Last Friday, Alberta Premier Jason Kenney said the causes of wildfires are "complex" and carbon taxes won't stop them. On Tuesday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said a carbon tax is a way to reduce the pollution that causes extreme climate events such as wildfires.
Which one of them is right?
Short answer: Kenney's comments aren't false, but they are misleading, experts say. While Kenney is correct in saying that many factors lead to wildfires, the premier's comments fail to mention that the global climate emergency is worsening the frequency and intensity of wildfires, and that top economists, including two Nobel prize winners in 2018, generally agree that putting a price on carbon emissions is an effective way to slow down and eventually reverse the crisis.
"It's not untrue, but it's totally missing the point," said University of Calgary climatologist Shawn Marshall, referring to Kenney's comments.
Speaking in Calgary under a thick fog of smoke from fires in the northern part of the province on Friday, Kenney told reporters that Alberta has always had wildfires, and some parts of the boreal forest were overdue to burn. "They've had a carbon tax in British Columbia for 10 years. It hasn't made a difference to the pattern of forest fires there ... or in Alberta," he said.
In B.C., the carbon tax introduced in 2008 by former premier Gordon Campbell's government has generally reduced emissions and affected some sectors that rely on fossil fuels, while allowing cleaner sectors to benefit.
Alberta Premier Jason Kenney says a carbon tax won't stop wildfires, but Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says the opposite. Which one is right? Short answer: experts say Kenney's statements aren't false, but Trudeau is more right. #cdnpoli #ableg
"We need to be taking real action to prevent climate change," Trudeau said Monday, referencing this spring's wildfires in western Canada. "That's why we're moving forward on a price on pollution right across the country, despite the fact conservative politicians are pushing against that."
Trudeau also said natural disasters are "becoming unaffordable" for Canadians and society. "We need to act in a way that puts more money in the pockets of Canadians, which is what we're doing (with the carbon tax)," he added, referencing the rebate that means most Canadians will profit from the tax.
Kenney, who said he believes in climate change, is correct that wildfire is a natural part of the life cycle of Canada's forests, said Mike Flannigan, a wildfire researcher at the University of Alberta. However, increased carbon emissions in the planet's atmosphere are causing global temperatures to warm and conditions to become more favourable to wildfires, he added. Not only does the changing climate have longer, hotter and drier summers that leave the landscape more fire-prone — which Kenney correctly noted Friday — increased temperatures also increase the likelihood of lightning that can ignite more flames.
"We are seeing more fire on our landscape because of climate change," Flannigan said.
The science of attributing catastrophes to climate change is still emerging, but a federal climate change report released in April found human activity most likely increased the risk of extreme fire weather that led to the devastating 2016 Fort McMurray wildfires.
Speaking in Vancouver Monday, Trudeau correctly said that climate crisis-linked natural disasters are costing Canadians more money. Some wildfire damage happens because more humans are living, working and spending their free time in forested areas than ever before as urban sprawl expands, but climate change is also a crucial factor, Flannigan said.
Marshall said it's also important to note that carbon emissions are a global-scale problem. The climate crisis affects the entire planet, not just regions with particularly high emissions. Even though B.C. has had a carbon tax for a long time, the world's overall levels of greenhouse gases have increased — carbon taxes don't directly address individual wildfires, but reducing our carbon emissions might help reduce the number and intensity of future catastrophes, Marshall added.
"The bigger picture is that climate change is global, and it's this huge runaway freight train that no one jurisdiction is going to be able to stop."
It's also correct to say that lowering Alberta's emissions, in the absence of any other global action, would represent a small fraction of the total carbon pollution in the atmosphere.
But from a political standpoint, many countries have been reluctant to take action on their own if other large polluters such as the U.S. and China are not participating.
Canada has also been a key player in global climate negotiations as one of top 10 global emitters of carbon pollution and one of the top 10 producers of oil. Alberta also holds the world's third largest reserves of crude oil after Saudi Arabia and Venezuela and the province has tens of thousands of jobs that depend directly on fossil fuels.
Kenney's office declined to comment.
The premier's past statements on the climate crisis are important backdrop to his comments Friday, said Kathryn Harrison, a political scientist at the University of British Columbia who studies climate policy.
Kenney has questioned the degree to which humans are contributing to the global climate emergency.
During this spring's Alberta provincial election, one of the candidates for Kenney's United Conservative Party was revealed to have called climate change "mythology" on social media. In response, Kenney said he believes in climate change but there's a "spectrum of views" on the phenomenon and he won't remove candidates who don't believe in it (the candidate, Karri Flatla, did not win her seat). And last week, Kenney came under fire for eliminating Alberta's carbon tax without replacing it with another program aimed at reducing the province's overall emissions.
A growing number of studies have proven a carbon tax can be effective, Harrison added.
"(Wildfires are) the sort of thing that we know climate change exacerbates," said Harrison. "The mere fact that (Kenney is) making that statement, I think, is calling out to members of his party who reject the scientific consensus on human-caused climate change."
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