There was an outbreak of elephant neglect in conference centres and newsrooms the week of July 18-24 as Canada’s premiers and energy ministers met to discuss matters of state. With most of the country sweating through record high temperatures, with forest fires raging in northern Ontario and the Prairies still feeling the effects of historic spring floods, politicians and the media pretty well managed to avoid talking about climate change.
A few denialist diehards may quibble, but the heat, fires and hordes of mosquitoes on the soggy prairies are this summer’s reminder that climate change is indeed upon us. (We’ll have to wait and see how the world’s weather in 2011 compares with 2010, according to the New York Times the wettest, and tied with 2005 as the hottest, year since record keeping began in 1880).
The energy ministers, meeting in Alberta, kicked off the week with a tour of the oil sands. (No word on whether they flew over Slave Lake or territory north of Fort McMurray, scene last spring of the worst forest fires in 30 years). Afterward, stepping carefully around the pachyderm, they returned to the serious business of forging a national consensus around the need to develop the oil sands and bulldoze over any environmental obstacles in the way of getting it to market.
On Tuesday, just as the heat wave was hitting Saskatchewan and Manitoba, the ministers issued a statement describing the oil sands as sustainable and “a responsible and major supplier of energy to the world.” Only Ontario dissented. With forest fires burning across the northwestern part of his province, Ontario’s Energy minister Brad Duguid declared himself uncomfortable with the wording.
The provincial premiers, meeting later in the week in Vancouver, made trading energy and food with Asia the centerpiece of their deliberations. They also supported more funding for Canadians “devastated by wildfires” or affected by “unprecedented flooding.” But their conference-ending communiqué avoided linking human-caused climate change to these cataclysmic events, referring to them as “natural disasters.” And there was nothing in the communiqué about lessening the effects of such (un)natural disasters by seriously curtailing the use of fossil fuels.
Media gloss over climate change
The media took their usual approach to covering the heat wave and forest fires, finding a variety of ways to report that it is hot out, or that evacuated residents from northern Ontario were concerned about their homes and communities. Predominant images were of people waiting in community halls, or kids playing in water from garden hoses and water fountains.
Although some media do report climate change as the new normal (CBC morning radio in Halifax did so twice within 15 minutes the other day when reporting on coastal erosion and flooding in Pakistan) coverage of the July heat wave and forest fires avoided making any connection with climate change. And I saw no stories challenging premiers and ministers at the two inter-governmental conferences to confront the elephant. Even the Globe and Mail, whose coverage of climate change has been better than most, was cautious about connecting the dots.
Between Wednesday July 20 and Saturday the 23rd, the Globe published eight stories (usually with pictures) on its news pages that dealt with the heat wave and fire. Several went beyond the usual cliches. One dealt with trading in weather futures; another reported in detail how operators of the power grid are coping with escalating summertime demand for air conditioning. A third looked at the correlation between rising temperatures and accidental drownings as Canadians cool off at pools and beaches.
The third story was noteworthy in that it was the only one published by the Globe during the heat wave that explicitly acknowledged any connection with climate change. “As global warming shows no sign of slowing down and with more summers of record-breaking temperatures ahead, are we doing enough to make our waters safe?” asked reporter Anita Li.
The coverage was also alone in offering suggestions on coping with climate change — learn to swim, and keep an eye on the youngsters when they’re around water.
Perhaps similar advice should have been incorporated into communiqués from the premiers and energy ministers. If you live on the coasts or flood-prone areas — learn to swim. If you live in communities surrounded by the vast boreal forest – prepare to evacuate.
Richard Starr has had careers as a journalist, public servant, broadcaster, political staffer and policy adviser. He lives in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia. His book, “Power Failure,” published in May 2011, is available at Formac Publishing.