Fort McMurray and the fires of climate change

Elizabeth Kolbert writes: No one knows exactly how the fire began — whether it was started by a lightning strike or by a spark provided by a person — but it’s clear why the blaze, once under way, raged out of control so quickly. Alberta experienced an unusually dry and warm winter. Precipitation was low, about half of the norm, and what snow there was melted early. April was exceptionally mild, with temperatures regularly in the seventies; two days ago, the thermometer hit ninety, which is about thirty degrees higher than the region’s normal May maximum. “You hate to use the ​cliché, but it really was kind of a perfect storm,” Mike Wotton, a research scientist with the Canadian Forest Service, told the CBC.

Though it’s tough to pin any particular disaster on climate change, in the case of Fort McMurray the link is pretty compelling. In Canada, and also in the United States and much of the rest of the world, higher temperatures have been extending the wildfire season. Last year, wildfires consumed ten million acres in the U.S., which was the largest area of any year on record. All of the top five years occurred in the past decade. In some areas, “we now have year-round fire seasons,” Matt Jolly, a research ecologist for the United States Forest Service, recently told the Times.

“You can say it couldn’t get worse,” Jolly added, but based on its own projections, the forest service expects that it will get worse. According to a Forest Service report published last April, “Climate change has led to fire seasons that are now on average 78 days longer than in 1970.” Over the past three decades, the area destroyed each year by forest fires has doubled, and the service’s scientists project that it’s likely to “double again by midcentury.” A group of scientists who analyzed lake cores from Alaska to obtain a record of forest fires over the past ten thousand years found that, in recent decades, blazes were both unusually frequent and unusually severe. “This extreme combination suggests a transition to a unique regime of unprecedented fire activity,” they concluded.

All of this brings us to what one commentator referred to as “the black irony” of the fire that has destroyed most of Fort McMurray.

The town exists to get at the tar sands, and the tar sands produce a particularly carbon-intensive form of fuel. (The fight over the Keystone XL pipeline is, at its heart, a fight over whether the U.S. should be encouraging — or, if you prefer, profiting from — the exploitation of the tar sands.) The more carbon that goes into the atmosphere, the warmer the world will get, and the more likely we are to see devastating fires like the one now raging. [Continue reading…]

Bloomberg reports: Wildfires raging through Alberta have spread to the main oil-sands facilities north of Fort McMurray, knocking out an estimated 1 million barrels of production from Canada’s energy hub. Fire officials say the out-of-control inferno may keep burning for months without significant rainfall.

The blaze, forecast to expand to more than 2,500 square kilometers (965 square miles) in the next few days, made an “unexpected” move to the north Saturday, rapidly encroaching bitumen mining operations run by Suncor Energy Inc. and Syncrude Canada Ltd. The fires may soon cover an area the size of Luxembourg.

“It is a dangerous and unpredictable and vicious fire that is feeding off an extremely dry Boreal forest,” federal Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale told reporters Saturday in Regina, Saskatchewan. He said the swirling fire is not yet a threat to any additional communities.

The wildfires have led to combined productions cuts of more than 1 million barrels of oil a day, or about 40 percent of the region’s output of 2.5 million barrels, based on IHS Energy estimates. The cuts, and the mass exodus of more than 80,000 people from the fires raging in Fort McMurray, represent another blow to an economy already mired in recession from the oil price collapse. [Continue reading…]

The Los Angeles Times reports: Though the cause of the fire has not been determined, the inferno has become symbolic of the tension within Canada over its role in climate change.

Some Canadians see the fire as nature lashing back at those who mistreat it in the name of profit.

Others see the hard science: a wildfire formed in conditions consistent with climate change striking with academic irony, not vengeance, in a place that helps supply the world with a fossil fuel. The evacuees were really climate refugees, they say.

Still others view it as just very bad luck, a setback the oil industry will find a way to overcome.

The debate reflects a country wrestling within itself at a difficult moment — and it is testing that famous Canadian civility.

A provincial politician who called the fire “karmic” was quickly castigated and later apologized. When Canadian Green Party leader Elizabeth May said the fire was “very related to the global climate crisis,” Prime Minister Justin Trudeau suggested she was making “a political argument.”

Some environmentalists have been accused of lecturing to or, worse, condemning people who have lost everything. In Fort McMurray, more than 2,000 structures were consumed by the flames.

“I wish I could kick every person posting ‘That’s what you get for living by the oil sands’ comments,” a young Edmonton woman tweeted Tuesday evening at the peak of the evacuation, when flames were whipping across Highway 63, the only road out of Fort McMurray. “You’re terrible people.”

Janet Keeping, the Green Party leader within Alberta, was among several people who invoked climate change early in the week — and did so without clearly expressing support for fire victims. She soon tried to strike a new chord.

“Caring about people means caring about #climatechange,” Keeping wrote Thursday on Twitter.

Alberta’s oil sands are said to hold the third largest reserves in the world, after Saudi Arabia and Venezuela. They made Alberta rich even as they have made Canada uneasy.

Conservation groups have long despised the intensive extraction process involved in gleaning crude from the sands — Alberta would have been the source for the Keystone XL oil pipeline that President Obama rejected last year — and many Canadians loathe what they view as an excessively capitalist culture in Fort McMurray. [Continue reading…]

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Wildfire near Canada’s oil sands may have been fueled by global warming

Brian Kahn writes: An unusually intense May wildfire roared into Fort McMurray, Alberta, Canada, on Tuesday, forcing the largest wildfire evacuation in province history. The flames rode the back of hot, windy weather that will continue through Wednesday and could pick up again this weekend.

The wildfire is the latest in a lengthening lineage of early wildfires in the northern reaches of the globe that are indicative of a changing climate. As the planet continues to warm, these types of fires will likely only become more common and intense as spring snowpack disappears and temperatures warm.

“This (fire) is consistent with what we expect from human-caused climate change affecting our fire regime,” Mike Flannigan, a wildfire researcher at the University of Alberta, said. [Continue reading…]

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Canadians learning Arabic to welcome Syrian refugees

CBC News reports: Many Syrian refugees have already arrived and more are coming to the Waterloo Region [in Southern Ontario], leading some to wonder about what we can do to make these people feel at home in a new country.

In Waterloo Region, a crash course in conversational Arabic is available to residents and several have leaped at the opportunity to learn new language while becoming more useful to those arriving. ​The workshop is meant to teach private refugee sponsors and volunteers.

An organization known as Bring Back Hope, which was founded by Iman Arab, is working in association with Muslim Social Services to put together the four-hour course. The sessions are facilitated by Dr. Amir Al-Azraki, who teaches Arabic at the University of Waterloo and is also a lecturer and playwright.

Leanne Brown works with Carizon Family and Community Services as a school mental health co-ordinator and told CBC’s Melanie Ferrier that the opportunity to help others makes her feel really good.

“I’m here to learn Arabic because of the new refugees coming into our city and just to know how to make them feel welcome,” Brown said. “It’s pretty easy, actually. And I guess for me, learning a new language is very exciting.” [Continue reading…]

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U.S. accepted 2,500 Syrian refugees over four years while Canada took in more in just two months

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The New York Times reports: Among the Obamas’ guests at the State of the Union address on Tuesday was Refaai Hamo, a middle-aged widower with sunken eyes, a side-swept mop of silver hair and a harrowing account of losing his wife and his daughter in an air raid over his home in Syria.

His presence in the gallery was meant to send a signal to the world that the United States — or at least this administration, in its last year in the White House — believes that people like Mr. Hamo deserve a chance to restart their lives in this country.

“The world respects us not just for our arsenal,” President Obama said in his address. “It respects us for our diversity and our openness.”

The gesture raised an obvious question: Has the United States lived up to its idea of itself as a haven for those fleeing war and persecution?

The numbers offer a partial answer, and they reflect the acute dilemmas that confront countries worldwide amid a historic global crisis.

The United Nations says that an estimated 20 million people around the world, half of them children, have fled their home countries because of conflict or persecution. The war in Syria is now the single largest source of new refugees, casting about 4.4 million Syrians out of their country since the conflict began nearly five years ago.

But unlike in 1951 — when the international refugee convention was forged in the aftermath of World War II, requiring countries to offer protection to those scattered by war and persecution — the political calculus for world leaders has sharply shifted. The costs of taking in refugees have grown and the payoffs, many feel, have diminished.

First, the numbers.

The United States has taken in around 2,500 Syrian refugees since 2012, shortly after the war began.

Canada took in more than that in the last two months of 2015 alone.

Brazil has offered what it calls “humanitarian visas” to three times as many Syrian refugees as the United States has accepted — 7,380 at last count by the United Nations refugee agency.

Switzerland has issued 4,700 special-category visas for Syrians who have family in the country. And Australia, which has come under international criticism for turning away boats of potential refugees from South and Southeast Asia, has said it will take 12,000 from Syria and Iraq.

Germany is in a category of its own, with Syrians making up the largest single group (428,500) of the 1.1 million people who were registered as refugees and asylum seekers there in 2015. [Continue reading…]

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To the newcomers from Syria: Welcome to Canada

An editorial in the Toronto Star says: Welcome to Canada.

Ahlan wa sahlan.

You’re with family now.

And your presence among us makes our Christmas season of peace and joy just that much brighter.

The people of Toronto are honoured to greet the very first group of 25,000 Syrians who will be arriving in this country in the next few months, and who have chosen to make a new life here. It’s been a long trek, but you are no longer refugees. Your days of being strangers in a strange land are over.

You are permanent residents of Canada now, with all the rights and protections and possibilities that confers.

You’ll find the place a little bigger than Damascus or Aleppo, and a whole lot chillier. But friendly for all that. We’re a city that cherishes its diversity; it’s our strength. Canadians have been watching your country being torn apart, and know that you’ve been through a terrifying, heartbreaking nightmare. But that is behind you now. And we’re eager to help you get a fresh start. [Continue reading…]

Not only is Canada showing an example that America should follow, but their choice surely poses a problem for Donald Trump and his Islamophobic supporters. If they insist Syrian refugees pose a threat and they also want a wall built along the southern border to keep out illegal immigrants from Mexico, wouldn’t it also make sense (from their point of view) to have a wall between the U.S. and Canada along a border that’s currently so easy to cross?

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Canada to turn away single men as part of Syrian refugee resettlement plan

AFP reports: Canada will accept only whole families, lone women or children in its mass resettlement of Syrian refugees while unaccompanied men – considered a security risk – will be turned away.

Since the Paris attacks launched by Syria-linked jihadis, a plan by the new prime minister, Justin Trudeau, to fast-track the intake of 25,000 refugees by year’s end has faced growing criticism in Canada.

Details of the plan will be announced Tuesday but Canada’s ambassador to Jordan confirmed that refugees from camps in Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey will be flown to Canada from Jordan starting 1 December. [Continue reading…]

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Video: The civilian toll from airstrikes against ISIS

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Canada to end airstrikes in Syria and Iraq, new prime minister Trudeau says

The Guardian reports: Canadian Liberal prime minister designate Justin Trudeau has confirmed that Canada will withdraw its fighter jets from the US-led mission against Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.

In his first news conference following the sweeping majority Liberal victory in Canada’s federal election, the visibly fatigued leader said he had spoken with US president Barack Obama in a phone call during which he discussed his intention to pull Canada’s fighter jets out of the anti-Isis campaign.

“I committed that we would continue to engage in a responsible way that understands how important Canada’s role is to play in the fight against Isil, but he understands the commitments I’ve made about ending the combat mission,” Trudeau said. [Continue reading…]

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Tweets on Justin Trudeau — elected Canadian prime minister

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Harper’s campaign is embracing Islamophobia to make Canada’s election a referendum on the niqab

Rafia Zakaria writes: On Oct. 9, Zunaira Ishaq, an immigrant from Pakistan, finally took her citizenship oath and became a Canadian. Her refusal to take the oath without niqab, or a face veil, has been a subject of legal battle between Canada’s courts and Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s government.

This controversy has become a backdrop for Canada’s parliamentary elections today. Having lost legal challenges that would have prevented Ishaq from taking the oath while veiled, Harper’s Conservative Party is now vowing to pursue a niqab ban during citizenship ceremonies and to consider a wider ban for all public employees if re-elected. His opponents, the Liberal Party’s Justin Trudeau and the New Democratic Party’s Thomas Mulcair, have dismissed the niqab issue as a distraction and oppose such bans.

Harper’s fear-mongering reflects Canada’s growing distance from the “respect for multiculturalism” and “freedom of religion” enshrined in its own Charter of Canadian Rights and Freedoms. A Conservative victory in today’s polls would express an endorsement of Islamophobia and a xenophobic fear of the immigrant “other.” It will also show that the country’s commitment to women’s right to choose does not extend to Muslims who wear the face veil. [Continue reading…]

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Indigenous Canadians take leading role in battle against tar sands pipeline

The Guardian reports: Chief Na’Moks stood in the dark of a small smokehouse nestled in the Coast range of British Columbia. Hanging above him were nearly a thousand fish which glinted over the fire below.

“For us, it’s one of the most highly prized commodities that we have,” he said, pulling one of the glistening candlefish off the rack. “People don’t get why we want to keep what we have. We don’t want anything from anyone. We just want to keep what we have.”

Not so long ago, the chief’s ancestors traded fish oil along the grease trails up and down the coast of British Columbia. Today, however, Chief Na’Moks and many other First Nations leaders are at the forefront of a struggle against a very different kind of oil business: Canada’s largest proposed tar sands pipeline, the Northern Gateway.

It is the country’s environmental battle of the decade, uniting a wide variety of citizens’ groups against the billions of dollars of investment by oil companies and millions in secret funding from the government. First proposed in 2004, the Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline was planned for a 731-mile (1,177km) stretch from the center of Alberta to the coast of British Columbia. [Continue reading…]

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A broken family: The father and relatives of the drowned Syrian toddler

The Washington Post reports: Somewhere between Turkey and Greece, the boat carrying Abdullah Kurdi and his family was filling with water. They wore life vests, and Kurdi was holding his wife’s hands, he later recalled. His children, 3-year-old Aylan and 5-year-old Galip, were seated nearby.

As the small boat began to sink, passengers panicked.

“My children slipped from my hands,” Abdullah told Turkey’s Dogan News Agency on Thursday. “We tried to hold on to the boat, but it deflated rapidly. Everyone was screaming. I could not hear the voices of my children and my wife.”

Abdullah swam to a beach on the Turkish coast, following the lights on the shore, he said. “I looked for my wife and children on the beach but couldn’t find them.”

By now, the world knows that his two sons and wife drowned, along with nine other migrants. A photograph of Aylan’s tiny body washed up on a beach has gone viral, shocking the world and starkly illustrating the plight of those caught in the conflicts raging in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and Africa. These concurrent crises have produced the largest displacement of people since World War II. [Continue reading…]

The New York Times reports: While the photograph of a 3-year-old Syrian boy’s body quickly focused the world’s attention on the migrant crisis in the Middle East and Africa, it has taken on a particular resonance in Canada with the discovery that the boy’s family had been unable to obtain immigration visas.

The death of the boy, Aylan Kurdi, who drowned with his brother and mother off the coast of Turkey, has also become an emotional issue in the Canadian election.

Even before the plight of the Kurdi family flashed across social media, opposition politicians, along with advocacy and religious groups, had strongly criticized the refugee policies of Prime Minister Stephen J. Harper’s Conservative government.

In January, the government promised that it would accept 10,000 refugees from Syria over three years. But over the next several months, immigration officials and Chris Alexander, the citizenship and immigration minister, repeatedly declined to disclose how [many] people had been admitted. [Continue reading…]

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Scientists call for halt to Canadian oil sands expansion

Climate Central reports: The controversial proposed Keystone XL Pipeline put Canada’s vast carbon-laden tar sands on the map for many Americans, with its builders promising that it would carry 800,000 barrels of petroleum per day from Alberta’s tar sands to oil refineries in Texas.

But a group of 100 scientists on Wednesday called for a moratorium on further oil sands development, saying it isn’t compatible with stabilizing the climate and meeting greenhouse gas emissions reductions targets.

“We shouldn’t be doubling down or quadrupling down on the tar sands going from 2 million barrels per day to four, six, eight as industry is calling for by proposing expansions and proposing pipelines,” Simon Fraser University energy economist Mark Jaccard said.

Many scientists, environmental groups and President Obama have voiced concern about the effect of tar sands, or oil sands, on the climate. The U.S. State Department concluded that oil sands are more than 17 percent more carbon-intensive to extract than the average barrel of oil.

The Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers announced Tuesday that oil sands will account for most of a 43 percent increase in Canadian crude oil production through 2030. Production is expected to grow from 3.7 million barrels per day to 5.3 million barrels. Of those, 4 million barrels will come from oil sands. [Continue reading…]

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Fort McKay: The Canadian town that sold itself to tar sands

The Guardian reports: Amid the strip mines and steam plants sprawled across the northern Alberta wilderness, Fort McKay is just a tiny dot on the map.

It is also one of the single biggest source sites of the carbon pollution that is choking the planet.

This tiny First Nations community grew rich on oil, and was wrecked by oil. Local Cece Fitzpatrick grabbed what she saw as a last chance for Fort McKay and decided to run for chief, promising to stand up to the industry which came here 50 years ago. [Continue reading…]

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Obama’s newly harsh tone on Keystone seen signaling rejection

Bloomberg reports: Facing re-election and $4 a gallon gasoline, President Barack Obama sounded like an enthusiastic supporter of the Keystone XL pipeline at a March 2012 campaign rally.

“I’m directing my administration to cut through the red tape, break through the bureaucratic hurdles, and make this project a priority,” he said in a speech in Cushing, Oklahoma, referring to a southern leg of the long-delayed project.

Those days are gone. Now when Obama describes the next proposed Keystone segment he says it will only create about 300 jobs. He calls the Calgary-based pipeline builder TransCanada Corp. a “foreign company” and says the oil won’t benefit American motorists.

And last week, he even said the process of extracting crude from the Alberta oil sands is “extraordinarily dirty.”

After years of review, Obama may be finally nearing a decision on the $8 billion project. The State Department has restarted a review it had paused while a challenge to the pipeline’s route worked its way through Nebraska’s high court. And by vetoing Republican-backed legislation last month to force approval, Obama preserved for himself the final say. [Continue reading…]

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