It’s the Wrong Time to Tie Climate Change to the Fort McMurray Disaster

Environmentalists can be their own worst enemy at times.

As most of Canada, as well as many eyes around the world are gripped and horrified by the tragedy that is the massive wildfire that has decimated Fort McMurray, Alberta, there are already discussions emerging as to what caused the fire in the first place.

It is also not surprising that a number of environmentalists are seizing the opportunity to pin the blame, either wholly or in part on climate change.

While I am an unapologetic environmentalist, I am also of the opinion that any environmentalist who is already fanning the flames of this tragedy by turning this into a political debate are doing a huge disservice to the cause they so passionately believe in.


Image: Huffington Post

At some point there is going to be a significant discussion about the root cause of this fire.  We already know that the warmer winter in the area created an early spring that is dryer than usual.  We also know that record-breaking temperatures created a volatile situation that often is ripe for wildfires to start.  Meteorologists know that around the time the fire began there were no indications of lightning strikes, which according to Canada’s national fire database is responsible for 47% of wildfires starting.

It would seem clear that humans will have had a role to play in the creation of this fire as well as others in the past and even more that are yet to come.

But it is wrong to start reaching for a podium at this stage, and use this issue as an alarm bell for climate change.

Given its location and its ties to the oil sands development, it is perhaps more enticing for some environmentalists than usual to ramp up the rhetoric right away.  Fort McMurray was built on oil and the irony or opportunity to connect the dots will not be lost on a select few.  However, to make this anything but a tragic human story right now is nothing short of cruel, insensitive and bereft of any sense of knowing that there is a time and a place, of which right now is neither.

Federal Green Party Leader Elizabeth May typically has an understanding of this, but she clearly erred when 2 days ago she answered “Of course,” to a question as to whether 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.”

While she did pull back from this statement later on somewhat, she nonetheless provided cynics as well as climate change deniers a chance to show the insensitivity of environmentalists who are more interested in scoring political points over caring about the loss of property and human suffering that is still acute and ongoing.

The long-term goals of environmentalists including myself is to create a new society that develops lifestyles, economies and standards of living that are in harmony with our natural environment and not against it.  This is a monumental task and one that will never be accomplished until society at large wants to embrace the changes that go along with it.  Putting people on the defensive is no way to engage or inspire the type of change we need to make.  To see this as a political opportunity will do more harm than good at this point, so to all environmentalists who are trying to do just that I would ask you all for the time being to step down from your pulpits, put down your megaphones and see this as a human tragedy that desperately needs your compassion and support.


Image: Toronto Star

There will indeed be a time and a place to look at this from a higher level perspective and perhaps down the line, we may be able to use this tragedy as an example of what lies ahead of us without significant action on the issue of man-made climate change.  But right now 80,000 people are shell-shocked by an apocalyptic tragedy and the only prudent and sensible thing to do is to show concern and compassion for the victims and their plight.

The bigger fight will be waged when the time and the mindsets of all involved are more willing to deal with the tougher issues at hand.  But until then, let’s allow humanity to trump activism and save everything else for another day.

Eric Novak

About Eric Novak

Eric Novak is a father of 4 who also thinks that environmental stewardship is a requisite of parenting. He's not a professional Dad nor is he an environmental scientist, but he's someone who gives a damn and is trying to make the right decisions as he lives his life as a father, environmentalist and business owner. Eric and his wife Karen have 4 children and reside in Ajax, Ontario.