When I recently arrived in Alberta to report on an upcoming political story, there was no shortage of people willing to talk about politics and the May 29 provincial election. , discussions of climate change were largely absent.
[Read from Opinion: There’s No Escape From Wildfire Smoke]
[Read: 12 Million People Are Under a Heat Advisory in the Pacific Northwest]
Smoke from wildfires has blotted out the sun in Calgary, Edmonton and Vancouver many times over the past few years and kept runners, cyclists and walkers indoors. Charred forests, already burned in previous wildfire seasons, lined the roads I drove through the mountains of Alberta.
I had been to Alberta in 2016 to cover the fires that were sweeping by Fort McMurray, but this fire, almost miraculously, caused no deaths, except in a traffic accident. But the fires in Alberta, British Columbia and Saskatchewan have grown bigger and stronger, and research suggests that heat and drought associated with global warming are the main reasons. When the city of Lyton, British Columbiawas consumed by wildfires in 2021, temperatures reached a staggering 49.6 degrees Celsius.
Poll after survey showed that Albertans more or less agree with other Canadians on the need to take action to reduce carbon emissions. But the candidates don’t talk about it much.
In Thursday’s debate between Danielle Smith, premier and leader of the United Conservative Party, and Rachel Notley, former premier and leader of the New Democratic Party, the subject of climate was only broached in an economic context.
Ms Smith has repeatedly accused Ms Notley of imposing a ‘surprise’ carbon tax on the province and warned that any attempt to cap emissions will inevitably lead to reduced oil production and revenue for the province (an assessment that is not universally shared by experts).
I asked Feodor Snagovsky, professor of political science at the University of Alberta, about this apparent disconnect in Alberta between public opinion on climate change and campaign discourse.
“It’s very difficult to talk about oil and gas in Alberta because it’s sort of the golden goose,” he said. “It is the source of a remarkable level of prosperity that the province has enjoyed for a long time.
This year, oil and gas revenues will account for about 36% of all the money the province receives. And during the oil embargo of the late 1970s, these revenues accounted for more than 70% of the province’s budget. Among other things, this allowed Alberta to be the only province without a sales tax and it kept income and corporate taxes generally low compared to other provinces.
But oil and gas production accounts for 28% of Canada’s carbon emissions, the largest spring in the country. Although the amount of carbon released for each barrel produced has been reduced, increases in total production have more than offset these gains.
The energy industry is also an important source of well-paying jobs. Thus, the suggestion that production may need to be limited for Canada to meet its climate goals raises concerns.
“People hear this and they think: my work is going to disappear,” Professor Snagovsky said. “It affects people very close to home.”
He told me that he lived in Australia in 2020 when that country was plagued by extreme heat and wildfires. At the time, Prof Snagovsky said, not only was there very little discussion of climate change, but politicians and others argued that now was not the appropriate time for such discussions.
Professor Snagovsky said he hopes the fires and smoke will inspire Albertans to start thinking about the climate effects that caused them, but he’s not convinced that will happen.
“I think it’s unlikely, but you can always hope,” he said.
Originally from Windsor, Ontario, Ian Austen was educated in Toronto, lives in Ottawa and has reported on Canada for The New York Times for the past 16 years. Follow him on Twitter at @ianrausten.
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