Friday May 06, 2016

Fort McMurray fire: How soon is too soon to talk about climate change?

A truck drives on a highway as wildfire burns south of Fort McMurray, Alberta, Canada, on Wednesday, May 4, 2016.

A truck drives on a highway as wildfire burns south of Fort McMurray, Alberta, Canada, on Wednesday, May 4, 2016. (Darryl Dyck/Bloomberg)

Listen 8:52

Thousands of people are displaced, hundreds of homes and businesses are lost, and the early wildfires are still burning. And according to some scientists, you could blame climate change.

But should you?

That's a question Simon Donner thought about when the media started reporting on the Fort McMurray fire. Donner is a climate scientist, and an associate professor at the Department of Geography at the University of British Columbia. While he agrees climate change probably contributed to the fire, he doesn't believe it's his job to push that point home right now.

If my coming out and talking about climate change the day after this devastating fire is only going to alienate people, not only am I being disrespectful, I'm not even being an effective communicator. - Simon Donner, Associate Professor, University of British Columbia

Click the play button above to hear the full interview. The following has been edited for clarity and length.

Is it scientifically reasonable to say that the fire in Fort McMurray is due to climate change?

It is. We're seeing record-breaking temperatures. Temperatures four or five degrees greater than the previous records in that part of the country. But also, the low snow-pack, the early melt, led to really dry soils and dry fuel-load that could fuel a fire. And these are all things that the scientific projections are saying are going to become more common. So yes, climate change has probably played a role here.

So should we be saying the fire in Fort McMurray is due to climate change.

You know, that's a much more difficult question. The first question was a question for which there's an objective scientific answer. We can look at data, we can look at formulas and we answer. But here there's no real perfect formula. It's more of a moral question and a question of values. And one on which we're going to legitimately disagree. And my answer comes as much from Dr. Donner the scientist as much as from Simon, just the Canadian. I think we should wait a little bit. We should at least wait out a few days and allow people to deal with the terrible consequences of this fire. And that's just out of basic human decency.

CANADA-WILDFIRE/FORTMCMURRAY

(Chris Schwarz/Government of Alberta/Reuters)

 I mean, it's one thing to talk about the proximate causes of the fire. The fact that it was twenty degrees Celsius hotter than normal last week. But it's another thing to get into the ultimate causes: what we need to do about climate change, at a time when people's homes are literally being destroyed by a fire. 

Okay well, if you're going to be Simon, let me be Dr. Donner. If you want people to care about climate change, isn't this the reason why they should care? That it will cause fires and cause floods and force people to leave their homes and lose their livelihoods. Why not say 'if you don't like what's happening now, then you need to do something about climate change'?

So obviously I agree that we do need to do something about this issue and it's the responsibility of people like myself to educate and engage and to talk about this, but I want to make sure I'm doing so effectively. With that responsibility to talk about issues like this, what comes with that, is thinking about how you can be effective. And if my coming out and talking about climate change the day after this devastating fire is only going to alienate people, not only am I being disrespectful, I'm not even being an effective communicator. 

If this fire happened outside of Kamloops, B.C. or Timmins, Ontario, someplace unconnected to fossil-fuel extraction, would the conversation be different?

I think the conversation would be a little bit different, and I think that's okay. So if the fire happened on the campus of the University of British Columbia where I work and where we have a large area of forest, and where the campus has widespread acceptance of the scientific consensus on climate change, it probably would be appropriate to talk about it, if not the day of the fire then the day afterwards. But we need to take the circumstances and the audience into account when we're trying to engage with people about this issue. The one caveat I would say about all of this is, I'm assuming we're having an open and honest discussion. For example, every time there's a mass shooting in the U.S. people begin talking about gun control, which is an obvious, natural response. And when that happens the National Rifle Association will come out and say 'it's inappropriate to use the tragedy to make a political point.' I'd have sympathy for that argument if it were coming from the family of the victim. But I don't have sympathy if it's coming from the N.R.A. because they're being manipulative.

We should wait a few days, and then we can start thinking about tomorrow. But that doesn't mean every voice saying it's inappropriate to talk about climate change right now is coming to the conversation honestly. - Simon Donner, Associate Professor, University of British Columbia

They're themselves using the tragedy to repeat some talking points. And that's not because of my personal stance on gun control, that's just about decency. So I think the same thing does apply here. We should wait a few days, and then we can start thinking about tomorrow. But that doesn't mean every voice that is saying it's inappropriate to talk about climate change right now is coming to the conversation honestly. Some people are going to do that; columnists from some newspaper or whatever, they're going to do that to say 'let's not talk about climate change at all.' There are politics on both sides.