Why can’t we talk about climate change?

In the last week of June 1988, there was a brutal heat wave holding a wilting Toronto in its grip. I was the senior policy advisor to the federal minister of environment and part of the team that organized a major international conference that took place in Toronto that week, ‘Our Changing Atmosphere: Implications for Global Security’. Among the dozens of presenters was the head of the Canadian Forest Service, Jag Maini. He explained how climate change would lead to threats to Canadian forests; how, if we did not act to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, in the future our forests would experience more losses to insects, disease and more extreme and frequent forest fires.

On May 4 of this year, with a wildfire out of control and a massive evacuation of Fort McMurray underway, I immediately sent out tweets calling for people to send donations to the Red Cross.

Then, at a press conference I held to release a performance review of the first six months of the Trudeau administration, Mike de Souza from the National Observer asked if I thought there was any connection between the fire raging through Fort McMurray and climate change.

I always answer questions and I didn’t think I was climbing out on any limb. I spoke carefully about the nature of the connection; that scientists will not link any specific extreme event to climate change, but that we have known for decades that climate change would lead to more forest fires, of greater severity. I noted that it had been a spring that smashed through the temperature records of northern Alberta, with very little rain and very low humidity. The conditions experienced in northern Alberta that led to the fire were very likely related to climate change.

I was asked if the fire was worse in the region of the oil sands because of the pollution there. That notion I corrected very quickly. I explained that global warming is a global problem and that Canada is only 2% of global emissions. The location of the fire in the vicinity of Fort McMurray had nothing whatsoever to do with the activities of the people of Fort McMurray. In fact, I made the point that they had no responsibility for the fire at all.

Reaction to reports of my comments was almost immediate, with the added torquing that somehow it was in bad taste to mention climate change at all. That reaction would have been appropriate if I had said the people of Fort McMurray had it coming. It was really bizarre.

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. 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? 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? Not always. Former Premier Gordon Campbell named climate change as the cause of the loss of BC’s interior lodgepole pine forests, even as mills were closing, communities displaced and billions of valuable resources were lost.

Is it collective Canadian cognitive dissonance? What made so many people think it was an offence to answer a question? As Elizabeth Kolbert wrote in her New Yorker article on the controversy, ‘To fail to acknowledge the connection is to risk another kind of offence’.

My theory is this. 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?

Originally published in Island Tides.