Wednesday, May 4, 2016

The Fort McMurray fire, climate change and grief


The terrifying and catastrophic fire in Fort McMurray, Alberta, Canada, still burning, is almost certainly worsened by climate change. Even Scientific American is saying this. This video is convincing.

Here I want to discuss whether and when this should be pointed out, including to people who have suffered from the fire and are experiencing profound grief. I suggested yesterday (the day the city was evacuated) by twitter, that it's like telling a guy with a heart attack to stop smoking. I used to be a family doctor, and I have advised and tried to help many smokers to quit. Few listen. When I was a very junior doctor, working in hospitals, seeing people (usually men) following their admission for a myocardial infarction, I do remember consultants discussing the link with smoking very soon after the event.
 
I haven't researched to see if advising patients at or soon after the time of their symptoms is more effective than at other times (e.g. a year before or a year later), but I think it probably is. Health promotion warnings for smoking generally associate unpleasant health events (e.g. cancer) with the cause (e.g. smoking). This suggests that there is more effect if the warning is linked to an unpleasant effect. Later I will discuss the idea of a "social vaccine", where a balance is needed between too much anxiety and complacency. 

I read the comments in a Canadian news report about the fire yesterday and I noticed that when an occasional commentator mentioned climate change he was generally jumped on by the others. I posted some tweets about that, and this morning woke up with a bag full of hatemail; people accusing me of being indifferent to suffering and loss; even that I gloated about it, and was behaving like a child. 

I also linked the intensity of the oil sand mining and refining (a highly energy intensive process which consumes about a fifth of the total energy in the tarsands) process with karma (the principle of cause and effect), which, though true, perhaps was the major cause for the backlash I received.

Twitter is not a good environment for thoughtful discussion. I well understand that the loss and trauma of this fire is extremely emotional, and in that environment it's easy to misinterpret the intention of others. 

So, let me state: 

1. I am not gloating in any way. 

2. I am extremely sympathetic to the people affected. (Including consequent to my own experience with wildfire and a housefire.)

3. I fear much worse is to come. For that reason I became the first Australian IPCC contributor to take part in civil disobedience leading to arrest to warn about climate change and to protest at Australia's glacial pace of policies to address climate change. 

Preventive global health

My motivation for doing this is to practice a form of preventive medicine. That might sound grandiose; it is not meant to. I have given over 70 invited talks at international meetings or at universities overseas on this topic, I have edited or co-edited two relevant books, including "Health of People, Places and Planet". I co-founded two NGOs, each working to alleviate poverty in low-income settings. This blog and my other use of social media is an attempt to also reach out to the public, to people who, eventually, politicians and other decision makers may heed.

There's never a good time to give bad news

For many years I have observed that politicians, even Greens, are reluctant to publicly link climate change with phenomena such as wildfires, floods and severe storms, especially when intense human suffering has occurred. I think this is for two main reasons: (a) the most conservative and scientifically illiterate politicians (dare I say purchased by big carbon?) don't understand the links, or deny them, and (b) those who do understand the connection hesitate because they fear hostility from the people affected, accusations of insensitivity from others, and loss of votes and thus influence. 

The media echoes the silence of politicians, causing many valuable lost opportunities for public education. Cyclone Winston is a recent example. Striking Fiji in 2016 it killed 42 people and is reported to have cost at least US$486 million in damage, roughly 10 percent of the nation's GDP; the equivalent of 15 Hurricane Katrinas hitting the United States at once.I heard  many news reports of this cyclone (the strongest ever in the Southern Hemisphere) on Australian mainstream media; not a single such report mentioned climate change.

My argument draws on the health analogy - as I suggested, many smokers are resistant to anti-smoking messages; but more receptive the day after their heart attack. Public attention is short - most people not personally affected will soon forget even this dreadful fire in Alberta. For sure, making the link with climate change is not the highest priority for public figures, but someone should do it, and the message should not be delayed too long.

Alternative livelihoods that are not based on fossil fuels do exist, including from the harnessing of cleaner energy. People in the near future will not need to work in the oil sands industry to make a living and to also contribute to energy security. 

If we identify climate change and other aspects of planetary overload as the cause then we can do something about finding a solution. Accepting the reality of climate change and doing something about it is not a call for global poverty. But doing too little about climate change very well may lead to global poverty. Hidden in the bad news is this silver lining.

A social vaccine

Today, global civilization is at risk from adverse global environmental change. Numerous civilizations have collapsed in the past. We should not assume ours is invulnerable. Could a "social vaccine" be developed to help protect against collapse?

Such a vaccine would stimulate civilization to protect itself, due to collective self-interest. It would deliver a small dose of anxiety, but not enough to induce paralysis. This would work by ‘immunizing’ enough people to generate sufficient self-corrective action. Something like this was employed by the peace movement during the Cold War. The discomfort arising from the linkage of climate change, the tar sands industry and this horrible fire (and the not dissimilar Slave Lake fire in 2011) is part of this social vaccine.


Ignoring the links between climate change and catastrophe is surely the least helpful course of action over the long run. To do so will generate more denial, more complacency, and more suffering.