Last week, raging wildfires prompted the evacuation of all 88,000 residents of Fort McMurray, an oil town on the banks of the Athabasca river in the boreal forests of north-eastern Alberta, Canada. According to reports, about 20% of the town was levelled by the fires. In many areas of town, the devastation is total.
Amid the firestorms, thanks to the heroic and generous action of emergency responders and the oil companies that are the reason for the town’s existence, the good news is that only two people have reportedly died to date, and that in a car accident. An evacuee in the town of Lac la Biche, almost 300km by road south of Fort McMurry, put it best: “I’ve said to my daughter the whole way up here, the most important thing is that we’re here, we’re safe, and everything else is just stuff.”
When I read the news of the evacuation, I predicted that the climate change industry, green politicians and much of the media would exploit the tragedy to blame it on global warming. After all, one can’t let a good disaster go to waste.
It didn’t take Andrew Russell of Canada’s Global News long to find someone who’d raise the spectre of climate change. “Judith Kulig, professor in the faculty of health sciences at the University of Lethbridge, said the effects of climate change are also driving the increase in wildfires, and it’s not going to get better in the future,” he wrote in an article published last Tuesday, 2 May 2016.
A day later, a newspaper in Edmonton, the provincial capital of Alberta, 377km south-west of Fort McMurray, quoted Mike Flannigan, a professor at the University of Alberta, who studies fire in Alberta. According to the professor, the annual area of wildfire devastation has doubled since the 1970s, “a change he attributes to climate change”.
The initial comments were cautious, noting that El Niño, a recurring weather phenomenon with global effects that has caused warmer and drier conditions in the boreal forests of northern Canada, may have played a significant role.
But you can’t keep a good alarmist down. Elizabeth May, the leader of Canada’s Green Party, said “of course” the Fort McMurray fires were linked to climate change. “The temperature records were being smashed through last month for northern Alberta,” she said. After being berated by Canada’s prime minister, Justin Trudeau, she released a statement that denied she was trying to claim a causal connection between climate change and the wildfires.
“Some reports have suggested that the wildfires are directly caused by climate change. No credible climate scientist would make this claim, and neither do I make this claim. Rather, we must turn our minds in the coming days to the impact of increased extreme climate events, and what we can do collectively to respond to these events,” she backpedalled.
Well, she didn’t make this claim, except for when she did. If it were Hillary Clinton, she’d have said she “misspoke”. And even after reversing her position, she tried to have her cake and eat it by reminding everyone about “increased extreme climate events”.
On Twitter, a small-town politician and librarian from southern Alberta, Tom Moffatt, declared: “Karmic #climatechange fire burns CDN oilsands city #uspoli #FeelTheBern #yql #yyc #yeg #yvr #Toronto #cdnpoli” His employers distanced themselves from his comment, which appears to blame oil workers for the climate change that supposedly caused the wildfires. He later apologised and deleted the tweet.
It wasn’t long before the big guns jumped on the bandwagon. “The fire in Canada looks a lot like climate change – and that s hould scare you,” roared CNN.
“Though it’s tough to pin any particular disaster on climate change, in the case of Fort McMurray the link is pretty compelling,” wrote Elizabeth Kolbert in the The New Yorker. “To raise environmental concerns in the midst of human tragedy is to risk the charge of insensitivity. … But to fail to acknowledge the connection is to risk another kind of offence. 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.”
“What’s happening in Fort McMurray is a perfect encapsulation of the wicked ways that climate change is impacting wildfire season,” said Brian Kahn, writing for Climate Central, also quoting professor Flannigan.
“Many people have expressed outrage at the fact that climate change is being mentioned as a contributing cause to this fire,” Eric Holthaus wrote in Slate. “It is ‘insensitive’ to the victims to bring up something so political at a time like this, they argue. I want to be clear: Talking about climate change during an ongoing disaster like Fort McMurray is absolutely necessary.”
All right, then. Let’s ignore how “insensitive” it is to the victims to use their fear and misery for political gain, and to blame the public at large for this wildfire. Let’s talk about the weather.
Here’s CNN’s report on the weather in Fort McMurray on 2 May 2016, last week: “Hot, dry conditions helped created the perfect conditions for the fire near Fort McMurray. The remote town, which is the gateway to Canada’s oil sands region, a hotbed of fossil fuel extraction, saw a high temperature of 91 Fahrenheit (32.8°C) on Tuesday. The previous record of 82 degrees (27.8°C) was set in 1945, according to government climate data.”
The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation reported the temperature for Tuesday to have been 30°C, almost 3° cooler than CNN had it. Far be it from me to declare who got it right, but CNN’s own source for the previous record proves it was wrong on that score. It links to the data for 3 May. The record for 2 May, the day in question, was set in 1980 at 30.6°C.
Although 30°C doesn’t constitute “temperature records being smashed”, it does seem pretty hot for spring. When I was in Calgary almost exactly two years ago, temperatures were in the single digits. But, as we saw in my column about Leonardo di Caprio’s Oscar acceptance sermon, the weather can be changeable in that part of the world. Daily weather records hardly seem a great measure, as the three-degree, 25-year difference between temperature records on two consecutive days attests. So here are the monthly temperature extremes for Fort McMurray:
As it turns out, May’s record temperature for Fort McMurray is almost 35°C, set in 1986, so the weather last week was not exactly unprecedented. Six months of the year have seen record highs of over 30°C. Most of those records were set in the 1970s and 1980s, and all of them were set before the turn of the last century, which hardly suggests that the weather is rapidly getting hotter.
Some of the media referred to a Scientific American article from 2013, which claimed: “Boreal Forests Burning More Now Than Any Time in Past 10,000 Years”. But if you read the actual study, which is based on sediment samples from Alaska, you’ll find that “now” actually means “in the last few thousand years”.
A chart in that study for the past 3,000 years shows that today’s boreal forest fire frequency is lower than it was 2,000 years ago, and is no higher than it was 1,000 years ago, during what the authors call the “Medieval Climate Anomaly” – and the rest of us know this as the Medieval Warm Period, during which temperatures were comparable to those of today.
The measure of charcoal accumulation in sediment (Char) as a ratio of fire frequency (FF), which is assumed to indicate fire severity, rose until about 700 years ago, before starting a steady decline which is still ongoing. So on a long time scale, there appears to be nothing noteworthy going on.
If you consider shorter time frames, several sources suggest an increase in wildfire activity since 1970. This may be so, but Canadian data shows that last century’s slow increase in wildfire area and frequency peaked in 1990. Since then, both measures have been on the decline:
US data is far more revealing about this claim, however. In his testimony before the US Congress in June of 2014, David B. South, a retired emeritus professor at Auburn University, showed two data series representing millions of acres burned for every year since 1926 and 1960, and 1960 and 2013, respectively. Concatenating the two shows that despite a slow uptick in the last few decades, historical fires between the turn of the century and the 1950s were far more widespread than modern wildfires.
The most detailed data series on fire frequency and severity I could find studied wildfires in the US’s Yosemite National Park over a 25-year period between 1984 and 2009. Published in the journal Fire Ecology by James A. Lutz et al in 2011, it does not suggest any clear trends in fire frequency, area or severity:
Wildfires are common, natural, and complex phenomena. Hot, dry, windy weather obviously presents good conditions for wildfires. However, their frequency, area and severity depend on many factors, most of which have nothing to do with humans, or even climate. Attributing a weather-related event to climate change is always unscientific. Climate change deals with long-term trends, not specific weather events. Even extreme weather events – which the Fort McMurray wildfire is not – are hard or impossible to explain simply by referring to climate change. Other factors, including short-term weather variability, usually play a far greater role.
“[E]xplaining the causes of specific extreme events in near-real time is severely stretching the current state of the science,” a paper in the journal of the American Meteorological Society says. The IPCC itself says: “Attribution of single extreme events to anthropogenic climate change is challenging.”
There is no evidence that climate change has anything to do with present-day wildfires at all, and scientists’ understanding of what climate change might mean for the future of wildfires remains very limited. Sadly, this doesn’t appear to bother the sensationalist media, opportunistic politicians, and ambitious environmental activists. Facts seldom surface in a cesspool of public fear, media sensationalism, political opportunism, and cynical recrimination.
In the face of a disaster that seems too large to control or even understand, one of our baser instincts is to try to find someone to blame. People have been doing this for millennia, lynching or sacrificing those who brought down the wrath of the gods upon them. Another of our base tendencies is to exploit disasters for partisan gain, blaming political opponents and assuring the public that your side has all the answers.
The more civilised, reasoned response is to concede that sometimes we don’t have all the answers, and it isn’t because political opponents have angered the gods. Sometimes, all we can do is watch in horror as people flee their homes, and applaud the bravery and generosity of those who try to help them.
Either way, neither global warming nor the oil sands caused the Fort McMurray wildfires. Anyone who says so is mistaken, a cynical opportunist, or both. DM