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A charred vehicle and homes are pictured in the Beacon Hill neighbourhood of Fort McMurray, Alberta, Canada, May 9, 2016 after wildfires forced the evacuation of the town. (Photo: Chris Wattie/Reuters)

The Fort McMurray Fire: 'Absolutely a Harbinger of Things to Come'

'For me, climate change is the face of this problem,' says Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne

Deirdre Fulton

The devastating wildfire in Fort McMurray, Canada appears to be losing its intensity, as weather conditions improve for firefighters and initial assessments of staggering damage trickle in.

Meanwhile, awareness of the massive fire's significance in the context of climate change continues to spread.

"Alberta's unusually early and large fire is just the latest of many gargantuan fires on an Earth that's grown hotter with more extreme weather," the Associated Press wrote on Wednesday.

Indeed, the New York Times reported last month:

Fires, once largely confined to a single season, have become a continual threat in some places, burning earlier and later in the year, in the United States and abroad. They have ignited in the West during the winter and well into the fall, have arrived earlier than ever in Canada and have burned without interruption in Australia for almost 12 months.

The Times reported further on Wednesday, citing boreal forest fires "throughout the hemisphere":

Global warming is suspected as a prime culprit in the rise of these fires. The warming is hitting northern regions especially hard: Temperatures are climbing faster there than for the Earth as a whole, snow cover is melting prematurely, and forests are drying out earlier than in the past. The excess heat may even be causing an increase in lightning, which often sets off the most devastating wildfires.

"Based on what we know and in which direction the climate is going, yes, we can expect more frequent super fires," Marko Princevac, a fire expert at the University of California at Riverside, told CNBC this week. "There is scientific consensus that climate change will lead to much more intense fires, more dry areas."

And it's a double-whammy, the Times noted, as "scientists say a large-scale loss of the forest could have profound consequences for efforts to limit the damage from climate change."

However, making connections between the tragic inferno and human-caused climate change is dicey business.

"Understandably, the last thing the victims of the Fort McMurray fire wanted to hear as they arrived at their temporary lodgings in Edmonton (many unsure if their homes had been destroyed or not) were climate activist critiques of the fossil fuel industry’s role in global warming and the disaster," John Collins wrote at In These Times, pointing to the mammoth tar sands industry that provided many of Fort McMurray's jobs.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau tread lightly, for example, when asked by journalists last week about the link between climate change and the forest fire. 

"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, before cautioning against trying "to make a political argument out of one particular disaster."

But "[s]tating that climate change is political, instead [of] science, is exactly the problem," author and professor G. Elijah Dann wrote in a blog post on Tuesday. "It indicates our society's grim lack of awareness over the most pressing issue now facing humanity."

Dann labeled such avoidance the "not now" meme, and explored a different manifestation of it taking place in the U.S.:

Note how it has been effectively employed by the NRA in the U.S. to stifle all critical thought about another "controversial" topic: gun control.

Every time a mass shooting happens, with the young, old, teenagers and mothers and fathers lying in blood, if one dares mention how we have to talk about gun control, the NRA, along with its various politicians and proponents yell back, "Now is not the time!"

Time passes, people get busy again with their lives and the conversation dissipates—at least until another gun tragedy happens once more, with the same injunction that we don't talk about it, not yet. In the meantime, the tragedies continue.

Not all elected officials have been so reticent to tackle the issue, however.

"I think there are a lot of factors in this situation and we are very, very sad and we think of the people of Alberta," Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne said over the weekend during a French-language interview with Radio-Canada's political show, Les Coulisses du Pouvoir. "But we must talk about the causes and for me, climate change—extreme weather events—is the face of this problem and for me, it's not about the economy, it's not about industry, it's an issue about the environment."

With abundant evidence available of the devastation wrought by such blazes, the U.S. Forest Service "should be doing all it can to reduce its own contribution to climate change," Earthjustice staff attorney Ted Zukoski wrote in a piece published Wednesday at Politico

In addition to drying out the environment, he added:

Climate change is also making insect outbreaks last longer. In Colorado, millions of acres of spruce and pine trees have been killed by beetles. Such outbreaks are typically halted only by a week or two of bitter cold temperatures. But with climate change bringing warmer winters to the West, those cold snaps rarely happen and the beetles munch on. This has further damaged trees in Colorado and stretched the Forest Service’s resources. And once these trees die, the forest may not recover. A Forest Service study completed in February predicted that iconic aspen and spruce forests would virtually disappear across large swaths of southwest Colorado forests in less than 45 years as landscapes dry out.

"But instead," Zukoski continued, "as soon as this month, the agency intends to rubber-stamp a plan to open 20,000 acres of roadless Colorado forest to road-building, a move designed to pave the way for mining 170 million tons of coal there."

As the carbon-spewing tar sands did in Alberta, such a move "will light the fuse to a huge carbon bomb; when burned, this coal will cause 130 million additional tons of CO2 emissions—as much as running a large coal-fired power plant nonstop for over a decade," Zukoski said.

Thus, "a dangerous feedback loop" is created, the New York Times explained Wednesday:

The forests of the world are helping to offset rising human emissions of greenhouse gases, absorbing a significant portion of the carbon dioxide that the burning of fossil fuels throws into the air. So far, even as fires and other disturbances increase, the forests are growing more than enough to compensate.

But scientists see a risk that if the destruction from fires and insects keeps rising, the situation will reverse, and some of the carbon that has been locked away in the forests will return to the atmosphere as carbon dioxide, accelerating the pace of global warming and further magnifying the stress on the forests — a dangerous feedback loop.

As Canadian climate scientist Andrew Weaver, a Green party legislator in the British Columbia parliament, told the AP of the Fort McMurray fire: "This is absolutely a harbinger of things to come."

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