As British Columbia declares a(nother) state of emergency in response to an epic wildfire season, and smoke from the province’s more than 600 fires affects air quality in many parts of the country, analysts and activists are drawing the connections between a year of severe climate impacts and energy policies destined to make the problem worse—including a certain, soon-to-be-nationalized pipeline for which B.C. has been ground zero for continuing protests.
With Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in the province last week for a family vacation and a cabinet retreat in Nanaimo, protesters accused the PM of fiddling while the forests burn. “Justin Trudeau’s twin objectives to reduce Canada’s carbon emissions and build a pipeline to carry oilsands bitumen to the coast collided Wednesday in a province ravaged by wildfires that the prime minister’s own government attributes to climate change,” The Canadian Press reports.
“Inhale Justin, that’s the smell of global warming,” read one banner, when several hundred people gathered outside the cabinet retreat.
“Climate Leaders Don’t Buy Pipelines,” read another.
“If I was talking to Trudeau right now, first thing I’d say is ‘Stop digging. You’re in a hole,’” said Sierra Club BC campaigner Mark Worthing. “That’s the corner he’s put himself into.”
The PM “said he would be a climate leader and he said this was the time for innovation, job creation, and renewable energy,” added local MP Sheila Malcolmson (NDP, Nanaimo-Ladysmith). “Purchasing a 65-year-old, leaky pipeline…he got snowed on this.”
“As our province goes up in flames and the smoke chokes us all, the prime minister is blithely fiddling away our tax dollars to buy a white elephant of a pipeline that promises to worsen the climate crisis,” wrote Joan Richardt of Sydney, B.C., in a letter to the Victoria Times-Colonist. “If he doesn’t change his tune, federal Liberals in B.C. will be toast in the next election, along with the charred remains of our forests.”
B.C. Premier John Horgan blamed climate change for the province’s “catastrophic fire season” and reiterated his opposition to the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion (though not to his own province’s natural gas expansion plans and the climate pollution they will produce). Outside the cabinet meeting, Environment and Climate Minister Catherine McKenna “tried to square the circle of the federal approach to pipelines and climate change,” CP reports.
“This summer is a wake-up call. We’ve seen extreme weather, we’ve seen extreme heat that is literally costing lives, we’ve seen here forest fires, we’ve seen extreme flooding,” she said. But while Ottawa is pricing carbon, leading a coal phaseout, and making “historic investments” in green infrastructure and climate adaptation, “transitions do not happen overnight,” she added. “I’ve always said I’m the environment minister for energy workers as much as environmentalists.”
In an opinion piece published while federal ministers were in the province, the National Observer editorial board took a different view of the province’s summer wake-up call.
“Economic competition spurs innovation, productivity, and growth,” Observer wrote. “But now Canada appears to have joined a global pilot project to show how competition can lead us toward the end of civilization as we know it. Hyperbolic? We won’t know until it’s too late. This conversation is about carbon and we open with a dramatic statement to be sure everyone is paying attention. The stakes could not be higher.”
The post contrasts the scene in Paris nearly three years ago, when virtually all the countries of the world seemed to be pulling in the right direction, to a moment in which Canada, Australia, and the United States are backing away from climate action. After the federal government courageously put forward a national floor price on carbon, opposition to the plan is coalescing and “the courage seems to be seeping away,” Observer states, with Trudeau apparently feeling “trapped between domestic economic concerns and a global race to the economic bottom”.
Observer editors urge Trudeau to state clearly that the world can’t afford not to cut carbon, force Donald Trump’s hand by making an emissions plan a part of an updated NAFTA deal, then bring the issue back to the world stage when the UN General Assembly meets next month.
“This is what is known as a leadership moment,” and “retreat is the wrong answer, politically and substantively.”
That line of thought echoed much of the reaction Trudeau and Horgan received when they described this year’s wildfire season as a sign of the “new normal”. Sustainability organizer Tesicca Truong, co-founder of Vancouver’s CityHive and a member of B.C.’s Climate Solutions and Clean Growth Advisory Panel, told CBC no one should consider it “normal” to anticipate a future when it will be risky to breathe.
“That [term] really allows us to settle into this instead of thinking critically,” she said. “We don’t know what the new normal will be.”
“We need to be talking more about what this looks like in the future and not think about this as a settled thing,” agreed David Suzuki Foundation staffer Emilia Belliveau, who attended the 2015 Paris climate conference as a B.C. youth delegate. “We haven’t even really developed the language to hold conversations that hold the amount of grief and stress and the sense of fear and loss that are accompanying these early signs.”
Environment Canada senior climatologist David Phillips added that he wouldn’t normalize this year’s conditions “unless it meant expect more of the unexpected. Normal implies stability, that we’ve reached a plateau,” when the reality is that “when you change the climate, you change the weather.”
Noting that this is the third year in the last four when many parts of B.C. have faced air quality advisories, CBC cites emergency room physician Dr. Courtenay Howard, president of the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment, warning about the health impacts of wildfire smoke.
While “we don’t really have good data on what the long-term impacts of what a really acute, long-term exposure like this would be,” Howard said her hospital in Yellowknife, NWT saw asthma rates double after a bad wildfire season in 2014. “For the longest time, we were talking about the polar bears and asking people to change their behaviours,” she said. “But really, we are seeing very clearly that this is about our children. This is about what we breathe.”
In its weekly Canada Letter, the New York Times describes what it looks like when extreme fires come to be seen as routine. In B.C. and Alberta, “smoky skies have turned the sun into a tangerine-coloured ball and led to cancelled sporting events and grounded flights. Wine producers in British Columbia are even worried about the smoke affecting the flavour of their grapes.” And for thousands of evacuees and others living close to the fires, “the situation is much more terrifying.
While noting that one person usually discards the cigarette, strikes the match, lights the campfire, sets the fireworks, or has a hand in the highway collision that triggers a wildfire, the Times’ Canadian correspondent Ian Austen acknowledges that “dry, hot weather related to climate change has played an important role in the catastrophe,” in the U.S. as in Canada. British Columbia is responding to the more immediate cause, if not the more structural one, with the announcement that drivers might risk having their cars impounded if they throw cigarette butts out the window.
“We must send a clear message to those who carelessly start wildfires that their behaviour will not be tolerated,” the province said in a release.