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David Staples: The politics of wildfires and eco-terrorism are intensifying in Alberta

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A new wildfire season is upon us in Alberta, and there is at least one worrying sign about the severity of the fires.

There were still 64 wildfires burning throughout the winter from last year's severe wildfire season, Christie Tucker, head of Alberta's Wildfire Information Unit, said Thursday at the province's first 2024 wildfire update news conference.

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Five hundred acres have already burned, Tucker said. That's about 400 hectares more than we had this time last year.

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If that isn't enough to worry about, there are the crazy political fireworks. The debate over the causes and prevention of wildfires has become intensely, even absurdly political.

In extreme cases, partisans' first question about last summer's record wildfires in Alberta was: “Were the fires started by arsonists, perhaps even left-wing eco-terrorists?”

At the other extreme, the first response was, “It’s all because of global warming.” The world is burning!”

Hardly a month went by when Trudeau's Environment Minister Steve Guilbeault didn't take to social media to invoke the threat of wildfires and blame climate change entirely.

In December 2023, Trudeau's Energy Minister Jonathan Wilkinson, who pushed the Liberals' plan for the world's most aggressive emissions cap on Canada's oil and gas sector, said: “We're talking a lot about climate change these days for a very good reason – the planet is in distress.” burning.”

The scaremongering on the right was equally intense. As the National Post's Tristin Hopper noted last June, when Canada's wildfires were doing the most damage: “Several social media posts went viral with satellite videos showing nearly a dozen Quebec wildfires starting virtually simultaneously on June 1.” “The suggestion that this was the case is evidence of human coordination.”

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The situation in Alberta's fire-ravaged communities is so dire that the mere mention of climate change as a cause of our wildfires could well provoke anger, as Forestry Minister Todd Loewen recently noted in Parliament. In a speech arguing for the need for tougher penalties for those who commit arson, Loewen said: “I know what would happen if I went into communities that have lost their homes to fires and said “When they asked me, 'What are you going to do this year to prevent wildfires?' If I said, 'I'm going to fight climate change,' I don't think they would leave the community without being lynched.”

Feelings are running hot. While we can't lower the outside temperature to cool this fire season, perhaps we can in this debate.

I think it's best to look beyond politicians for guidance and instead look to public intellectuals like climate scientist Judith Curry and University of Colorado Boulder Prof. Roger Pielke Jr., an expert on public policy around climate change prefer those who recognize the climate change is real, the slow, gradual warming of our planet is taking place, but don't immediately scream that we are facing a fiery apocalypse.

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At the height of Canada's fire season, Pielke wrote a Substack article arguing that the narrative that climate change was responsible for the new wave of massive fires worldwide was inaccurate. It also contradicts the findings of the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), Pielke said.

Weather is not the most important factor in creating the dry, hot “fire weather” that can lead to more wildfires, the IPCC reported: “Human activity has become the dominant driver.”

However, according to European Union data, forest fire emissions have declined worldwide since 2003, Pielke said. Some regions of the world are experiencing more fire weather but not others, and the IPCC was very confident that only a few regions will see an increase in fire weather by 2050. There is no sign of an increase in fire weather worldwide until 2100.

When it comes to our wildfires, Pielke said there hasn't been an increase in fire activity in Canada in recent decades. “Over a much longer period of time, dating back to the 1700s, research suggests that recent 'burning rates' across Canada have been much lower in recent decades than in previous centuries.”

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When it comes to fighting wildfires, Pielke pointed to an OECD report on useful measures such as creating fuel breaks and buffer zones, ensuring infrastructure resilience and raising public awareness of wildfire risk.

OECD report on wildfires

Our most sensible choice?

First, reject the politicization of wildfires. Stop imagining that you are the first rider of the climate apocalypse or part of a gigantic conspiracy of eco-terrorists intent on causing trouble.

Second, focus on what matters most: put out the fire, help the victims as best we can, and see if we can prevent other similar fires.

Just as we did in saner, less divided times.

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