Refusing to link climate change to the Fort McMurray wildfires puts Albertans at odds with the scientific consensus and it's a barrier to a meaningful conversation on how to move forward, an award-winning journalist told hundreds at the Congress 2016 of the Humanities and Social Sciences on Sunday.

Naomi Klein, a best-selling author, social activist and filmmaker addressed themes from her most recent book, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs the Climatein Calgary, the heart of the oil and gas industry in Canada.

While Klein expressed compassion for the evacuees of the Fort McMurray wildfire, she said refusing to link it clearly to climate change is shortsighted.

"Every serious international publication has linked the fires with climate change," Klein told about 400 conference attendees.

"It is still something of a controversial statement to say in Alberta, people still feel that it is somehow not compassionate, not polite to make the connections with climate change."

On Saturday, Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi said in his conference keynote address, it wasn't helpful to reduce the conversation to a 'one or the other' proposition when it comes to industry and the environment.

"I believe that we have to adapt to reality," Nenshi said.

"And yes, we're moving to a low carbon future, of course we are, but there's still a role for business, there's still a role for carbon, there's still a role for people to make a decent living."

Klein was present as 177 countries signed on to the 2015 Paris Agreement, which she calls ambitious.

Canada was a leader among industrialized nations in pushing for stricter emission controls, she said.

But getting there involves a dramatic shift in the fossil fuel status quo, which could impact Albertans significantly.

"If we're serious about keeping warming below 1.5 degrees, it actually does mean the end of the fossil fuel era, which I know is a little bit hard to hear in this city."

Klein went on to say that about 90 per cent of high carbon fuels, like bitumen, would have to remain in the ground to reach the targets of the Paris Agreement.

Naomi Klein

Naomi Klein addressed Congress 2016 in Calgary on Sunday. (Mike Symington/CBC)

She also took aim at neoliberal economic policies that have led to the privatization of many publicly held institutions and international trade agreements that allow private companies to sue governments.

She says these policies prevent countries from effectively addressing global warming.

"I have a chapter in my book about dozens of these cases where, when governments do the right thing and introduce good climate legislation, they're getting sued in trade court," Klein explained.

Klein teamed up with her husband, documentary filmmaker Avi Lewis, and other leaders from Canada's Indigenous rights, social and food justice, environmental, faith-based and labour movements to write the controversial Leap Manifesto.

The manifesto advocates a swift end to the use of fossil fuels, including a moratorium on new infrastructure projects such as pipelines that perpetuate reliance on the non-renewable resources that contribute to climate change. It also contains a rebuke of Canadian consumer capitalism and a renewed focus on fighting inequality. 

The document has a wide range of supporters, including actors, labour unions and environmentalists. It was unveiled in September 2015 during the election campaign but received scant attention by any of the major parties at the time.

Manifesto called radical, anti-Alberta, socialist

That changed when it became a central focus at the federal NDP's national convention in Edmonton in April.

The manifesto caused a very public rift between the Alberta NDP, who oppose it, and the federal NDP, who want more discussion

Despite the opposition from Alberta delegates, the majority voted to adopt the principles of the Leap Manifesto just hours before they voted to replace leader Tom Mulcair, who led the party to a disappointing third-place finish in last fall's election on a moderate, centrist platform.

Wildrose Leader Brian Jean has called the document "a radical anti-Alberta resolution," while Alberta PC Leader Ric McIver linked the Notley government to "radical socialist ideology."

CBC commentator Rex Murphy slammed it in a Point of View segment.

Some of those attending Klein's Sunday discussion would disagree.

Chris Loewen, who has read Klein's This Changes Everything, said it was nice to hear it from the source.

Chris Loewen

Chris Loewen said Klein's talk exceeded his expectations. (Mike Symington/CBC)

"It was very uplifting," Loewen told CBC News.

"The round of applause that she got from Calgarians, about the fact that we need to reduce emissions I thought was brilliant. It exceeded my expectations."

'Massive change' possible

Loewen believes getting to a low carbon future will take a big picture approach.

"Each one of us individually can do something and then together, collectively, I think we can make a massive change."

A retired Dalhousie University professor said he liked Klein's directness especially when connecting the Fort McMurray wildfire with climate change.

Nathan Brett

Nathan Brett, a retired university professor, said 'We are late, if anything, in trying to make the changes that are necessary,' of the issues Klein raised in her Sunday speech in Calgary. (Mike Symington/CBC)

"I think she is right," Nathan Brett said.

"We are late, if anything, in trying to make the changes that are necessary. It is very important for us to pay attention to signs like that, that we have gone too far," Brett said.

"We need to drive that message home."

'Circle of solidarity'

Meanwhile, Klein sees a future where communities have control over their energy needs, and empower people economically to make the required changes for a low carbon economy.

"The task now, I believe, is to enlarge that circle of solidarity, that web of compassion to include those not only in our own country but around the world who are also losing their homes and in far too many cases, their lives, because of extreme weather."

Clarifications

  • An earlier version of this story said that Naomi Klein and her husband, Avi Lewis, wrote the Leap Manifesto. In fact, they co-wrote it collaboratively with other leaders from Canada's Indigenous rights, social and food justice, environmental, faith-based and labour movements.
    May 30, 2016 9:29 AM MT