Empire State Building in the smog caused by the 2023 Canadian wildfires Empire State Building in the smog caused by the 2023 Canadian wildfires. Photo: @Aelthemplaer on Twitter / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY 4.0

Canada’s catastrophic wildfires are a sign that irreversible climate change is upon us, but government and fossil-fuel interests continue to compound the problem, argues John Clarke

Toronto is hundreds of miles away from the massive Canadian forests that are prone to major wildfires. I’ve lived in that city for some thirty-three years and, during fire seasons, there has been the odd time when smoke from large-scale fires in other parts of the country has been visible in the sky. Last week, however, for the first I’ve ever known, going out onto the streets meant your eyes watered, your throat filled with the taste of burning forests and smoke seriously limited your visibility.

The situation in Toronto was relatively mild compared to some other major centres. In Ottawa, ‘air quality was so bad that it cracked through the top of a risk scale’ and Environment Canada warned that ‘forest fires may keep the air dangerous to human health through most of the week.’

South of the border, the ‘smoke from ferocious Canadian wildfires cast a sickly pall over much of the eastern U.S.’ So severe was the situation that about ‘128 million people were under air quality alerts because of wildfire smoke and ozone in the U.S. on Wednesday night. For smoke alone, around 100 million were under alerts across 16 states.’ New York City had the dubious distinction of topping ‘the list of the world’s worst air pollution.’

In both Canada and the US, people who had to go outside were advised to wear masks, but these offered only limited protection, especially for those with serious health conditions. As Environment Canada pointed out, ‘fine particles generally pose the greatest risk to health. However, respirators do not reduce exposure to the gases in wildfire smoke.’

Unprecedented fires

It is abundantly clear that all across Canada a situation like no other before is upon us and ‘the country is shaping up for its worst wildfire season on record.’ A warmer and drier spring has ensured that fires on an unheard of scale are burning out of control and doing so much earlier than in previous years. ‘Fires across Canada have already burned an area that’s 12 times the 10-year average for this time of year.’

The weather pattern that ensured such high levels of smoke pollution is now easing but the fires that caused this effect are far from abating. ‘Ten new wildfires were reported in Canada on (June 9), bringing the total number of wildfires in the country so far this year to 2,405, the Canadian Interagency Wildfire Center reported.’ On that day, there were 422 active wildfires across the country, with 219 of them considered ‘out-of-control’. At this point, fires have ‘devoured about 45,000 square kilometers of land in Canada.’

If progressive sounding rhetoric extinguished fires, Justin Trudeau’s federal government would have had the situation under control by now. Trudeau told reporters that there ‘are some politicians that still think you can have a plan for great jobs and growing the economy without having a plan to fight climate change’ He also acknowledged that ‘fighting climate change is necessary … to prevent the catastrophic and expensive losses that Canadians are facing increasingly over the years.’

With these words, Trudeau sought to distance himself from cruder conservative politicians at the provincial level who are glaringly implicated in the present catastrophe. In Alberta, the very heart of fossil-fuel production in Canada, where both NDP and conservative governments operate as stewards of the oil and gas companies, the capacity to combat forest fires has been systematically degraded. ‘In 2018-2019, according to government estimates, Alberta’s wildfire management budget was $130 million … And by 2022-2023, the province’s budget estimates reduced its wildfire management to $101 million. It is projected to fall again to $100 million in 2023-2024.’

In 2019, the Ontario government slashed ‘the forest firefighting budget by a staggering 67 per cent.’ Last week, Premier Doug Ford refused appeals by the Leader of the Opposition in the Ontario Legislature to acknowledge that these fires represent a ‘climate emergency’. He argued that such a suggestion constituted the ‘politicizing [of] wildfires’.

Canada is making an exceptionally dreadful contribution to the generation of a climate disaster. A report issued by Environmental Defence, in 2018, found that ‘oil executives are successfully weakening and delaying Canadian climate change policies.’ It also concluded that ‘governments in Canada … have introduced policies and spent billions of taxpayer dollars to support the continued expansion of oil and gas production, already the largest and fastest growing source of carbon emissions in Canada.’

Another report that was drawn up last year concluded that the ‘climate plans of major oil and gas companies operating in Canada rank among the worst worldwide and will accelerate the climate crisis.’ It also challenged the federal government’s carefully cultivated credentials as a ‘climate leader’, pointing out that: ‘Trudeau still has not been able to reconcile his promises to cut emissions with his support for the continued growth of Canada’s oil and gas industry.’

The Trudeau government’s real climate record is quite shameful and ‘Canada’s ownership and support of the Trans Mountain Pipeline expansion is one of the clearest examples of this contradiction—but it’s not the only one. Trudeau has also given unflinching support to other major fossil fuel projects.’

Climate crisis

The Indicators of Global Climate Change Project, undertaken by climate scientists at the University of Leeds, recently concluded that ‘human-caused global warming has continued to increase at an ‘unprecedented rate’ since the last report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).’ The scientists found that the warming process ‘is now increasing by more than 0.2°C per decade.’ This is leading to ‘an intensification of many weather and climate extremes.’

Moreover, the ‘Earth’s “carbon budget” — the emissions that can be released to have a 50% chance of keeping global temperature rise under 1.5°C — is shrinking fast. In 2020, the IPCC calculated the remaining budget at 500 gigatons of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. It is now about 250 gigatons.’ This, ‘at present rates will be exhausted in less than three years.’

The World Meteorological Association (WMO) now predicts that ‘there is a 66% likelihood that the annual average near-surface global temperature between 2023 and 2027 will be more than 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels for at least one year.’ Dr. Leon Hermanson, who led the report, suggests that global ‘mean temperatures are predicted to continue increasing, moving us away further and further away from the climate we are used to.’

Even more graphically, WMO secretary general, Professor Petteri Taalas, has concluded that: ‘Thanks to an already high concentration of carbon dioxide, we have lost this glacier melting game and sea level rise game.’ Taalas states that there’s ‘no return to the climate that we used to have in the last century, so that’s gone… and we will live with these consequences and higher temperatures.’

It is clear, then, that the disastrous burning of Canada’s vast forests is but one manifestation of an unfolding climate disaster that could still be limited but that is already unstoppable. It is equally irrefutable that fossil-fuel interests are continuing to compound the problem, and that no serious plans to respond to the impacts of the crisis are in place.

The wildfires that are raging across Canada and the smoke that has choked North American cities leave no doubt that climate disaster is upon us. As the effects intensify from this point on, they will shape our lives and determine our struggles. Capitalism’s assault on the natural world has reached a point of no return and we either create a just, rational and sustainable society or face a global catastrophe of unimaginable proportions.

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John Clarke

John Clarke became an organiser with the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty when it was formed in 1990 and has been involved in mobilising poor communities under attack ever since.

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