Sunday, May 15, 2016

We are all Albertans now

It would be easy--too easy--to point to the wildfires which have devastated huge areas of northern Alberta near Fort McMurray, the hub of tar sands mining in Canada, and say that Albertans are reaping what they have sown. Yes, it's true that climate change is coming to one of the very areas which is contributing disproportionately to climate change and with catastrophic results.

The source of the current catastrophe is that the boreal forest which surrounds the tar sands has been turned into a tinderbox because of increasingly warm, dry weather that used to be uncharacteristic of this area of Alberta. But, what is happening in Alberta was predicted decades ago to be one of the consequences of unchecked global warming.

Having said all that, we should remember that the warming we are experiencing today is actually the result of greenhouse gases dumped into the atmosphere as of 40 years ago or so. (The analysis cited gives a range of 25 to 50 years, a lag related to what is called the thermal inertia of the oceans.) If this is the case, what Albertans are experiencing today has almost nothing to do with the climate effects of tar sands exploitation since there was very little production from Alberta's tar sands that long ago.

What this means, of course, is that there will be much worse to come even if today we were to reduce to zero all greenhouse gas emissions and other factors which are raising worldwide temperature.

The problems we are already seeing such as increased flooding in some places; increased drought in others; sea-level rise that is already swallowing islands; the rapid change in climate zones (which affects what we can grow in those zones); and myriad effects on plants and animals around the globe as their habitat shifts or disappears--all of these are just the beginning. And, there is no reason to believe that global greenhouse emissions and other causes of climate change such as deforestation will reverse their trends anytime soon.

When thinking about the Alberta wildfires, there is something else we must remember. Tar sands oil combined with oil from America's fracking boom have been the only reason that oil supplies worldwide have been able to grow. The very sources of oil that have been vilified as a new assault on climate have until recently found ample demand for their product. With production from both these sources now contracting due to low prices, we may in the not-to-distant future face oil price spikes.

As a global society, we still want all the conveniences which oil provides without the bad side effects. As such we must now consider ourselves Albertans no matter where we live and understand our complicity in their plight--and, why their plight is becoming our own.

However carbon-intensive extracting oil from the tar sands may be, shutting down one source of oil is hardly a solution to the climate problem. Our challenge is to shut down our own demand for oil and other fossil fuels. That strategy would make high-cost oil sources such as the Canadian tar sands and America's deep shale deposits its first victims and accomplish through demand reduction what all the public protests to date have failed to achieve.

Kurt Cobb is an author, speaker, and columnist focusing on energy and the environment. He is a regular contributor to the Energy Voices section of The Christian Science Monitor and author of the peak-oil-themed novel Prelude. In addition, he has written columns for the Paris-based science news site Scitizen, and his work has been featured on Energy Bulletin (now, The Oil Drum,, Econ Matters, Peak Oil Review, 321energy, Common Dreams, Le Monde Diplomatique and many other sites. He maintains a blog called Resource Insights and can be contacted at


Lyle said...

It should be noted that fires in the north country are nothing new, this one just happend to hit a settled area. Going back in time in 1871 at the time of the Great Chicago Fire there was a fire event in Peshtigo Wi (near Green Bay and the Mi line) that killed 1200 folks, at the same time and due the the dought/wind situation a fire also burned on the MI side of Lake Mi and it appears to have burned accross the northern lower peninsula to Port Huron. In Canada big wildfires that don't affect settled areas are just left to burn themselves out. As an example assume that this fire was 200 miles further east it would have been left to burn itself out because no one lives there. Of course before satellites fires up there were never noted at all except perhaps by first nations folks.
So before going off on the fires as a result of climate change one should first look at history in the area, and you find that fires are endemic to the area when drought conditions persist and then a strong wind event occurs.

Kurt Cobb said...

Lyle makes my case for me when he says that "fires are endemic to the area [Alberta] when drought conditions persist and then a strong wind event occurs." According to Alberta's own agriculture and forestry ministry, "Central and Northwestern Canada has warmed by up to 0.5 [degrees] C in the past 30 years" and "[s]urface air temperatures in Alberta have increased from 1.3 to 2.1[degrees] C in the period of 1895 to1991."

Hotter conditions due to climate change tend to increase droughts and thus the susceptibility of the forests to fires just as climate models predicted they would. I never said that there haven't been wildfires before in Alberta. And, the fact that there have been doesn't change the fact of climate change in Alberta.

John Millen said...

Lyle should also note that the Alberta (and BC) fire season started a month earlier than normal this year - a suggestion of climate change.
I find the description of the effect of 'thermal lag' inaccurate. Rather than today's situation being a response to the emissions of 40 years ago, I suggest it is a response to the total emissions over that period, with the 40 year old emissions having had those 40 years to work on the seas and atmosphere while last year's emissions have only had one year. Thus a handfull of recent years would have as much effect as one year 40 years ago.

David Veale said...

John makes a very good point, but I would also add that global emissions from the previous year are probably an order of magnitude greater than those of 40 years ago. As such, not only are last year's emissions having an effect, but the effect may very well be on a par with (or on a similar scale at least) the effect of emissions from from 40 years ago.

Billhook said...

Professor Michael Mann kindly gave a very clear answer on the issue of the oceans' thermal inertia imposing a timelag on the warming from GHG emissions, and thus on the timing of their imposition of Climate Destabilization.

He stated that around one third of the warming from emissions is felt within 10 years, another third within 40 years, and the remainder within 100 years or more.

Having run the maths on this, it shows that we are seeing about one half of the warming from emissions in 1986 - i.e. from 30 years ago - so Kurt is quite correct, we have massive pipeline warming still to come, which is to be multiplied by the exponential increase of emissions over the period.

Yet the output of warming by the oceans is far from a linear delayed response to what's gone in - various natural cycles greatly affect the timing of outputs - as the deniers have exploited dishonestly since Cheney took power behind Bush. The fact is that the warming is coming out and will come out - and will be far stronger than most expect - and it is already having calamitous results in intensifying droughts and storm events worldwide.

Those who study the overall interactions of the earth system are increasingly of the opinion that very rapid global Emissions Control alongside a global anti-crash-program of Carbon Recovery from the atmosphere are absolutely necessary - but nowhere near sufficient to maintain the global agriculture on which civilization depends.

We thus have no better choice than (additionally) to research reliably benign and effective options for the second 'Albedo Restoration' mode of geoengineering - in order to cool the planet enough to stabilize global agriculture and halt the Major Interactive Feedbacks on Global Warming - particularly that of the 'Forest Loss Feedback' that would undercut the crucial afforestation efforts in the first mode of geoengineering, namely Carbon Recovery.

From this perspective the firestorms in Alberta's boreal forest may appear rather small beer, but they are very significant. Anyone who hasn't yet seen the site "The Climate Mobilization" would do well to google it.