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How the Fort McMurray Climate Conversation Went Down in Flames

Connecting extreme weather events with climate change isn’t exactly a new thing.

After Hurricane Sandy devastated parts of New York and New Jersey in 2012, Bloomberg published a front page spread proclaiming, “It’s Global Warming, Stupid.”

For years, major storms, droughts, floods and fires have been connected to climate change. The climate angle was even fair game during last summer’s wildfires in western Canada.

So how did the climate conversation around the still-raging Fort McMurray wildfire that destroyed thousands of homes become so befuddling-ly messed up?

Conversations about climate change as a factor in the wildfires has garnered about as much attention as the wildfires themselves. For a recap of the “middle-finger salutes,” schadenfreude and #tinyviolins mock-sympathy for the people of Fort McMurray, check out this article on Slate.

(Add in, May 12: It's worthwhile to point out that while there were a lot of unfortunate aspects of the public conversation about the fire, many environmental NGOs rallied their organizational capacity to raise money and basic support for evacuees. The executive directors of Canada's most prominent environmental groups including the David Suzuki Foundation, Ecojustice, Ecology Ottawa, Environmental Defence, Equiterre, Greenpeace, LeadNow, Sierra Club, Stand and West Coast Environmental Law urged support for evacuees in a joint press release published Friday, May 6.)

Cara Pike, climate communications expert with Climate Access, says the urge to link what’s happening in Fort McMurray to climate change should be tempered by a keen sensitivity to the very real human suffering on the ground.

“We need to lead with our humanity,” Pike told DeSmog Canada. “This is a good time to listen very, very hard to what people are dealing with, what they care about, what they want for their futures and try to find those common places.”

The rush to draw the connection between the Fort Mac fires and climate change could come across as blaming, Pike said, adding “I really personally question the timing and how best to have that conversation.”

Canada is still behind the U.S. when it comes to understanding that climate impacts are happening here and now, Pike says. In the U.S., major hurricanes such as Katrina, Irene and Sandy, massive wildfires and long-term drought brought the climate change message to the forefront.

Pike was vice president of communications at Earth Justice during Hurricane Katrina and notes many local environmental groups were criticized for using the disaster to advance their campaigns.

“What happened there with Katrina is a parallel of what we’re seeing now with Fort McMurray,” she said.

In the case of Fort McMurray, the conversation is made “more visceral” by the tragedy occurring in an oil-producing region, Pike said.

“It creates so much more discomfort when trying to have that conversation because it inherently brings us to a place where people feel judged and blamed,” she said.

“The truth is that everyone is tied to oil and unfortunately in environmental communications there is often this dominant tone of self-righteousness. And in these crisis moments, when people put on their professional hats and go talk about these issues, it’s like they lose their humanity.”

Part of the problem lies in the polarization that infiltrates nearly every energy and environment debate in Canada — and which has emotions roiling at the surface, unleashed at the slightest provocation.

“There’s no formula for when it’s appropriate to talk about climate change,” Simon Donner, associate professor of Climatology at the University of British Columbia, told DeSmog Canada. “I think it just really depends on the circumstances of any extreme event.”

“It’s not a good idea to use people’s suffering to push an agenda, even if that agenda is scientifically defensible,” Donner said.

Underlining the current debate is the fact the fires are happening in the heart of Canada’s oilsands.

“Everyone knows what the industry is in Fort McMurray. Everyone knows that’s a source of opposition to climate policy in Canada and underneath a lot of people’s good intentions is a sense of ‘I told you so.’ What I’m saying is, let’s be nice to folks, you don’t have to be self-righteous about it.”

As a climate communicator, Donner said it’s always crucial to consider your audience.

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“If your goal for talking about climate change after an extreme event is to engage people in that community, but the community that was affected by the event is suspicious about the science of climate change, pivoting in the media to climate change while their homes are burning is just going to alienate people,” Donner said.

“It doesn’t seem like a smart way to engage the part of Canada that is resistant to action to combat climate change,” Donner added. “We need to ask: what’s effective?”

Renee Lertzman, an expert in the psychology of environmental education, said it really isn’t a question of whether we make the connection between the fires and climate change but how.

“This conversation needs to happen, but it doesn’t need to be polarizing,” Lertzman told DeSmog Canada. “The question is how can we communicate and engage with people in the most constructive and productive and effective ways?”

“We’re designed to resist challenging, threatening news and information that can potentially challenge our worldview.” Lertzman noted.

She said it can be frustrating to see climate communications that seem to “miss entirely how humans process information, particularly distressing and stressful information.”

“Climate change is really complicated in what it brings up for us. It really is, in a way, in its own category.”

That doesn’t mean it’s always inappropriate to discuss climate change in the context of disaster or tragedy.

By focusing on how all affected parties can work together to avoid tragedy, you generate feelings of inclusion and sensitivity, Lertzman said — opening the space for compassionate communications.

“It’s not about whether we make those connections, it’s about thinking through how humans deal with the trauma and acknowledging profound horror and devastation.”

Image: Fort McMurray Fire Pictures/Facebook

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Carol Linnitt is a journalist, editor, illustrator and co-founder of The Narwhal. Carol has been reporting on energy and environmental…

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