A boomtown pops up out of nowhere to become one of the largest, dirtiest oil projects in the world, much less its Canadian home. It quickly rips open the Earth, devastates its once-pristine natural environment, and, in an epoch of exponential global warming and fast money, balloons from a city of thousands to one of hundreds of thousands in a cosmological eyeblink.
Within that eyeblink, Fort McMurray is also predictably swallowed by a sprawling inferno that threatens to become, employing insurer-speak, one of the largest, costliest “natural disasters” in human history.
It is not for nothing that Fort McMurray was aptly renamed Fort McMoney in creator David Dufresne’s foundational cli-fi game, which offered players an opportunity to seize the fate of the doomed boomtown and shut it down to save themselves — as well as the Earth’s atmosphere, into which it dumps shameless amounts of greenhouses gases. It is precisely because of this embrace of Fort McMurray’s global warming metrics — which is to say, Reality — that Dufresne’s Fort McMoney won a Canadian Screen Award for best original interactive production for digital media. It didn’t shy away from environmental horror; it tackled it head-on.
Because, as you can see from this video of residents fleeing Fort McMurray as the flames came down, climate change is no game.
The same cannot be said of Alberta, or Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau, who shortly after Fort McMurray erupted into flames, deflected its connection to climate change. “There have always been fires, there have always been floods,” Trudeau rationalized. “Pointing at any one incident and saying, ‘This is because of that,’ is neither helpful nor entirely accurate.”
Trudeau’s discomfort with linking Fort McMurray to runaway global warming is understandable, but ridiculous. There is no earthly way to separate an oil boomtown’s creation and destruction from climate change in general, or in specifics. The desire to seem impartial on this issue is hypocritical. It does not square with comments Trudeau made a few months ago, while meeting with President Obama.
“The president and I agree on many things, including, of paramount importance, the direction we want to take our countries in to ensure a clean and prosperous future,” Trudeau said. “Canada and the U.S. will stand side by side to confront the pressing needs that face not only our two countries, but the entire planet.”
Of course, this is impossible to do by running away from the first major environmental test of your leadership. The same goes for anyone trying to distance the very reason for Fort McMurray’s existence — dirty oil — from the results of its extractivist charade. We don’t get to pick our poison; in an exponentially warming world, there is no denying climate change when it comes to extreme weather and natural disasters, especially in a tar sands town built on short-term profit and crossed fingers.
So far, economic losses from Fort McMurray’s firestorm are in the billions, with no signs of slowing, erasing profits with every parcel of Earth it scorches. When the fires are finally brought under control, there will be many, many more behind them, terrifying reminders that stranded assets like Fort McMoney are better left to stand empty rather than be rebooted in foolishness. Especially when the solar, wind and geothermal industries stand ready to replace them with much cleaner, less lethal opportunities. In the final analysis, how many billions did Fort McMurray actually make before it caught fire? If it ends up a wash, with the only winner our catastrophic Anthropocene, will we finally face up to its insanity?
So no, now is not the time for the public, or their elected officials, or anyone else to ask for a moratorium on mentioning global warming, as Fort McMurray burns. There has never been a better time to point at this preventable misery and use it as a prime example of what not to do when faced with an existential nightmare. Everyone knows that Fort McMoney should never have been built in the first place.
If we deal honestly and productively with this incontrovertible fact, and horrific event, maybe we’ll never build another one.
This column also appeared at HuffPo.