Justin Trudeau is in over a barrel. In 2015, he made a deal with Alberta. He would get an oil pipeline built to a coast if the province joined his pan-Canadian climate plan. After his election this past April, Conservative Alberta Premier Jason Kenney ripped up Alberta’s side of the bargain and declared war on Trudeau’s climate plan.
What should Ottawa do now after being jilted by Alberta?
Should the Liberal government maintain its side of the bargain, and proceed with the expansion of the Trans Mountain pipeline from Edmonton to the Vancouver area and lose credibility as a climate warrior? Or should it kill the pipeline expansion now and say this was a bargain gone bad?
In the long run, the latter course would save Ottawa lots on further subsidies. But there’s that little short-run thing – the looming federal election on or before Oct. 21.
How could Trudeau explain taking a big loss of taxpayer money on a pipeline that no private sector investor would touch last year? Either choice will look bad. No good options is a predicament.
Kicking the can down the road beyond the federal election is one way out. But Natural Resources Minister Amarjeet Sohi promised a decision by June 18.
Remember Justin Trudeau’s grand entry onto the world stage at the Paris Climate Summit in November-December 2015? Canada is back, my friends. That was just six weeks after his stunning electoral upset, leapfrogging his party from third to first place, winning a solid majority.
In Paris, Trudeau and Environment Minister Catherine McKenna promised to catapult Canada from environment laggard under Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper to a global climate leader. While most rich countries at the Paris talks aimed to limit global warming to a 2 C rise above pre-industrial levels, Canada joined low-lying island states to champion a stricter 1.5 C global limit.
How then did Trudeau get stuck with a pipeline that makes no environmental or financial sense?
The pipeline is not going to change the fundamental disadvantages of Alberta’s oilsands. At $90 a barrel for new projects, their break-even cost is among the highest in the world. And their emission intensity is through the roof. Environment and Climate Change Canada scientists found that CO2 emissions were more than 60 percent higher than industry had calculated.
The sands are in a remote part of a remote, landlocked province. Their main market – the U.S. – where 99.9 percent of Canadian oil exports now head, is now their main competitor. The U.S. produces cheaper, lower-emissions oil.
The idea that the Trans Mountain expansion would open new markets in Asia is illusory. The price of heavy, sour crude oil in the Far East is $1 to $3 a barrel lower than on the U.S. Gulf Coast. Transport costs via the Trans Mountain line and tankers will be at least $2 a barrel higher to Asia. China does not have the capacity to refine bitumen. Besides, the world is swimming in light crude oil.
In recent years, only a few oil tankers have left Vancouver harbour. Most of that oil has gone to the U.S., not China. So the premise behind the Trans Mountain pipeline is faulty. The pipeline expansion will likely be a white elephant, owned or subsidized by taxpayers.
The pipeline expansion could cost up to $10 billion, in addition to the $4.4 billion purchase price that the auditor general said was $1 billion too much.
If by some miracle the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion is built, gets filled to capacity and finds markets, it would encourage the production of 590,000 barrels a day more oil from Alberta’s sands. That would add another 13 to 15 megatonnes of carbon pollution.
So it doesn’t make environmental sense either.
The Trudeau government got a special exemption in the new NAFTA (USMCA) to enable it to subsidize the Trans Mountain pipeline.
Why would a government so publicly committed to climate action throw more good money at a dodgy pipeline expansion, especially when Alberta has torn up its side of the climate understanding? Better to cut your losses now.
Gordon Laxer is a political economy professor emeritus at the University of Alberta and author of the Council of Canadians report “Billion Dollar Buyout. How Canadian taxpayers bought a climate-killing pipeline and Trump’s trade deal supports it.”
Featured image is from Canadian Dimension
Stewart Phillip is Grand Chief of Okanagan Nation and president of the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs. Serge ‘Otsi’ Simon is Grand Chief of the Mohawk Council of Kanesatake.
As the federal and Alberta governments continue to pull their hair out over the B.C. government’s stand against Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain pipeline expansion and tanker project, it’s important to point out, as we’ve been doing for years, that the pipeline company doesn’t have the consent of all First Nations along the route. In fact, many of them are strongly opposed to the project.
Kinder Morgan’s recent announcement that it is stopping all but essential spending proves that its shareholders are starting to understand the degree and depth of the Indigenous-led opposition movement to this pipeline project.
The Treaty Alliance Against Tar Sands Expansion is made up of 150 Indigenous Nations in Canada and the United States, dozens of which are located along the Kinder Morgan pipeline route, with many of them having launched legal actions against the Kinder Morgan project.
Further, Indigenous Nations are supported by a quickly growing and broad-based network of support from allied Canadians who understand the existential threat that humanity faces from climate change and who are ready to stand up against the injustices still carried out today against Indigenous people.
More than 20,000 people have signed the Coast Protectors pledge to do whatever it takes to stop the pipeline. Thousands took part in a March 10 solidarity rally at the Kinder Morgan gates on Burnaby mountain.
Justin’s Trudeau government has a decision to make. It can cut its losses and realize it simply made a mistake in approving the project. Or the Trudeau government can double down on its current path. But Canadians should be very clear-eyed about what that represents. It represents more than a failure of climate leadership. It means going back to the Stephen Harper days when Canada’s reputation on the climate file was mud.
Importantly, it also means going back to colonial-era relations with Indigenous people. In fact, if the federal government tries to ram through this pipeline, it could mean going back to one of the darkest times in modern Canadian history: the Oka standoff with the Mohawk Nation.
We just witnessed the ugly and shameful crackdown in the United States on the peaceful anti-pipeline protests at Standing Rock.
We don’t believe that’s the Canada that most Canadians want to live in. It would be a cruel joke indeed if, in this era of “reconciliation,” Canada instead repeats the mistakes of the past.s on the same level as Oka.
“The federal government remains steadfast in its support for Trans Mountain.” We don’t really care what the Feds want or don’t want on this. We live here and most of us want to switch our economy from a dinosaur fossil fuel economy to an alternative type of energy. We don’t care what the doofuses in Alberta want. This is not your province. Why don’t you build a pipeline through your territory and into the US? And leave us the hell alone!
We don’t want it, our First Nations people don’t want, and this is our land, not yours Ottawa and Alberta.
Indigenous groups, residents and activists expected to hold mass rally in Burnaby, British Columbia, on Saturday.
Montreal, Canada – Thousands are expected to march through a city in western Canada in what organisers say may be the largest showing of “clear opposition” to a contentious oil pipeline project in recent memory.
Indigenous activists will be marching on Saturday alongside environmental groups, local residents and other supporters in Burnaby, a town in the province of British Columbia (BC), against plans to expand the Trans Mountain pipeline.
Approved by Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in 2016, the expansion would twin the existing Trans Mountain pipeline, operated by Texas-based oil giant Kinder Morgan, which stretches 1,150km from the Alberta tar sands to the coast of BC.
The expansion – which would increase the pipeline’s capacity from 300,000 to 890,000 barrels of oil a day – has faced staunch opposition, especially from indigenous communities.
“There comes a time in your life when you have to stand for something,” said Ta’ah Amy George, a Tsleil Waututh elder and one of the organisers of Saturday’s march, which she said is expected to draw as many as 10,000 people.
The Tseil Wauhtuth (meaning “People of the Inlet”) have lived on lands near the Burrard Inlet in southern BC for tens of thousands of years, George told Al Jazeera.
|The federal government remains steadfast in its support for Trans Mountain [File: Reuters]|
She said the community fears an oil spill will harm everyone living in the area and the large oil tankers that are expected to come into the inlet to transport oil would destroy local marine life.
“It’s not if there’s a [spill], but when there’s a [spill],” George said.
“Our ancestors protected this inlet and this little piece of land that we got left with. They protected it for us … We’re thinking of our [next] generations: my children and grandchildren and I have great-grandchildren.”
The $5bn Trans Mountain expansion project aims to get Canadian tar sands oil to new markets in Asia.
Kinder Morgan, the company behind the project, says the pipeline expansion will create short and long-term jobs and increase tax revenues at the provincial, federal and municipal levels.
“We support the right to peacefully and lawfully express opinions and views about our project and we understand that not everyone supports the expansion,” a Trans Mountain spokesperson told Al Jazeera in an email.
“We’re confident we can build and operate this project in a way that respects the values and priorities of Canadians and in respect of the environment.”
Our ancestors protected this inlet and this little piece of land that we got left with. We’re thinking of our [next] generations.
Ta’ah Amy George, a Tsleil Waututh elder and one of the organisers of Saturday’s march
Construction at the Westridge Marine Terminal in Burnaby began last September, while additional “preparatory work” on the same terminal and the Burnaby Marine terminal – the end point of the pipeline – began earlier this month, the spokesperson said.
“The project will provide the needed transportation capacity for Canada’s resources to access global markets and maximise benefits to all Canadians including local, regional and Aboriginal communities,” the spokesperson added.
But a widespread, indigenous-led movement has mobilised against the project for several years, while environmental groups have also spoken out against the potential ramifications of an oil spill.
“Kinder Morgan wants to bring more than 400 supertankers into the BC harbour every single year,” said Mike Hudema, a climate campaigner with Greenpeace Canada. “If one of those is to have an incident … you’re talking about widespread damage throughout the marine ecosystem,” he told Al Jazeera.
Most of the oil being produced and transported in Canada is called diluted bitumen, which is particularly difficult to clean up because it tends to sink in water, Hudema explained.
He said a spill could “exterminate” the already endangered killer whale population living in the coastal waters and “the damage could be catastrophic and could last for decades, if not longer.”
|Most of the oil being produced and transported in Canada is called diluted bitumen [File: Reuters]|
Hudema said that over a dozen lawsuits have been filed against the project by First Nations and environmental groups.
“The science is very clear,” he said, “We can’t be building new fossil fuel infrastructure and maintain a climate-safe planet at the same time.”
While the Trans Mountain pipeline has received the green light from the federal government, it has divided some Canadian provinces.
In late January, the BC government passed new regulations that would make it more difficult to transport oil through the province in an effort “to improve preparedness, response and recovery from potential spills”.
The restrictions would be in place “until the behaviour of spilled bitumen can be better understood and there is certainty regarding the ability to adequately mitigate spills”, the provincial government said in a statement.
The measure was seen as a blow to Trans Mountain and highlighted increasing tensions between BC and Alberta, the province that is home to Canada’s tar sands and supports the project.
The science is very clear. We can’t be building new fossil fuel infrastructure and maintain a climate-safe planet at the same time.
Mike Hudema, a climate campaigner with Greenpeace Canada
Representing the third-largest crude oil reserves in the world, after Saudi Arabia and Venezuela, the Canadian tar sands cover over 142,000sq km in northern Alberta.
In 2016, about 2.5 million barrels of crude bitumen were produced daily after an energy-intensive and expensive extraction process, the Alberta Energy Regulator estimated.
While proponents of the Trans Mountain project in Alberta tout its economic impact, the BC government, a coalition between the left-leaning New Democrats and the Green Party, had previously vowed to block its expansion.
Several cities in BC, including Vancouver and Burnaby, have also voiced their opposition to the project.
Despite the opposition, the federal government has remained steadfast in its support for Trans Mountain.
“Approval of the Trans Mountain Expansion was based on facts, evidence and what was in the national interest,” a spokesperson for Natural Resources Canada, a government ministry, told Al Jazeera.
Ottawa approved the project “subject to 157 legally binding conditions” that “will address potential Indigenous, socio-economic and environmental impacts”, spokesperson Jerri Southcott said in an email.
“Throughout the construction and operation of this project, Indigenous voices will be heard. Their counsel will be sought and their knowledge valued,” Southcott added.
In early February, Prime Minister Trudeau said his government would not be able to meet its commitment to fight climate change or implement a plan to protect oceans from oil spills, without first getting the Trans Mountain project built.
If people think this is something [that] people are going to easily give up on … that’s sadly mistaken. People have drawn a line in the sand and this really is only going to build.
Andrea Harden, energy and climate justice campaigner at The Council of Canadians
“The only way we can get any of those things is if we do all three of those things together,” Trudeau told CBC Radio.
“As I’ve said for a long time, we need to make sure we’re both protecting the environment and growing the economy at the same time.”
Andrea Harden, energy and climate justice campaigner at The Council of Canadians, a progressive non-profit group, accused the Trudeau government of “speaking out of both sides of its mouth”.
On one hand, the prime minister has signed on to the Paris Climate Agreement to combat greenhouse gas emissions, while on the other backing intensive oil and gas projects like the Trans Mountain pipeline, Harden told Al Jazeera.
Science and facts have been ignored “in terms of both this pipeline being out of tune and inconsistent with our [climate] commitments … as well as the very legitimate questions around the safety of shipping diluted bitumen through pipelines”, she said.
She said Saturday’s march is “another manifestation of the clear opposition” to the Trans Mountain pipeline.
“If people think this is something [that] people are going to easily give up on … that’s sadly mistaken,” Harden said. “People have drawn a line in the sand and this really is only going to build.”
SOURCE: Al Jazeera News
Here goes to prove that money, affluence, a good economy where all benefit, is the only way to curb crime. In that sense, crime is but a reflection of wealth inequality.
The combination of an economic downturn and a rise in drug use appears to playing out in crime rates in the province.
Edmonton’s top cop says you should lock up your doors. Thanks, dad. Photo via CP
Crime in Canada increased for the first time in 12 years, and, for the most part, it’s all thanks to Alberta, according to new data.
Statistics Canada reported that there was an 18 percent jump in the province’s crime severity index (CSI), which determines the volume and severity of police-reported crime. Canada’s overall CSI saw a five percent increase from 2014 to 2015.
This spike in Albertan crime has be attributed to many factors, such as the economic downturn due to falling oil prices and a rise of drug-related crime.
Edmonton Police Chief Rod Knecht told reporters this week that he wasn’t surprised about the increase.
“We kind of anticipated this. We know property crimes continue to go up again this year – that’s driving it. The big driver is break and enters, thefts from vehicles and thefts of vehicles… and it continues to cascade into 2016,” he said.
He said that there isn’t much they can do about it because of the state of their economy, and urges Albertans to lock their cars (thanks, dude.) Beside property crime, violent crime in Alberta has not seen as much of an increase.
“The other violent crimes, other than homicides, are down right now,” Knecht said. “[The rates] are just trending evenly over the past five years.”
Last year’s rise in fentanyl usage can also be considered when looking at Alberta’s rising crime rates. StatsCan reported an national increase in drug-related offences—other than marijuana—in 2015. Crime involving fentanyl increased by six percent. Last year, there were almost 300 fentanyl overdoses in Alberta alone.
Other provinces that saw an increase in crime last year include Saskatchewan, Ontario and British Columbia.
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Vancouver’s mayor says the National Energy Board’s Trans Mountain pipeline review process is a “sham,” and its move to green-light the major infrastructure project threatens tens of thousands of jobs in his city.
By John Paul Tasker
Posted: May 20, 2016
Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson says the National Energy Board’s Trans Mountain pipeline review process is a “sham,” and its move to green-light the major infrastructure project threatens tens of thousands of jobs in his city.
The federal energy regulator recommended — after a three-year investigation — that the controversial Kinder Morgan pipeline expansion project should be built, as long as 157 conditions are met, including 49 environmental requirements.
“The NEB process was a sham, basically, it was advanced with gusto by the Harper government, who were obviously strong proponents of this pipeline process,” Robertson said in an interview with Chris Hall on CBC Radio’s The House.
“We put up a solid fight against it, but many of the interveners, many voices were shut out of that process and First Nations weren’t consulted appropriately,” he said, noting the board did not review the project’s downstream climate change impact.
The NEB said the $6.8-billion project will be a boon for Canada’s economy, boosting exports, employing thousands of construction workers and lining government coffers with a great deal more tax revenue.
But Robertson said he will fight tooth and nail to stop the project, and he has a simple message for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Natural Resources Minister Jim Carr: “The answer is no. This pipeline proposal should not be approved.
“They’ve got the rest of this year, they’ve got this ministerial panel, but there is no business case for it when you put the economics on the table and when you put the Paris agreement and our climate commitments on the table and the sensitive environment we’re dealing with here on the West Coast — it’s an absolute no,” he said.
The former NDP member of the legislature turned mayor said a “catastrophic” oil spill would cost the Vancouver area some 400,000 jobs. There are more than 30,000 direct tourism jobs in his city alone — and double that number in the Metro Vancouver area — all of which could be on the line if the area’s picturesque ocean environment is put in jeopardy, he said.
The pipeline will run largely alongside an existing pipeline from outside Edmonton to Burnaby, B.C., and will more than double capacity from 300,000 barrels per day to at least 890,000 barrels. Most of the new pipeline capacity will carry unrefined bitumen for export to Asian markets.
This expansion would sabotage the city’s “clean and green” brand, he said, an image Robertson has worked hard to cultivate since his election in 2008. “That is all at risk if we’re an oil spill city, and the images of seals and whales, swimming through oil in our harbour is unthinkable in terms what impact it would have,” he said.
Naloxone will now be available free of charge over the counter in Ontario.
An outreach worker in Ontario opens a naloxone kit. Photo by the author
May 18, 2016
Following behind British Columbia and Alberta, Ontario has become the latest province to make the opiate overdose antidote naloxone available without a prescription.
Last Friday, Alberta, which has the highest rate of fentanyl overdose in the country, made naloxone available at 600 pharmacies across the province free of charge. Now Ontario has adopted a similar model to Alberta’s, making the antidote available at pharmacies over the counter for free.
According to statistics released in February, fentanyl is the opiate responsible for the most overdose deaths in Ontario: in 2014, it was responsible for one in four opiate-related deaths in the province. And though the Ontario College of Pharmacists initially said the province would be moving on increasing access to naloxone in early July, provincial Health Minister Eric Hoskins said today that the changes would be effective immediately.
“It’s a decision that many in Ontario have advocated for several years, and it’s one that is guaranteed to save lives and reduce injuries for all Ontarians,” Michael Parkinson, community engagement coordinator at Waterloo Region Crime Prevention Council, told VICE. “This is excellent news, but key to remember is that [naloxone is] still just one piece in reducing the opiate crisis. We often think there is one magic bullet that will solve everything… There is still much more work to be done.”
Some of that additional work includes prompt access to effective treatment for opiate addiction. “The problem is waitlists can stretch into months—similar to cardiac arrest patients, treatment should be available on demand when someone makes that decision,” he said.
Dr. Hakique Virani, a specialist in public health, preventative medicine, and addiction medicine at the University of Alberta, told VICE, “There’s no question that [naloxone] should be available—as in BC, Alberta, and Ontario—across the country.” However, he said, “When you revive someone from an opiate overdose, if they were using opiates because they were addicted, they’re still addicted when they’re saved with naloxone—they’re very likely to overdose again if the underlying addiction disorder isn’t treated… We need to be in a position to offer [effective treatment].”
Last year in Alberta, close to 300 people died due to fentanyl—within the province, much of the drug available on the streets is a bootleg version believed to derive from China that is commonly pressed into blue-green pills meant to look like OxyContin.
Parkinson referenced bootleg fentanyl that has cropped up in at least eight communities across Ontario, including confirmed presence of the synthetic opiate in heroin, cocaine, and meth within the province.
“My advice is to assume the drugs you are taking could contain bootleg fentanyl,” he said.
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Isn’t this typical? When the going gets rough scumbags flee with their toys. No one buys your “for personal reasons” story Mr. Edwards. Why do we as a nation glorify petty parasites anyway? Oh well, at least he has gone to the land of self-entitled parasites: London. Good riddance Mr. Edwards.
Billionaire oilman Murray Edwards left Canada, just as his tax rate jumped. That’s inspired a lot of conversations among Alberta’s wealthy.
By Kyle Bakx, Tracy Johnson
May 08, 2016
For more than a month now, Calgarians, particularly wealthy ones, have been chattering about Murray Edwards and his move to London. The oil billionaire looms large in Calgary, as a man with a stake in many of the things the city cares about: oil, hockey and the mountains.
Edwards is known first and foremost as a highly successful businessman. Self-made, very smart, very rich. So if he left the country for tax reasons, as is suspected, are other Albertans following suit? If they aren’t considering it, should they be?
‘You don’t need many to do it to have a huge cost.’ – Alexandre Laurin, C.D. Howe Institute
Edwards himself refutes the notion his change of address from Calgary to London is to avoid a higher tax bill, telling the Globe and Mail that he left the country for personal reasons.
However, there is no question Edwards is leaving town just as tax bills are going up for Alberta’s wealthy, following provincial and federal income tax rate increases for 2016.
The highest marginal tax rate for federal and provincial taxes for Albertans in 2014 was 39 per cent. In 2016, it is 48 per cent.
This is because both federal and provincial tax rates have risen. Alberta has seen a much sharper increase than other provinces. In 2014, it charged a flat income tax of 10 per cent for all income levels. In 2016, Albertans will pay a 15 per cent tax rate provincially on income above $300,000 and 33 per cent federally, for a combined top tax rate of 48 per cent.
Add it up and it’s a big hit for Alberta’s wealthy.
“What he’s struggling with and what every businessman is struggling with is the sheer incompetence that’s been layered over us at the municipal and federal and provincial levels by inexperienced governments,” said Brett Wilson, a Calgary investment banker and close friend of Edwards.
Wilson told CBC he doesn’t believe taxes are the reason Edwards left Canada.
Edwards is the founder of one of Canada’s largest independent energy companies, Canadian Natural Resources, and a co-owner of the Calgary Flames. He also owns ski resorts and golf courses in the Rockies.
“There’s a certain calibre of person who can tax plan through mobility,” said Lindsay Tedds, a taxation expert at the University of Victoria. “But it’s costly to do, so you have to be earning a large amount of money to absorb those costs.”
If you choose to give up residency in Canada, for any reason, it’s sort of like dying. The Canada Revenue Agency will consider that you’ve disposed of all your assets just before leaving the country and then tax you on the capital gains. That would include shares in companies and properties, excluding your principal residence.
“There has always been and will continue to always be a competition for these kinds of people,” said David Lesperance, a Canadian lawyer who specializes in tax mobility.
The advantage in moving to the United Kingdom is that you can be a non-domiciled resident, meaning the U.K. is not your permanent home. With that standing, you don’t pay tax on your foreign income unless it’s income you bring into the country to pay your living expenses.
If you draw on capital or savings to pay for your lifestyle, then you don’t have to pay tax on your worldwide income at all.
Instead the U.K makes money off those residents by charging at 20 per cent V.A.T, or sales tax on purchases.
“London has a huge number of these res-non doms,” said Lesperance. “And it bolsters the economy in the U.K. tremendously.”
There’s speculation that Alberta will see some degree of tax flight in the coming year, but it will be hard to figure out exactly what’s at play.
“These tax rates are rising at the same time that we are facing some very significant economic changes going on in the province,” said Tedds.
“The exchange rate has dropped significantly and has been bouncing around. Oil prices, people just aren’t sure when they’ll recover. There’s just too much going on at the same time to say the tax rate is the cause or even a contributing factor.”
In Canada, the top one per cent of earners pay 20 per cent of personal income taxes. They are also the people who are the mostly likely to change their behaviour to avoid paying higher taxes. Moving out of the country is obviously the most extreme example of that, but the damage to government coffers can be noticeable.
“You don’t need many to do it to have a huge cost,” said Alexandre Laurin, a tax expert at the C.D. Howe Institute.
“They’re usually your highest worth individuals, reporting millions and millions of dollars of income, so you just lose ten of them and you’ve just lost a whole lot of tax revenues.
There seems to be no end in sight to the wildfire in Alberta, Canada, as thousands of evacuees remain on the move. RT America’s Alex Mihailovich joins Manila Chan from Toronto to share the latest. Then, we’ll hear from Brandy Leduc, an evacuee and witness to the fire who called the scene “apocalyptic.”
“In Canada, and also in the United States and much of the rest of the world, higher temperatures have been extending the wildfire season..
By yesterday, more than fifteen hundred buildings had been destroyed and the blaze had spread through an area covering more than three hundred square miles. It was burning so hot that it was easily able to jump major rivers. One Canadian official described the fire as “catastrophic.” Another called it a “multi-headed monster.”
The town of Fort McMurray, some four hundred miles north of Calgary, in Canada, grew up very quickly on both sides of the Athabasca River. During the nineteen-seventies, the population of the town tripled, and since then it has nearly tripled again. All this growth has been fuelled by a single activity: extracting oil from a Florida-sized formation known as the tar sands. When the price of oil was high, there was so much currency coursing through Fort McMurray’s check-cashing joints that the town was dubbed “Fort McMoney.”
Now Fort McMurray is burning. A forest fire that began to the southwest of the town on Sunday has forced the entire population—almost ninety thousand people—to evacuate. On Wednesday, Alberta’s provincial government declared a state of emergency. By yesterday, more than fifteen hundred buildings had been destroyed and the blaze had spread through an area covering more than three hundred square miles. It was burning so hot that that it was easily able to jump major rivers. One Canadian official described the fire as “catastrophic.” Another called it a “multi-headed monster.”
No one knows exactly how the fire began—whether it was started by a lightning strike or by a spark provided by a person—but it’s clear why the blaze, once underway, raged out of control so quickly. Alberta experienced an unusually dry and warm winter. Precipitation was low, about half of the norm, and what snow there was melted early. April was exceptionally mild, with temperatures regularly in the seventies; two days ago, the thermometer hit ninety, which is about thirty degrees higher than the region’s normal May maximum. “You hate to use the cliché, but it really was kind of a perfect storm,” Mike Wotton, a research scientist with the Canadian Forest Service, told the CBC.
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 last decade. In some areas, “we now have year-round fire seasons,” Matt Jolly, a research ecologist for the United States Forest Service, recently told the Times.
“You can say it couldn’t get worse,” Jolly added, but based on its own projections, the forest service expects that it will get worse. According to a Forest Service report published last April, “Climate change has led to fire seasons that are now on average 78 days longer than in 1970.” Over the last three decades, the area destroyed each year by forest fires has doubled, and the service’s scientists project that it’s likely to “double again by midcentury.” A group of scientists who analyzed lake cores from Alaska to obtain a record of forest fires over the last ten thousand years found that in recent decades, blazes were both unusually frequent and unusually severe. “This extreme combination suggests a transition to a unique regime of unprecedented fire activity,” they concluded.
All of this brings us to what one commentator referred to as “the black irony” of the fire that has destroyed most of Fort McMurray.
The town exists to get at the tar sands, and the tar sands produce a particularly carbon-intensive form of fuel. (The fight over the Keystone XL pipeline is, at its heart, a fight over whether the U.S. should be encouraging —or, if you prefer, profiting from—the exploitation of the tar sands.) The more carbon that goes into the atmosphere, the warmer the world will get, and the more likely we are to see devastating fires like the one now raging.
To raise environmental concerns in the midst of human tragedy is to risk the charge of insensitivity. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau alluded to this danger at a recent news conference: “Any time we try to make a political argument out of one particular disaster, I think there’s a bit of a shortcut that can sometimes not have the desired outcome.” And certainly it would be wrong to blame the residents of Fort McMurray for the disaster that has befallen them. As Andrew Weaver, a Canadian climate scientist who is a Green Party member of British Columbia’s provincial legislature, noted, “The reality is we are all consumers of products that come from oil.”
But to fail to acknowledge the connection is to risk another kind of offense. We are all consumers of oil, not to mention coal and natural gas, which means that we’ve all contributed to the latest inferno. We need to own up to our responsibility and then we need to do something about it. The fire next time is one that we’ve been warned about, and that we’ve all had a hand in starting.
© 2016 The New Yorker