Renee Lertzman

How the Fort McMurray Climate Conversation Went Down in Flames

Connecting extreme weather events with climate change isn’t exactly a new thing.

After Hurricane Sandy devastated parts of New York and New Jersey in 2012, Bloomberg published a front page spread proclaiming, “It’s Global Warming, Stupid.”

For years, major storms, droughts, floods and fires have been connected to climate change. The climate angle was even fair game during last summer’s wildfires in western Canada.

So how did the climate conversation around the still-raging Fort McMurray wildfire that destroyed thousands of homes become so befuddling-ly messed up?

Conversations about climate change as a factor in the wildfires has garnered about as much attention as the wildfires themselves. For a recap of the “middle-finger salutes,” schadenfreude and #tinyviolins mock-sympathy for the people of Fort McMurray, check out this article on Slate.

(Add in, May 12: It's worthwhile to point out that while there were a lot of unfortunate aspects of the public conversation about the fire, many environmental NGOs rallied their organizational capacity to raise money and basic support for evacuees. The executive directors of Canada's most prominent environmental groups including the David Suzuki Foundation, Ecojustice, Ecology Ottawa, Environmental Defence, Equiterre, Greenpeace, LeadNow, Sierra Club, Stand and West Coast Environmental Law urged support for evacuees in a joint press release published Friday, May 6.)

Cara Pike, climate communications expert with Climate Access, says the urge to link what’s happening in Fort McMurray to climate change should be tempered by a keen sensitivity to the very real human suffering on the ground.

Does National Unity Have to be a Casualty of Canada's Energy Debate?

Workers are laying down their tools across the Canadian oilpatch as the price slump draws on. Alberta had a net loss of nearly 20,000 jobs in 2015, with skilled workers being laid off and little hope in sight. The reaction, then, to talks of climate action has been often hostile, with people fearing more economic damage from carbon pricing or other new environmental regulation.
 
But for some there is an upside to the glut of out-of-work skilled people: it’s an opportunity to shift gears and put them to work in a growing green sector. Former oilsands tradesman Lliam Hildebrand started a non-profit group, Iron & Earth, to get oilpatch workers back to work on the next generation of green energy projects. (Investment in clean energy now doubles that of fossil fuels world-wide.)
 
“We have the skills to build the renewable energy infrastructure required for Canada to meet their climate target,” Hildebrand told CBC News. “That will open up a huge amount of opportunity for us if we can start diversifying our energy grid and it would ensure that we are less vulnerable to price fluctuations.”
 
The new organization brings a fresh perspective to a longstanding perceived tension between climate action and its spinoff benefits and the fear of damaging existing emissions-intensive industries.

In a panel discussion last week Environment Minister Catherine McKenna assured Albertans that the Liberal government would not risk damaging “national unity” by acting quickly on climate change. For some, her comment begs the question: when exactly will the Liberals be ready to start acting on their emissions reductions targets?

Will This Be Remembered as The Summer North Americans Woke Up to Climate Change?

Lizard Lake wildfire

Smokey haze, intense heat, encampments of evacuated residents next to the highway: these were the conditions that greeted Renee Lertzman when she recently drove through Oregon. It’s no wonder why the environmental psychology researcher and professor resorts to the term “apocalyptic” to describe the scene.

It was a surreal experience,” says Lertzman, who teaches at Victoria’s Royal Roads University. “We’re all driving along and it’s so smoky and it’s terrifying. Yet we’re all doing our summer vacation thing. I couldn’t help but wonder: what is going on, how are people feeling and talking about this?”

It’s really the question of the hour. Catastrophic wildfires and droughts have engulfed much of the continent, with thousands displaced from their homes; air quality alerts confine many of the lucky remainder behind locked doors (with exercise minimized and fresh-air intakes closed).

Firefighters have been summoned from around the world to battle the unprecedented fires, which are undoubtedly exacerbated by climate change. Yet the seemingly reasonable assumption that witnessing such horrific natural disasters may increase support for action on climate change is vastly overestimated, Lertzman tells DeSmog Canada.

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