In northern Alberta, the burgeoning city of Fort MacMurray houses a lively main street of coffee shops and bars, and many families, most of which have at least one member working in the oilsands. At the beginning of May this year, a fire broke out in the dense, dry boreal forests nearby, and rapidly headed straight for the Town.
No one should have been too surprised: the boreal forest within which the city sits is a fire-adaptive ecosystem and large-scale fires have been part of this landscape throughout the entire history of human settlement here. Moreover, the previous Winter and Spring had been exceptionally dry, with a snow pack between 60 and 90% below normal. Within a day the flames evoked the largest evacuation in Canadian history, including all 88,000 residents of Fort Mac—as it is known here in Alberta— all squeezed into a single 2-lane highway like a thick milkshake through an entirely inadequate straw. A later wave of evacuees included many who remained stranded in work camps further to the north in the oilsands fields themselves, and other small communities as well. Many of those evacuees swelled the population of Edmonton for nearly a month, before receiving the green light to return a few days ago when the fire, reaching 600,000 hectares, headed east toward Saskatchewan.
Amidst the social and mass media coverage of fleeing families, the multiple acts of heroism and charity, and the calls for disaster relief, many stories emerged featuring climate change as the main actor, although some disagreement existed as to whether this actor was an antagonist in a ‘Nature bats last’ docu-drama, or a protagonist, in a saga about divine retribution accorded against the dark powers of our oil-addicted society.
First, the protagonist story: a rather insidious collection of comments that have lit up the more informal channels of social media, all referring to the fires in one ay or another as ‘climate karma.’ As most informed citizens including those living here in Alberta are fully aware, fossil fuels are the primary players in our greenhouse gas emission portfolio. Non-conventional fuels like the oilsands are frequently blamed, and their human associates shamed, due to their particularly high emissions intensity (among a host of other social and environmental impacts we do not need to belabour here). Quipped ‘Mordor’ in times past—which, the gory pictures of oilsands mining operations would suggest is apropos—new images of towering infernos engulfing the landscape might appear to have arrived on cue. Perhaps they were, as some commentators have asserted, even karmic. Or they would be, if, say, the oilsands mines themselves were suddenly destroyed. But they were not. It was the homes and community of labourers and their families that were alight—losing around 2,000 structures in total—along with thousands of hectares of forest, not the oilsands themselves.
As rural sociologists have highlighted many times, the identities of natural resourced-based labourers, who live primarily in rural communities, and embrace conservative cultures, could not be more distinct from their urban, highly educated, environmentalist counterparts. These rather polarized caricatures belie a more complicated picture, however: repeated case studies have shown that many members of rural communities express a deep respect and value for nature; and it so happens, in this case in particular, the community demographics look anything like a rural backwater: according to the last Census conducted in 2011 by Statistics Canada, Fort Mac residents are young (median age 32), 20% of adults hold a university degree, and another 20% of community members identify a primary language other than English. Indeed, discourse rather than demographics would appear to have played a much greater role in the inability of one group to associate with the other. This divide had been previously nurtured by industry-supported ‘jobs vs. environment’ rhetoric, and now, with the crass of implication that workers are somehow accountable for our fossil fuel dependency. Even though this association may not have been intentional, even though such utterances were far outnumbered by the vehement reactions to them, they served to further fuel anti-environmentalist sentiments among Alberta’s energy industry supporters.
The second thread in this story, more often expressed by mass media organizations, is the attribution question. Did climate change cause the Fort Mac fire? Would the fire not have occurred in the absence of climate change? The short answer, and one environmental sociologists should know already, is that a single event cannot with any degree of confidence be attributed to climate change. Read: the fire constitutes an N of 1. Even an N of 10 would not increase our confidence by much in a place like Alberta, famous for its variable weather and extreme events, and in an El Niño year to boot. But all too many media sources did not pose the question; rather, they stated the answer: of course the fire was caused by climate change. Or, of course it was not. Indeed, the media were heavily embroiled in a debate—and we know how journalists love debates—about whether or not climate change was to blame. The message to readers in what is already a skeptical population: climate science is (still) filled with uncertainties, and therefore, let’s ignore it. Ill-measured attribution comments can be a problem in that they only add to the confusion regarding climate science among the public. On the other hand, a number of media critics have associated any attempts to use this and other disasters as a launching pad for a discussion of any form on climate as ‘politicizing the issue.’ In other words, climate change is just politics, not a real threat—to lives, livelihoods, ecosystems—but a political one.
Should we then not talk about climate change at all in the aftermath of disaster? I could not disagree more. Disasters offer an opportunity for learning, manifest in new connections, dialogues, across these many divides: scientist and community resident, energy industry worker and environmentalist. Yet, while some enlightened story threads can no doubt be uncovered, the larger media story was unfortunately a missed opportunity for a healthy dialogue about our general vulnerability to the impacts of climate change, and the particular state and economic powers within the petrochemical industrial complex with responsibility for creating that vulnerability. In an ideal digital world—and as many among the climate-concerned hope—one redeeming feature of such disasters is the potential for renewed attention to our inevitable relationship with nature, and our inability to avoid the consequences of our ecological folly. And, equally ideally, the elevation of climate change on political agendas.
The reality so far has been far less redeeming. The questions for environmental sociologists are not so new, but no less urgent. How to support discourses that serve to critique our fossil-fuel-dependent society, and in particular the state and corporate elite who not only are disproportionately responsible for our climate mess, but also for exploiting the workers who are now refugees, without assigning blame toward, and inspiring the defenses of, those same workers, and consumers for that matter?
Underneath it all are the lives of some 90,000 uprooted workers and families, a big fat natural disaster relief tab imposed on a Petro-Province that was already near to buckling from the weight of low oil prices and thus tumbling revenues, and an emissions portfolio that just keeps growing. We are often told that doing is more important than saying, but in this instance, changing the course of our future may have just as much to do with what we say as what we do.