Why didn’t Trudeau want to link the Fort Mac fire to climate change?

Justin Trudeau doesn’t like the link, but it’s hard to refute—and it’s hardly political to raise it


Prime Minister Justin Trudeau obviously anticipated being asked at his news conference today about the connection between climate change and the forest fire that had already wreaked such devastation on Fort McMurray, Alta., and hadn’t yet burned out or been stopped.

And so, in his usual fashion, Trudeau responded adroitly to the most awkward possible question of the hour, doing his best, which is pretty good, to deflect discussion in the National Press Theatre away from global warming and back to what’s being done to help a community that sure needs it.

Still, he didn’t dispute the uncomfortable fact that climate experts have long seen more frequent, more intense fires in the boreal forest as an unavoidable result of global warming. “It’s well known that one of the consequences of climate change will be a greater prevalence of extreme weather events around the planet,” he said.

But Trudeau went on right away to caution anyone against trying “to make a political argument out of one particular disaster.” He must have meant connecting the dots from Fort McMurray as the oil sands capital, to fossil-fuel burning as the main cause of climate change, to forest fires. Yet it’s not clear, at least not to me, how talking about that science automatically amounts to advancing a political argument.

Related: Did climate change contribute to the Fort McMurray fire?

It wouldn’t be political point-scoring, for instance, to quote from a 2004 academic report, published in the not-especially political journal Geophysical Research Letters, that begins: “The area burned by forest fires in Canada has increased over the past four decades, at the same time as summer season temperatures have warmed.” The paper, written by University of Victoria and Canadian government researchers, concludes that “human-induced climate change has had a detectable influence on the area burned by forest fires in Canada over recent decades.”

It isn’t just that climate change will result in more bad fires in the future—it’s already been happening for decades. This is worth considering when you consider how Trudeau framed the issue today. “There have always been fires, there have always been floods,” he said. “Pointing at any one incident and saying, ‘This is because of that,’ is neither helpful nor entirely accurate.”

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau holds a press conference at the National Press Theatre in Ottawa on Wednesday, May 4, 2016. (Sean Kilpatrick/CP)

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau holds a press conference at the National Press Theatre in Ottawa on Wednesday, May 4, 2016. (Sean Kilpatrick/CP)

I haven’t heard anyone claim that the Fort McMurray fire was directly and only attributable to climate change. If somebody did, that sure wouldn’t be helpful or accurate. But it would be helpful and accurate to mention that the International Panel on Climate Change’s 2014 summary report for policy-makers asserted with “high confidence” that North America is in for more “wildfire-induced loss of ecosystem integrity, property loss, human morbidity, and mortality as a result of increased drying trend and temperature trend.”

The Prime Minister urged us to think, not about those trends, but about the dire human situation at hand. “We need to separate a pattern over time from any one event,” he said. “What we are focused right now on is giving the people of Fort McMurray and across Alberta the kind of support they need right now, and in the months and, indeed, years ahead as we all rebuild.”

The immediate needs of the people of Fort McMurray must of course be the government’s focus right now. But, since Trudeau mentions a timeline stretching out over years, it’s hard not to contemplate the permanently more threatening situation faced by Fort Mac and any Canadian town surrounded by trees. “The predictions for the future are that the fire season is going to become longer, it’s going to start earlier, and the fires are going to be more severe,” David Andison, an adjunct forestry professor at University of British Columbia, told me.

Related: Want to help those fleeing Fort McMurray? Here’s how.

Andison isn’t an expert on climate. He is a specialist in the ecology of forested landscapes. As a consultant, he advises companies and municipalities. With the forest fire danger growing, he said communities might want to start emulating Jasper, Alta.’s “FireSmart-ForestWise” program for carefully managing its surrounding forest to make it harder for fires to start and spread. Grooming whole forests that way seems expensive. But weighed against the rebuilding costs that Fort McMurray faces in the years ahead, Andison said, “I think the economics start to look pretty good.”

And this is the other side of thinking about Fort McMurray’s terrible loss in terms of climate change. It’s not just a matter of the disaster serving as a reminder of the case for serious measures to combat global warming. It’s also about what we will have no choice but to start doing, and doing at significant cost, if those efforts fail.

John Geddes interviews John Innes, UBC’s dean of forestry, on the impact of climate change:



Why didn’t Trudeau want to link the Fort Mac fire to climate change?

  1. I knew some idiot would automatically use the fire as an excuse to bleat about “climate change”

    I was also pretty certain it would be some dippy “journalist” from Macleans, or CBC.

    Macleans wins.

    This fire has nothing to do with human beings…….forest fires occur all the time. Hundreds every year in fact, and its been that way for millions of years.

    • And I knew that some idiot would comment on this story talking about how these things happen “all the time”, thereby perpetuating the dangerous ideology that humans have no impact on the climate which leads to these types of events. You are a small part of the reason why people are unprepared and suffer through these tragedies. Your idiocy actually has measurable and tragic consequences.

      This isn’t some journalist giving an arbitrary opinion, he clearly cited peer-reviewed scientific research. Experts in the field who have devoted their lives to this issue are *telling* you that there is a growing problem caused by ACC, and you want to shout and discredit him and the journalist who is trying to share this important message. You should be ashamed but you probably have too much bias to realize that

    • You are correct about forest fires..to a point. Maybe you should think about the fact that the planet is now getting one hundred year and one thousand year climate events such as floods, droughts and fires every year now. Just maybe there is a reason for this.

  2. Thank-you for raising this pertinent matter. There is a connection between what’s happening in Fort McMurray and climate change and Trudeau fails to lead when he dances around the issue or, worse and stupidly, equates the mention of the science with advancing a ‘political argument’.

  3. Geddes- Do you do any basic research? Google: number of wildfires in Canada.
    Then read what it says on the first page of the Canadian National Fire Database, which is about the third link down. There’s no evidence to support your claim, just as there’s no evidence in the American counterpoint to support a claim of more fires. In the US, there is more property loss to fires per year. You can figure out why that is by taking a few days to drive through Colorado, Wyoming, Montana, and Utah. Then, the answer is fairly obvious.
    Just go to the shores of Whitefish lake, Montana. There, you will find hundreds of large homes, owned by people who spend a few weekends per year there, flying in from California and the east coast.

  4. We’ve already been through this: when the High River / Alberta floods hit, several of us pointed out that this should serve as a wakeup call for Alberta over Climate Change. We were publicly castigated for our insensitivity “when people had not even managed to return to their homes!” Oh the despair. Our letters were not printed by the media, nor were our phone in comments broadcast.

    A couple of weeks later Lac Megantic was massacred in the name of cost cutting by a railroad (note that the Federal government quietly paid 75 million dollars in compensation in order to avoid lawsuits, an agreement that was according to Lisa Raitt, “being negotiated when the Conservatives were in power”) and by Sunday morning of the same weekend, a Google search showed over 66,000 comments and news commentaries on “This is why we need more pipelines”… before the victims bodies were even recovered, let alone identified… and “Now is the time to say this, when people are looking”.

    No problem with insensitivity there, No Sirree!

    The local media then relented and printed my letter pointing out the apparent dichotomy in morality.

    We don’t have to ask what the Justins of the world think about linking the Lac Megantic massacre to pipeline construction because we already know. “Oh, well, that’s DIFFERENT!”

    You didn’t read the article, did you, James? Its the first week of May! May!

    • Calgary had a similar flood before 1920. The Calgary zoo was flooded on that occasion as well. Of course the city wasn’t as large so the damage was not as expensive. If you are going to blame the recent flood on climate change, One has to wonder what the early flood would be blamed on. The same goes for the drought of the 1930’s. Was that climate change? What about the Chicago fire? We have had droughts, fires and floods over time but now every one is due to climate change and you really believe that Alberta stopping drilling for fossil fuels in 3 years since the flood would have stopped climate change globally so that the fire in Fort McMurray would not have occurred? Do you understand that Canada is only responsible for under 2 percent of all global emissions? It is like spitting in the ocean. Even if Canada by some miracle never made another emission, surely you don’t believe climate change would cease when the rest of the world continues to emit 98 percent of emissions. Frankly, just say it. You believe Albertans (and whoever else from other provinces in Canada live and work in Fort Mac) got what they deserve….some divine retribution. As for the rail accident in Quebec. The company wasn’t Canadian and the volatile crude that explode wasn’t Canadian. It was American. The only thing Canadian was the track. The bakken crude was fracked out of North Dakota and is known to explode. It has done it on another train. Normal crude does not do so.

  5. There are a lot of steps between this forest fire and climate change. it would take a reasoned analysis to prove the connection in a thoughtful way.

    Perhaps it’s not best to try and make that connection within hours of tens of thousands of people losing their homes.

    Still the third paragraph of this piece does just that.

    Bravo Mr. Geddes if your ever the victim of a natural disaster I sincerely hope your fellow members of the commentariat treat you with more dignity than you have the tens of thousands of victims of this disaster.

    • Right, because doing a critical analysis on the impacts of climate change on forest fires somehow magically denigrates or attacks the people who were living in Fort McMurray? How does that even make the slightest amount of logical sense?

      It is a complete non sequitur, as bad as saying tying your shoes implies you hate the jewish people. Complete nonsense

      • It’s the timing of the ‘critical analysis’.

        Nothing to do with magic. It undoubtedly denigrates the residents of Fort McMurray.

        Who cares about their lives? Let’s point the fingers at the industry that drives the economy of the city for causing the disaster that is devastating the city within the first few hours of the disaster.

        It’s called basic human decency. Geddes doesn’t get it and apparently you don’t either.

  6. Can a single event be linked to Global Climate Change? Yes
    Can a single event be caused by Global Climate Change? Yes
    Can a single event fall within the pattern of natural climate variability? Yes
    Can the increase in extreme weather events fall within the historical pattern of natural variability? No

  7. Trudeau understood that it would have been completely counterproductive to link this fire to climate change. If you don’t agree just look at the reaction to Elizabeth May’s attempt to do so.

    • Justin is 100%+ RIGHT
      In the hope of laying the climate change debate to rest, let us admit that only a total idiot or a total ignoramus would not know that this planet Earth has had continuous “climate changes” for the countless unknown billions of years it is alleged to have existed since the universe by whatever means began its continuous expansion and evolution. No No No , not the 6000 years or so years from the ” World’s Greatest Mythical Book” ! Leaving out the mythical Noah myth which was only a local Middle East flood retold, exaggerated, and copied by Biblical writers . Tropical Rain Forests weather came and went all over North America forming the coal and oil fields, as well as in other parts of the world . Ice Ages all over North America with moving glaciers that moved extreme rocks and carved major formations came and went . Moving continents that changed the surface of the earth. Now in the 2000 years, who but the earlier mentioned groups would deny that the now going on “eight billion people population” and some working on it day and night resulting in more every day, would not have a “minor” result on the universal continual climate change . END of story?

  8. climate is changing

    no one disputes that

    Human created CO2 is NOT causing it.

    even IPCC has stated as much!

    there is NO LINK that can be proven scientifically that CO2 has anything more than an insignificant effect on Global Warming

  9. It’s never the right time to criticize Fort McMurray. Nobody could raise issues like, is the economy too hot, is the city growing too fast, should we reconsider the wisdom of expanding the tar sands, when people were avidly investing and buying all their toys and moving thousands of miles from their homes to participate in the boom, paying ridiculous prices for houses and rent. Raise climate change? Forget about it. How many programs and call-in shows and editorials have I seen where Fort McMurray was praised to the skies and it was claimed Alberta was carrying Canada on its shoulders while we dithered over granting them every pipeline they wanted. The rest of us were a bunch of welfare bums by comparison, according to Alberta. Then it turns out that it took very little time for all those high wage-earners to be turning to the food banks. It blows my mind, it really does. All those good years nobody wanted to take a sober second look. Now for years of bad times we’ll be picking on the residents of Fort MacMurray if anyone wants to talk about anything but donations and “rebuilding” and the “great community spirit” and all the “random acts of kindness”. Then will come the anger because Canadians will forget they’re suffering. Will they ever be reflective about what could have been done differently (except when they blame emergency crews and firefighters)?

    What was it all for? Years of catering to Fort McMoney and Harper’s protracted attempt to make Canada an oil nation, now the city basically doesn’t exist. After, what, 20 years of good times? It’s truly a tale of the Old West. I’m sorry my empathy is a tad limited. I’d like more discussion of why exactly the city core seems to be burning, or at least threatened, when it looks like nary a tree is in sight.

  10. I agree with the statement: Yet it’s not clear, at least not to me, how talking about that science automatically amounts to advancing a political argument.

    However, be aware that some events, or series of events, are so extreme, it can’t be anything other than a climate or weather event driven by our emissions. The probability of their occurrence is so tiny without accounting for those emission as to zero. They just haven’t happened, yet. But, they will.

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