Connecting the dots on the Fort McMurray catastrophe

My sincere condolences go to the tens of thousands of people so profoundly affected by the fires in and around Fort McMurray, Alberta. I do not ever recall such a large population evacuated due to fire in Alberta, BC, or anywhere in Canada for that matter. Fort McMurray’s population of 80,000+ is no small hamlet or village. The logistics involved in evacuating the entire city in mere hours are literally mind-boggling.

The evacuation trauma aside, the destruction is truly unparalleled. Reports are that 80% of some neighbourhoods in Fort McMurray have been completely destroyed by fire. Imagine, if you can, that one moment you leave for work in the morning and just hours later you learn that your entire home and all of your personal possessions are gone forever.

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The terrible events in Fort McMurray will become more common if we do not try to address the root causes.

At the same time, I must say I am also troubled by the way this human tragedy has been covered by news media so far. Seldom is there any mention of the root cause of this catastrophe.

Temperatures have been breaking all historical records so far this year, not just in Alberta, but British Columbia as well. In Vancouver in late April and early May, we’ve seen temperatures we normally experience at the peak of summer in July and August. Across BC in early April, 59 temperature records were broken in two days alone. In northern BC and Alberta conditions are tinder dry. Fire experts say that around Fort McMurray the dead, dry vegetation from winter has been fuelling the fire since it’s too early for the emergent leaves of spring to have even started yet — and yet it’s hot and dry enough to cause a conflagration of this magnitude. Temperatures reached over 30° C the early days of the mass evacuation and humidity has been as low as 0%.

Do you see where I am going with this…? CLIMATE CHANGE.

Climate change is upon us. Not in a theoretical way but in real life, just as the world’s scientific community has been telling us would happen for decades now: Climate change causes, amongst other crises, more and more extreme weather events. Not to make light of this disaster, but I also can’t help but note the terrible irony at play here, namely that it is carbon emissions from the burning of fossil fuels that are a huge factor in climate change — the very kind of carbon emissions intrinsically linked to the tar sands Fort McMurray is famous for.

In my opinion, the only fact that makes this tragedy even worse than it is is that — other than Green Party leader, Elizabeth May — our spokespeople and news media are failing us by not linking cause and effect. How can society draw the right conclusions and take the right steps as long as our leaders and media remain deliberately silent?

What has been taking place in the last 24 hours in Fort McMurray pales in comparison to what is just around the corner with sea levels predicted to rise many feet over the next few decades, possibly as much as ten feet. But let’s take a brief look at what happens with a rise of only three feet.

Twenty million — yes, 20 million — people living in Bangladesh alone will not be temporarily pushed out of their homes, as in Fort McMurray. They will be permanently displaced. Today’s refugee crisis in the Middle East will pale in comparison. Can you imagine 20 million Bangladeshi refugees fleeing their homes and trying to find a safe haven in Europe?

Bangladesh happens to be the flattest nation on Earth. So besides the 20 million citizens being permanently displaced by a three-foot rise in oceans, THE ENTIRE NATION will be under water during extreme, episodic weather events such as cyclones, which, as I mentioned earlier, will only become more extreme and happen more often in the future.

So let’s not allow the pain and suffering being experienced by Fort McMurray’s citizens be in vain. Instead, let this terrible tragedy be a wake-up call to us all that we are moving at breakneck speed towards a point of no return. We must all immediately and dramatically reduce and then eliminate greenhouse gas emissions. To do otherwise sentences all of the planet’s inhabitants to a catastrophic future.

Tim Louis is a long-time lawyer and community activist, and a former Vancouver City Councillor.

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