The message below was sent to someone at my university, apparently in response to my linking of the devastating fires in Alberta, especially Fort McMurray, with climate change. It was hostile and angry, claiming that I taking pleasure "taking victory laps" as a result of the intense suffering now occurring in Canada.
From: *** (name withheld by me)
Date: 4 May 2016 10:30:27 pm AEST
To: *** (name withheld by me)
Subject: Colin David Butler
Hello ** (name withheld by me)
"Someone who identifies as a staff member in the faculty of health, Colin David Butler, is taking victory laps, on twitter, on top of people who are currently running for their lives.
"Not only are his tweets shameful, but they are scientifically inaccurate - wild fires have been in the Boreal Forrest for its entire existence. It is highly dubious to claim climate change had anything to do with a city burning down."
"He is sullying the name and reputation of the University of Canberra and quite frankly Australians in the eyes of Canadians and compassionate and empathetic people everywhere."
"While I don't have any suggestions for course of actions to deal with his smug and undeserved self-importance, I do believe as dean, you should be made aware of it."
Respectfully from Canada,
name withheld by me
Some of my tweets which may have upset this person so much included:
"All of tarsand oilsand city's 80,000 pop'n ordered to flee wildfire in Alberta
Nothing here (or otherwise posted) can or should be interpreted as gladness.
Including the word "karma", which simply describes a principle of cause and effect, and has no connotation of glee or satisfaction in the suffering of others (I have identified as Buddhist for almost 50 years).
The day before I received this complaint via my university I had posted a blog called “The Fort McMurray fire, climate change and grief”. In it I argued that though there is never a good time to give bad news the links between climate change and catastrophes need to be made near the event; just as someone with a heart attack must be advised of the link with smoking.
Eric Holthaus, a meteorologist writing for Slate, has also argued that now is the time to discuss the links between the fire and climate change. He too has experienced a backlash for linking the fire with climate change, and describes several others who have, including Elizabeth May, the leader of the Canadian Green Party.
May in turn was criticised by the Canadian Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, who claimed that her suggestion that the disaster was "very related to the global climate crisis" was neither helpful, nor accurate. But he also said: "It’s well known that one of the consequences of climate change will be a greater prevalence of extreme weather events around the planet."
We’ve lost our old climate
May also said "We’ve lost our old climate.
With that, unfortunately, I agree.
She also says: "We must transition away from fossil fuels as quickly as possible". I agree with that, too, and it is happening. Demand for electric cars is, for example, growing fast.
I think the backlash from Canada is understandable, given the grief and fear that so many are now experiencing. Trudeau, newly in power, must also tread a fine line. If he offends the oilsands lobby too far he will surely court disaster, yet others, including Elon Musk (surely today's equivalent of Edison and Tesla) and Bill McKibben, are indeed calling for politicians to do just this. Musk has called for a revolt against the fossil fuel industry, accusing politicians of bowing to the “unrelenting and enormous” lobbying power of the fossil fuel industry.
A growing number of locations and populations around the world are affected by climate change, especially in low-income settings. It is not just Fort McMurray. These include millions of the poor in India, suffering heat, drought and groundwater depletion, those affected by recent superstorms in the Philippines and Fiji, and at least five reef islands in the Solomons, just reported as being submerged elsewhere in the Pacific.
Why should anger flowing from Canada be directed towards those, such as myself, who have for decades warned of the link between climate change and catastrophe in poor locations? Bearers of bad news have never been popular, but I think the Canadian hostility reflects a degree of guilt, though maybe unconscious. I fear writing this knowing may trigger additional hate-mail. Perhaps, such expressions of hate and resentment need to be released as part of healing, similar to how abscesses release pus.
There is encouraging news that technological innovation which could soon lower emissions growth, but the challenges of sustainable development and the promotion of equity are much deeper than solving the energy crisis and better technology.
There is still, probably, time to reduce the worst effects of climate change. But if we don't face up to the links then we will be like a smoker who not only gets a heart attack but dies of lung cancer.
A social vaccine
I hope more in mainstream media get interested in these ideas. That would contribute to the ""social vaccine", I first described in a chapter in my first edited book "Climate Change and Global Health" in 2014 and then in the blog. Social media is a good start, but it is not enough.
PS If this blog does infuriate you please let me state that I am truly appalled by what is happening, in western Canada, though alas I am not surprised (my first scientific letter on climate change and health having been published in 1991). My motive for writing this is to try to prevent worse events. I am a professor of public health, I graduated in medicine almost 30 years ago and I have seen (and experienced) a lot of suffering. I also have some experience of grief, and wildfires, including losing a house to fire. I truly do not mean to upset anyone, but I also think emotions can be released unintentionally, and sometime their release can help healing.