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Is Climate Change Burning up British Columbia?

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Issue: 6 Section: Environment Geography: West British Columbia Topics: climate change

August 23, 2003

Is Climate Change Burning up British Columbia?

by Yuill Herbert

"While one event does not prove climate change, the overall trend is convincing." photo: NASA
Are the forest fires in Western Canada part of climate change? Scientists say that it is likely, and environmental groups are urging Canadians to begin making the connection between the burning forests and the country's rising greenhouse gas emissions.

Dr. Jim Bruce, former Environment Canada scientist, and Chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change working group, the United Nations body that studies climate change, warns that, "These forest fires are the kind of thing we expect with a warming climate. While one event does not prove climate change, the overall trend is convincing."

British Columbia is warming up. The Provincial government's state of the environment report indicates a 1.1 degree Celsius increase in average annual temperatures over the course of the last century. The warming climate means more lightning, which ignites forty percent of the fires in British Columbia. Environment Canada expects this summer to be the driest on record. Combined with increased heat, the result is a forest which is tinder dry, an ideal fuel source. Increased wind and heat, which can also be attributed to a warming climate, lead to conditions for ferocious burning. The result is this summer's widespread devastation of the forests and small communities in interior British Columbia.

Dr. Mike Flannigan is a senior scientist at Canadian Forest Service and studies the relationship between forest fires and climate change. "The drought is an unusual extreme event and maybe a glimpse of what the future will be like. I do not expect every year in the future under climate change to be like this one for BC, but we can expect more severe fire seasons in the future"

Dr Flannigan and other scientists use complex computer programs and paeleoecological data from the bottom of lakes to model climate change. The models paint a stark picture for the future. According to Dr.Flannigan, "recent work suggests that area burned could increase 50 to 100 percent in the next 50 to 100 years. So if we're running around 2.8 million, we could be seeing 4 to 6 million hectares burned annually. So this is a significant increase".

This year, the fire season in British Columbia is far from over, but by mid-August, the province had experienced a two hundred percent increase of area burned over the twenty-year average.

An environmental group in the area impacted, Shuswap Environmental Action Society (SEAS), and the Sierra Club of Canada have issued press releases pointing out that unless society begins to seriously address the use of fossil fuels, fires such as those that have so severely impacted interior communities of British Columbia will become more frequent and more intense. Burning fossil fuels produces the greenhouse gases that are causing the warming climate and thus creating conditions for increasingly severe forest fire seasons.

Environmental groups have documented the provincial government's failure to take action on climate change at a website called BCFacts.org. In 2002, the British Columbia government lobbied against the ratification of the Kyoto Protocol, setting the stage for an ongoing policy that has promoted the fossil fuel industry as a major source of prosperity for the province. The government's goal to double oil and gas production in the province by 2008 will be achieved through measures such as subsidized road construction for exploration, providing $50,000 tax credits for new coal bed methane wells and reducing regulatory mechanisms. The flagship of this effort is an aggressive campaign to promote offshore oil and gas development. This, in the face of a long standing federal moratorium that was designed to protect the delicate coastal ecosystem. These policy changes will further magnify a trend of increasing greenhouse gas emissions in the province. Between 1990 and 1999, emissions climbed by twenty percent, a rate five to six times greater than the global average.

The fires do not appear to have shifted the government's perspective towards climate change. British Columbia's minister responsible for both science policy and tourism, Rick Thorpe, was is quoted in Maclean's Magazine as saying: "To say that the fire situation is the result of climate change and that it will be permanent is, in my opinion, naive."

The effects of climate change continue to be felt around the world, with increasing severity. A death toll of approximately 3000 people due to a heat wave in France comes one year after French President Jacques Chirac's speech at the World Summit on Sustainable Development, "Our house is burning down and we're blind to it...The earth and humankind are in danger and we are all responsible. It is time to open our eyes. Alarms are sounding across all the continents . . . We cannot say that we did not know! Climate warming is still reversible. Heavy would be the responsibility of those who refused to fight it."

As the fires continue to ravage British Columbia, the French President's sentiment is echoed by local environmentalist and SEAS president Jim Cooperman "We call on industry and government to get serious about climate change and the Kyoto process. Citizens can help by pressuring government to take action and by supporting those politicians who are taking action".

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The Dominion is a monthly paper published by an incipient network of independent journalists in Canada. It aims to provide accurate, critical coverage that is accountable to its readers and the subjects it tackles. Taking its name from Canada's official status as both a colony and a colonial force, the Dominion examines politics, culture and daily life with a view to understanding the exercise of power.

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