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Fort Mac Fire Sparked Little Media Talk of Global Warming

'If not now, then when would be a good time to discuss climate?' asks journo prof.

Mychaylo Prystupa 13 Jun

Mychaylo Prystupa is a Jack Webster award-winning freelance journalist with 14 years experience, including eight as a CBC News reporter. He freelances for the Tyee and the Globe and Mail. Find him on Twitter @mychaylo, or his website here.

The wildfire that scorched Canada's oilsands city of Fort McMurray, endangered lives, and burned 1,929 homes provoked hardly a murmur in news stories about whether climate change was a factor in the blaze, a Tyee analysis has found.

A search of Google News from the first two weeks of the crisis for "Fort McMurray" and "fire" produced 367 unique articles. Only about six per cent of those news stories focused on global warming.

News coverage was overwhelmingly about personal stories, sympathy for the city's escapees, trivia about the blaze, and how Canadians, firefighters, and oil companies rose to the disaster challenge.

About 94 per cent of articles examined, or 341 of them, did not focus on climate change, even though it is a well known scientific conclusion -- by NASA, the IPCC, the University of Alberta, and other scientific institutions -- that global warming worsens wildfires.

Mount Royal University journalism professor Sean Holman was so bothered by the scant climate coverage in the Fort Mac fire story that he stood up at a national journalism conference in Edmonton to ask reporters why.

"If not now, then when would be a good time to discuss climate?" Holman asked at a Canadian Association of Journalists conference panel recently. "Now is when the most eyeballs are looking at the issue."

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'The Beast' consuming the forest next to Highway 63 south of Fort McMurray on May 7. Photo by Chris Schwarz / Government of Alberta.

News editors likely would not have missed the climate change irony of Fort McMurray getting hit by an extreme weather disaster. The Athabasca oilsands region mined two million barrels of bitumen last year, and oil and gas emitted more global warming gases than any other sector in Canada.

But linking the blaze to the burning of fossil fuels may have hurt a lot of hard-hit people. The oilsands were already reeling from thousands of layoffs due to the lowest oil prices in a generation. As one Edmonton ER nurse who attended to Fort Mac fire evacuees put it, "maybe it's still too soon to talk about climate."

Holman disagrees. "Journalists need to remember that it is not our job to make the public happy, or make public officials happy. Our job is to try to tell truths, regardless whether those truths are liked by the public."

Instead, Holman says the media was too easily seduced by "wildfire porn" -- visuals of houses burning, water bombers diving, or residents being evacuated -- and less interested in the tough accountability questions.

"Most wildfires are caused by a variety of different things, ranging from humans to lightning strikes. That's not at issue. What's at issue is how that initial moment ends up becoming a disaster. Why did this all go wrong? Why is there more damage being caused by these wildfires? Why are we seeing them more frequently?"

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TV reporters doing live stand ups near burnt roadways in Fort McMurray on June 1. Photo by Mychaylo Prystupa.

Breaking two heat records

Research suggests global warming is making boreal infernos more likely. A 2015 cross-Canada wildfire study by the University of Alberta, the University of Toronto, and Natural Resources Canada concluded that a one degree increase in warmth needs a 15 per cent increase in precipitation to compensate.

And Fort McMurray got very hot. It broke two heat records at the start of the crisis, according to Environment Canada. On May 3, the day of the exodus in bumper-to-bumper traffic, the city hit 32.6 C -- a record not broken since the end of the Second World War in 1945. The next day on May 4, Fort Mac reached 31.7 C, beating the previous record set in 1992.

El Nino is also believed to be a factor in the overall heat. It cycles heat waves every two for seven years.

Some Canadian news outlets did raise the spectre of global warming in the blaze -- including Maclean's and the National Post.

But foreign publications, such as the Guardian, the Economist, Vice and Slate were more likely to talk about the issue.

A business writer with one of Canada's largest newspapers, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said that news editors don't want to give a "political soap box" to anti-oil advocates seeking to sensationalize the fire.

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Hazmat crews sprayed fluids on June 1 week to dampen toxic ash in Beacon Hill, one of the worst hit neighbourhoods in the Fort McMurray wildfire disaster. Photo by Mychaylo Prystupa.

Edmonton journalist Ed Struzik, who is writing a book on wildfires, says Alberta media has long "treated the tar sands with kids gloves." The most hard-hitting articles about the environmental concerns about the oilsands have come from outside mainstream media, he said.

Struzik recalls a conversation years ago with an Alberta newspaper editor, who Struzik said told him: "It's time to stop writing about climate change because it was just a fad in journalism, and I should move on to something else.

"I think he reflected a view of editors and publishers at the papers. It was not in their interest to tackle an issue which would be in the crosshairs of the fossil fuel industry."

Forest fires in western Canada burn five times more intensely now than at any time in the last 10,000 years, scientific evidence suggests. "Fires are burning bigger, hotter, faster and in more unpredictable ways, because climate change is now the new dragon in the forest," Struzik said.

Climate change will not be investigated

But don't count on the Alberta government to look into climate change factors in its official investigation.

"No, we're not going to look at the climate stuff and trends specifically. We'll investigate cause and origin," said Alberta Wildfire senior manager Chad Morrison. "Is [climate change] a contributing factor? I don't have the answer for that. I wish I did."

B.C. and Saskatchewan wildfire officials say Alberta is just following the national procedure for wildfire investigations in Canada. The purpose is to isolate the trigger for the fire, to support arson prosecutions, but also to aid other efforts to stop wildfires.

So, what did Canadians read about the blaze? News coverage was overwhelmingly about personal stories and sympathy for the community.

There was the story about the firefighter who filmed his own home burning down; the school principal who drove a bus load of kids through a burning city; and the heartache of residents dealing with the loss of entire neighbourhoods.

One National Post writer called the disaster the "anti-Deepwater Horizon spill" -- contrasting the compassion for Fort McMurray to the global outrage over the 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil spill disaster that had even President Obama's daughters demanding action.

There was also lots of trivia: the strip club dancers "with big hearts"; the cat named "Tux" who survived the blaze by holing up in a stove; and the Oilsands Action Centre that lost all its "I [heart] oilsands" signs in the flames.

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Alberta Premier Rachel Notley on June 1 at a press conference in Fort McMurray. Photo by Mychaylo Prystupa.

For her part, Alberta's NDP Premier Rachel Notley told The Tyee in Fort McMurray on June 1 that she doesn't think wildfire is the right "trigger" for a climate change discussion. Here's that exchange.

The Tyee: "Premier Notley, it's a delicate question, but given all that people have suffered in this wildfire, and all that we know about the climate science, that climate change worsens the intensity of wildfires -- do you think now is the time to finally start a conversation in northern Alberta about diversifying our energy?"

Premier Notley: "First of all, I don't think the fire is the trigger for the conversation, nor do I think it's fair to characterize it as though that conversation wasn't already happening, because it was, and I think we had some very responsible energy producers that are based out of Fort McMurray who were committed to reducing the amount of carbon in the product that we produce and export."

In the oil patch, many producers now accept the overwhelming scientific consensus that their products are warming the planet. Said Suncor CEO Steve Williams to a Vancouver business summit in March: "On the record, I believe climate change is happening. I believe fossil fuels are a contributor."

What still needs investigating is whether they just may have helped burn down Fort McMurray, too.  [Tyee]

Read more: Energy, Environment

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