Wildfires have been raging across Alberta since last month. Photo from Facebook

Alberta fires should spark climate action

  • May 18, 2023

In 1979, the Environment Council of Alberta issued two reports on the viability of solar, wind and biomass energy. At the time those sources were not viable, although the ECA said wind energy would soon be feasible. Merv Leitch, the energy minister of the day, brushed off the reports, saying the government would look silly if it developed renewable energy which undermined the markets for its vast petroleum resources. 

Climate change was not then a public concern, so the minister cannot be blamed for being blind to that issue. In the intervening 44 years, however, a global climate crisis has become an existential threat to human life on this planet. More than an “issue,” a changing climate has brought increasing numbers of extreme weather events around the globe.

Which brings us back to Alberta, my adopted province. This year, spring was slow to arrive but then erupted with temperatures soaring into the upper 20s with high winds. Disaster was brewing.

On April 27, my wife and I were coming home from a play and saw a large grass fire on the hillside below Edmonton’s iconic Fairmont MacDonald Hotel. The fire caused little damage, but it was a harbinger. Within days, grass and forest fires burst out across the parts of the province, driving 30,000 people from their homes and leading the provincial government to declare a state of emergency.

Can one say with certainty that these fires were caused by climate change? No. But the trend is clear. As the temperature of the atmosphere increases, the number and force of extreme weather events has grown rapidly. Canadians have been less affected by extreme weather than people elsewhere. But things will only get worse — here and abroad.

Unfortunately, little discussion of climate change has occurred in the wake of the Alberta fires. Of course, the immediate task is to put out the fires, get people back into their homes and repair the damage. 

Alberta’s wealth is based largely on vast petroleum reserves. The exploitation of those reserves should not, however, make the province the leading villain in climate change. Economies around the world are based on fossil fuel use. Alberta’s oil and gas would have no value if billions of people were not driving motorized vehicles and national economies were run on renewable energy.

But wealth is not neutral. It creates a vast economic and political power imbalance between rich and poor. In that light, the attitudes of many have not changed since the energy minister’s comments of 1979. Concern for the environment is too often derided as “trendy,” as though concern for the future of our planet and its people is a superficial, passing thing akin to this summer’s clothing fashions.

More worrisome is this. In his book, Oil’s Deep State, former Alberta Liberal leader Kevin Taft recalled a conversation with a leading figure in the province’s oil industry in 2007 when it appeared the Liberals might win the coming election. The party advocated higher oil royalties and stronger environmental controls. 

Taft’s unnamed acquaintance offered an implicit threat: “If you don’t get with our program, there will be no holds barred in the future, no more Marquis of Queensbury rules. We can do things you’ll never know. You won’t even know what hit you.” In Taft’s view, the oil industry was ready to play hardball with any government that upset its hegemony.

The oil industry is reducing some emissions, and some firms are developing renewable energy sources. But the power of the industry is deep and pervasive in Alberta. Not only does it provide tens of thousands of jobs, but it also forms the way people think.

In our efforts to end the climate crisis, we may place our faith in technological innovation, unaware of the enormous strain on the Earth’s resources that path is already creating. The only realistic solution is for people to abandon what Pope Francis calls “compulsive consumerism.” In his encyclical Laudato Si’, the Pope wrote, “A change in lifestyle could bring healthy pressure to bear on those who wield economic and social power.” A widespread move towards material simplicity could end the era of ever-expanding growth. It would also weaken the power of the wealthy.

Simplicity is the Christian way. It includes the rejection of idolatry, the worship of false gods of wealth, comfort and power. Only when society rejects these idols and turns toward the true God of self-sacrificing love will a new, more hopeful day dawn.

(Glen Argan writes his online column Epiphany at https://glenargan.substack.com.) 

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