Green Party leader Elizabeth May has written a lengthy response to a backlash she received after placing the Fort McMurray wildfire in the context of climate change.
“In the days that have followed I have tried to make sense of the thrashing I got from the media and the sanctimonious refusal to mention climate change coming from other party leaders,” she wrote for the May 19 edition of Island Tides, a Vancouver Island newspaper. “Some interviewed in the media in the days that followed agreed that I had stated the science very clearly and accurately, but that it was ‘too soon’ to mention climate change as people were fleeing the fire.
“Why is that?” May continued. “When Typhoon Haiyan hit, scientists and leaders from the Philippines were quick to say that they were being hit by climate change. The same thing had been the case during Hurricane Katrina. When massive rains hit Bangladesh and people were swept away in the floods, there was no rule that said ‘don’t mention climate change’. When the fires ringed Moscow, destroying their grain crops and threatening homes, media coverage included the recognition that this was likely due to climate change. Dozens of other examples come to mind.
“Are we not allowed to link climate change to disasters in Canada?”
May, the B.C. MP for Saanich–Gulf Islands, went on to offer an explanation for the severity of the response she received.
“My theory is this,” she wrote. “The Fort McMurray fire is the first time a community has been walloped by climate change where the activity of the community itself was linked in the public mind with fossil fuels. Unlike the vast majority of the extreme events and climate refugees we have seen so far, the victims had a connection to the fossil fuel industry. Even the Calgary flood had a touch of this phobic reaction.
“And thus, even though I made it clear the fleeing families of Fort McMurray were no more to blame for the extreme fires than people in low lying island states are when they are permanently removed from their homes due to sea level rise, the connection is so strongly embedded in our consciousness that it appeared unkind to mention it. If we cannot talk about climate change when we are experiencing it, if there is a public taboo on truth, how do we recognize the urgent need for action? How do we take the steps to prevent future catastrophe?”
May’s original comments about the Fort McMurray fire and climate change were made at a May 4 press conference in response to a question from the National Observer’s Mike de Souza.
May responded with an answer that was quite nuanced, as far as press conferences go.
“The fact that the forest-fire season has arrived so early in northern Alberta is very likely a climate event,” she replied. “Very likely related to extreme high temperatures and very low humidity, very low precipitation and it is, as we saw in the quote from one of the firefighters, it’s a firestorm.
“It jumped a highway, it jumped a river,” May continued. “It’s a devastating tragedy right now and I think our focus is always on the right now: to think for the firefighters, for first responders, for people who are losing their homes. It’s a disaster. But it’s a disaster that is very related to the global climate crisis.”
On May 3, more than 80,000 people were forced to flee their homes after a mandatory evacuation order was issued for all of Fort McMurray.
During the night that followed, the town in northeastern Alberta was hit hard by the wildfire. Hundreds of home were destroyed.
Nearly two weeks later, most residents have still not been allowed to return to the city.