Last month Ken Smith, an oil sands worker from Fort McMurray, talked the threat of climate change and the need for just transition for workers, a message he had delivered a few months ago at the Paris climate talks:
“We can’t argue with the science, global warming is real. There’s gotta be some kind of reduction and probably somewhere in the future a move away from fossil fuels. Our concern was that workers and the communities where this work takes place, do not get left behind. I compared the end of the fossil fuel industry as a forest fire that was approaching us and we were standing at the back of a river. The fire is behind us quite a ways yet. We have time to build proper bridges to get all of our people across that river before the fire engulfs us… and the bridges I’m talking about of course are new jobs, new opportunities.”
This metaphor has proved tragically prophetic as a forest fire, consuming more than a third of a million hectares, has forced the 90,000 people of Fort McMurray to flee. As the local fire chief said, “it’s been the worst day of my career. The people here are devastated. Fort McMurray has been overrun by wildfire.” While this is a disaster localized in Fort McMurray it has affected people across the country, as the Fort McMurray economy draws people from coast to coast.
There has been an outpouring of support for the town. First responders have worked tirelessly to fight the fire and help evacuation, including firefighters who have seen their own houses burn to ground and keep working to help others.
People across the country have opened their hearts and their pocket books, donating nearly $90 million to the Red Cross in the first 10 days of the blaze, and much support have come from those previously impacted by disaster..
Residents of Lac Mégantic, whose town was incinerated by exploding oil train have collected funds for Fort McMurray. Syrian refugees, who know first hand the impact of displacement and the need for support, have reciprocated solidarity. As co-founder of Syrian Refugee Support Group explained, “All the Syrians are saying, ‘I’m ready to give, I’m ready to give.’ It’s amazing. You have to understand how little these guys have. But they understand the idea of an entire city losing their home. That’s something they can easily relate to. They went through that.”
Indigenous communities whose territories have been undermined by tar sands have welcomed people fleeing the fire. Fort McKay First Nation, home to 700 people, have welcomed 5,000 people; Beaver Lake Cree First Nation, which was devastated by an oil spill in 2011, have also offered support; as Judy Bugle-Sossay explained, "Our hearts go out to everyone, and we hope any help we can give makes life a bit better." Greenpeace and Sierra Club, who oppose the tar sands have appealed for donations to Red Cross, saying “We need to work together to take action to reduce the life-altering risks of climate change in a hotter, drier world. We need to work together to protect each other from this harm.”
Support for Fort McMurray has been widespread. Where the division exists is between those who offer empty words of support while supporting policies that stoke the flames, and those building solidarity as part of providing alternatives so we can prevent the next catastrophe.
In campaign mode last year, Trudeau said “Climate change is real. We’re already seeing its effects. Here in Alberta in just the last five years we’ve seen destruction on an almost unprecedented scale.” But now he has tried to disconnect fire from climate change, saying that “Pointing at any one incident and saying well, this is because of or that, is neither helpful nor particularly accurate. ” Mulcair simply echoed Trudeau, saying: “It’s not the time to start laying blame.” Even Elizabeth May said that “Some reports have suggested that wildfires are directly caused by climate change. No credible climate scientist would make that claim and neither do I.”
Of course climate change, and tar sands, are not the only reason for the fire: there are other climate phenomena, like El Nino, and local factors like the endemic fire rate, and the specific conditions of wind and humidity. We can’t do anything about these factors and that’s the point of talking about climate change: because it’s something we can, and must address unless we want to condemn more communities to climate disasters.
Connecting climate change to Fort McMurray does not mean blaming the individual workers, but recognizing that humans are interdependent with nature, How we organize our collective activity not only influences the natural world but in term reacts back on us.
The phrase “natural disaster” sees humans and nature existing separately, with nature randomly producing a one-sided interaction with us. But as Engels explained in Dialectics of Nature, “arguing that it is only nature that acts on humans, that it is only natural conditions which everywhere shape our historical development, is one-sided and forgets that people also react on nature, transforming it and creating new conditions of existence for themselves. The earth’s surface, climate, vegetation, fauna, and the human beings themselves have infinitely changed, and all this owing to human activity.”
What he wrote in reference to earlier societies, could be said of Fort McMurray today: “The people who, in Mesopotamia, Greece, Asia Minor and elsewhere destroyed the forests to obtain cultivatable land, never dreamed that by removing along with the forests the collecting centres and reservoirs of moisture they were laying the basis for the present devastated condition of those countries, by removing along with the forests the collecting centres and reservoirs of moisture. When the Italians of the Alps used up the pine forests on the southern slopes, they had no inkling that they were thereby depriving their mountain springs of water for the greater part of the year, and making possible for them to pour still more furious torrents on the plans during the rainy season...Thus at every step we are reminded that we by no means rule over nature like a conqueror over a foreign people, like someone standing outside nature, but that we—with flesh, blood and brain—belong to nature, and exist in its midst.”
Now we’re increasing seeing how dependent we are on nature and the unintended consequences of an economy based oil. In 2003 heat wave across Europe that killed tens of thousands; in 2005 Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans; in 2010 flood immersed Pakistan; in 2013 Typhoon Haiyan smashed into Philippines.
None of these were purely “natural disasters”: first because of the role of climate change in driving heat waves and floods, and second because it was not only the natural elements that made disaster. The heat wave across Europe impacted France especially hard, after neoliberal cuts to healthcare and social services that left elderly to die. Hurricane Katrina disproportionately affected poor Black community after years of under-repair to the levees around 9th ward. As Pakistani socialist Riaz Ahmed said about the floods in Pakistan, “Cities like Mianwali and Charsadda have been allowed to drown in order to save dams and hydroelectric stations. Military installations have been saved, but entire villages have been submerged because budget cuts have meant the loss of vital riverbank defences. And forests and jungles have been plundered by millionaire-owned timber businesses. This has created soil erosion and the destruction of natural defenses that can prevent flooding. Local and national governments have awarded the contracts for this kind of work, knowing the dangers.”
Typhoon Haiyan hit during climate talks, and as Filipino activist Waldon Bello said, “The delegation must convert tears into anger and denounce the big climate polluters for their continued refusal to take the steps needed to save the world from the destruction that their carbon-intensive economies have unleashed on us all.”
Canada is not immune from climate disasters. Fort McMurray forest fire was preceded by Slave Lake fire in 2011 and west coast fires last year that raged in 100 areas in each of BC, Alberta and Saskatchewan.
This will only get worse if we don’t take climate action as the BC government explained in its Climate Change Adaptation Action Plan for Wildfire Management, 2014-2024: “Based upon an increase of 4 degrees by 2080, severe future wildfire conditions as a result of climate change are predicted for the southern interior of British Columbia including: increased fire size, increased fire severity, increased fire season length and fire frequency and a decrease in extent of fire free areas. Along with increasing wildfire potential, the costs of suppression response and the economic losses will also increase exponentially.”
This means Canada has to stop expanding the tar sands, which are the fastest growing source of carbon emissions and devastating to the local environment and the communities around it. As NASA scientist James Hansen said, “if Canada proceeds (with tar sands)…it will be game over for the climate.”
While there’s been much media coverage of the devastating impact fires there’s little coverage of devastating impact of tar sands themselves. They have destroyed so much boreal forest they are visible from space, they waste water to produce dirty oil, and they generate carcinogens that have caused a cancer epidemic in downstream Indigenous communities like Athabasca Chippewyan First Nation.
For years we’ve been told to ignore Indigenous communities, ignore climate change and ignore 400,000 job losses during the economic crisis because Fort McMurray provides jobs. But now Fort McMurray has experienced a devastating series of crises that have highlighted the impact of economy based on boom, bust, and oil, which sacrifice workers and communities for profits of big oil.
Oil companies make billions from Fort McMurray but 2010 director of women’s shelter went on hunger strike to demand more space after turning away 400 women the previous year. In 2013 Fort McMurray declared a state of emergency due to unprecedented floods As fire chief said then: “They are levels that are the highest that they’ve ever been recorded. It has caused flooding in areas that we’ve never seen before.” Since then oil companies have engaged in mass layoffs, and this has contributed to a rise in suicide rates. As the Director of the Calgary-based Centre for Suicide Prevention explained, “When you have one big awful thing, rise in unemployment, economic breakdown, natural disaster, we will see a rise in the suicide rate. It hasn’t been great here for a while.” Fort McMurray had all these even before the fire.
Now there’s discussion on rebuilding Fort McMurray and bringing things back to normal. But will this be old normal that destroys Indigenous territories and the climate and that sacrifices workers/families for corporate profits? Or will there be a transition to a new normal, with respect for Indigenous communities and just transition for workers?
As Indigenous activist Melina Laboucan Massimo, whose traditional territory near the tar sands has been devastated by oil spills, explained, “It's time Canada stopped burying its head in the tar sands and bring about the just transition. Workers deserve to be with their families instead of flying across the country to work in the tar sands only to leave their families for 3 weeks out of every month.... Solar energy production is spill proof and emission free. Canada should aim higher and set a goal and commit to 100% of its power coming from renewable energy. We’ve been looking down far too long and digging the bottom of the barrel in dirty fossil fuels. We must now turn our gaze towards the sun and realize the true energy potential that is available to us here and now. We must choose to build healthy and vibrant communities before it is too late.”
There are growing numbers of oil workers who agree, like the organization Iron and Earth that is calling on Alberta government to retrain 1000 out-of-work oil industry electricians in solar panel installation.
The Leap Manifesto is part of this vision for change, expressing the growing climate justice movement across the country to support Indigenous rights and just transition for workers.
Last month Leap Manifesto was being slammed for being naïve, for moving too quickly, and for not considering the livelihoods of people in Alberta. Fort McMurray fire shows how urgent these policies are, including for Alberta. A central focus is to massively expand jobs and to provide a just transition for workers in oil industry: “We want a universal program to build energy efficient homes, and retrofit existing housing, ensuring that the lowest income communities and neighbourhoods will benefit first and receive job training and opportunities that reduce poverty over the long term. We want training and other resources for workers in carbon-intensive jobs, ensuring they are fully able to take part in the clean energy economy. This transition should involve the democratic participation of workers themselves. High-speed rail powered by renewables and affordable public transit can unite every community in this country—in place of more cars, pipelines and exploding trains that endanger and divide us.”
Despite corporate media attacks, echoed by the NDP leadership, recent polls shows the Leap Manifesto has majority support from NDP/Green voters, half of Liberal voters and even 20% of Tory voters. As Martin Lucacs wrote in The Guardian, “This is the political paradox of the climate crisis: what is feasible to the media and corporate class is catastrophic to the climate. We can break the narrowly defined box of what is considered politically possible, or we can break the ecological carrying capacity of the planet.”
Trudeau is trying to maintain the narrowly defined box of what is possible through a “Climate Leadership Plan” that pays lip service to climate, that ignores the leadership of Indigenous and labour activists, and that provides no plan for transitioning from fossil fuels to climate jobs.
But there is a growing campaign for a People’s Climate Plan, which respects the climate science, supports people most affected and plans for mass transition
As People’s climate plan states
1. We want a plan that aligns with the science of climate change. Bold climate action ensures Canada meets its commitments to a 1.5 degree world by keeping its fossil fuels reserves in the ground
2. We want a plan that builds a 100% renewable energy economy. Bold climate action ensures Canada transitions to a 100% renewable energy economy by 2050, creasing over a million clean, safe and rewarding jobs.
3. We want a plan that is justice-based. Bold climate action enshrines justice and reconciliation for Indigenous peoples, ensures no worker is left behind in the transition to a clean energy economy, and takes leadership from those hit hardest by the climate crisis.
The Liberal government have promised a series of townhall meetings to build towards their climate leadership plan, and this is an opportunity to support real leadership of the People’s Climate Plan, to support Indigenous rights and a just transition for workers.
The fire Ken Smith warned about has become a reality, and will continue to rage as long as our economy is based on oil. But there’s a chance to bring the second part of his metaphor to reality: the bridges of new jobs, and a new society, to cross the river and escape climate change.