By Graham Saunders
First published in the Chronicle Journal Tuesday May 10, 2016
Environment North and other local groups recently hosted Dr. Gordon Laxer to speak about his new book, “After the Sands, Energy and Ecological Security for Canadians”. To avoid any confusion “the Sands” refer to the Alberta tar sands, or oil sands, or most accurately, Alberta Bitumen Sands. His book was published last year and summarizes Dr. Laxer’s extensive research into the energy and climate policy of this country. He outlines a roadmap to a low-carbon future for Canada.
His book was among the five short-listed for the 2016 J.W. Dafoe book prize for best non-fiction. Ralph Nader calls Laxer’s book a “myth-destroying blockbuster”. (Historical note: A young Environment North brought Ralph Nader, consumer advocate and author of “Unsafe at Any Speed”, to speak in Thunder Bay in the 1970s.)
When Dr. Laxer was invited a couple of months ago organisers could not have imagined that Fort McMurray and surrounding area would be undergoing such a devastating and terrifying wildfire. For those of us who study predictions for climatic change in this country it is one thing to read academic papers and another to witness – even from a distance, the impacts of wildfire on this city and its residents. The entire population of 88,000 was evacuated, some a second time because of the expansion of the fire.
News of the raging wildfire has traveled around the world including to Australia. A quote from Australian climate scientists nearly 20 years ago comes to mind. They stated “a new order of fires should be expected in south-eastern Australia”. Their scenarios included “catastrophic fire events every five to seven years, with fires of such ferocity they would simply engulf towns in their path”. The terrible tragedy of Black Saturday in 2009 caused the deaths of 173 people and destroyed more than 2000 homes in the worst bushfire in Australia’s history.
In 2009, when introducing the Climate Change Accountability Act (Bill C-311) in the House of Commons, then MP Bruce Hyer relayed the Australian experience. He was in effect warning that the boreal forest was vulnerable to this pattern of “every five to seven years . . . and engulf towns in their path”. The wildfire in Slave Lake took place two years later and now five years after, at a higher order of magnitude, Fort McMurray.
Mike Flannigan, originally from Thunder Bay and now a research scientist based in Edmonton, Alberta has provided insight into the current situation in Fort McMurray, “The wildfire season now starts a month earlier than it used to and the average annual area burned has doubled since 1970”.
Some of the feelings of dismay are balanced by the heartening stories of bravery and kindness in Fort McMurray and support from across Canada. Ongoing support will be needed for many of the displaced residents in the months to come.
At the same time we need to look to the coming decades. Communities living in forested regions are paying particular attention to the ferocity of this fire. Will the resources be available if there are simultaneous fires in several regions? For example, British Columbia firefighters are engaged with fires in their own province. On a temporary basis, 100 firefighters from our region have gone to assist Alberta.
Also critical is how Canada will reduce greenhouse gas emissions and reduce the risk of more catastrophic events in the future.
Dr Laxer shared his research and his views. He stated that the environmental price for “the Sands” is too high. His roadmap includes phasing out Canada’s carbon-fuel exporting role and buying some time for Canada by building a pipeline for conventional oil from western to eastern Canada.
Dr Laxer was a guest of Environment North along with CUSP (Citizen’s United for a Sustainable Planet), the Council of Canadians – Thunder Bay Chapter, Ontario Nature, the Environmental Film Network and Fossil Free Lakehead. His talk was followed by a panel discussion with local experts Peter Lang and Elysia Petrone-Reitberger,and moderated by Environment North President Graham Saunders.