that makes capitalism the principal issue and why it needs to die.

For the environmental types this is about solid science (which it is, there is a consensus of 97 percent agreement that the climate is indeed changing) and that the conservatives are ignorant anti science dullards who are standing on the way of progress to protect the species.

Both stories are in play in these fires. The careful young liberal Prime Minister who does not want to get caught in the politics, and the Green Party member who has an enemy story to tell. One that has become the evil one in the story presentation, for trying to take advantage of this tragedy to push an agenda. One that incidentally is at the heart of the economy of Northern Alberta, that would be tar sands. This is is not unlike Hillary Clinton telling two radically different stories about carbon extraction in West Virginia to two very different audiences.

Yet they get caught in the politics, because political leaders are kicking the truth, that is climate change is happening, down the road for somebody else to deal with this. The emergency has not reached the point that they have no choice but to speak the truth to the people. When it does, it might be too late to stop the process at a point when we can still sustain life as we more or less know it. Politicians are risk takers, but they are as a group also prone to not deal with the hard issues if they can. This has become a wicked problem for which easy solutions don’t exist. Ergo, they all would prefer if a group of future politicians has to tell the truth and not them. This goes for both liberals and conservatives who are tasked with policy making.

They all know as a class that any politician that tells the truth, is bound to be seen as a tool of a certain ideology. Or at least they expect to be painted this way. So they have allowed people like the Heartland Foundation to determine whether they tell people the truth of this issue or not. Through donations, they also are less likely to challenge companies such as Shell Corporation.

So far…politicians in English speaking countries have been less likely to speak than those in nations already affected by climate change in clear and undeniable ways. This will have to change, as the effects become less and less deniable.

What has also happened, like with the tobacco wars of a generation ago, is that corporate interests have inserted enough of a doubt into the debate to force a social silence on the issue. Most people do not want to talk about it. Therefore, we have trouble even admitting that perhaps it is that much of an issue. None wants to bring climate change at a friendly dinner. and the question is hardly asked by media from the political class.

The Science

It is no longer a debate. It does not matter whether the mainstream media tries to talk out of both sides of their mouth on this issue. The planet is warning up. It is also not a debate that this is caused by human activity on the planet. This giving access to the major media to climate change denialists in order to give the impression of balance, is not just wrong, but a lapse in ethics.

We know that the world is warming, and that we are seeing increasingly warmer weather.

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We also know that the supposed slowing of the warming of the planet did not happen. In fact, this planetary warning is being called unprecedented by the 2013 version of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPPC).

According to Live Science:

The atmosphere and ocean have warmed, the amounts of snow and ice have diminished, sea level has risen, and the concentrations of greenhouse gases have increased.

In the Northern Hemisphere, 1983–2012 was likely the warmest 30-year period of the last 1,400 years. Each of the last three decades has been successively warmer at the Earth’s surface than any preceding decade since 1850.

They further write:

Ocean warming accounts for more than 90 percent of the energy accumulated in the climate system between 1971 and 2010. It is virtually certain that the upper ocean to a depth of 2,300 feet (700 meters) warmed from 1971 to 2010.

The atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide have increased to levels unprecedented in at least the last 800,000 years.

There is no longer any debate among scientist. The consensus is overwhelming among climate scientist. The Union of Concerned Scientists has put it this way:

there is now an overwhelming scientific consensus that global warming is indeed happening and humans are contributing to it.

So while the science is clear, now we go back into the realm of politics, where national, state and local leaders are still having a problem communicating this new normal. It is political. They are afraid of being targeted by groups whose goals are to prevent effective measures to adapt and deal with climate change. Short term these groups see a threat to their valuation in the market place. So here are some of the effects that will take place. How soon we act, how much they can be mitigated. But we will have more of all of this. It has to do with increased energy in the atmosphere.

  • –  Fires.
  • –  Floods
  • –  Droughts
  • –  Heat strokes
  • –  Asthma
  • –  Decreased productivity
  • –  Decreased agricultural productivity
  • –  Increased intensity of storms

 

All these have real world economic effects. Some have effects that will be directly related to food shortages and starvation. There is a belief by especially engineers, that we might be able to engineer our way out of it. Adaptation and mitigation are also going to be tried. Among them we have sea walls built in London and Venice. There is talk of building one to protect Miami, as well as New Orleans. But the longer we take to deal with the source of this, and that is extracting those reservers and burning them, the worst the effects will be. So the engineering solutions, even assuming they work, will be that much more expensive to implement.

 

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  1. Heat Waves, Wild Fires and Climate Change – Reporting San Diego

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