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Kevin ClarkeJune 09, 2023
Joggers trot along the Reflecting Pool with the sun rising over the Washington Memorial and a thick layer of smoke, Thursday, June 8, 2023, in Washington. Intense Canadian wildfires are blanketing the northeastern U.S. in a dystopian haze, turning the air acrid, the sky yellowish gray and prompting warnings for vulnerable populations to stay inside. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)Joggers trot along the Reflecting Pool with the sun rising over the Washington Memorial and a thick layer of smoke, Thursday, June 8, 2023, in Washington. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

While headlines this week in the United States focused on historic levels of air pollution in major East Coast cities like New York and Philadelphia—which have not experienced air quality conditions this poor since the Clean Air Act was passed in 1970—in Canada, it was the unprecedented wildfires themselves that remained the primary worry. After one of the driest and hottest Mays in history, across the vast country from British Columbia to Nova Scotia, hundreds of fires continue to burn.

Carl Hétu, the president of the Canadian Catholic Church’s Development and Peace, an international relief and development agency, said it was difficult to say under chaotic circumstances how the church was responding to the wildfires—so many local church officials were themselves on the move, forced to flee homes or church offices as more than 400 fires advanced across Alberta, Quebec, Nova Scotia and other provinces, sometimes swallowing entire communities. What he could say for sure was that the most vulnerable in Canada’s First Nation communities have been among the hardest hit in this now months-long fire catastrophe.

After one of the driest and hottest Mays in history, across Canada from British Columbia to Nova Scotia, hundreds of fires continue to burn.

“It’s the same story everywhere. Fire is going out of control,” Mr. Hétu said. More than 100,000 Canadians in nine provinces have been forced to flee their homes ahead of the wildfires. “It’s not new in Canada to have forest fires,” Mr. Hétu said, “but this year, they’re worse than ever, and the reason is very simple—the last month has been one of the driest months in history.”

The unprecedented fires have brought the threat of climate change driven by global warming to the doorstep of the United States in the form of an orange choking haze that is still spreading along the East Coast and into the U.S. South. In Quebec, fire conditions are likely to get worse before they get better—rain is not expected through next week and temperatures are trending higher. Meteorologists are predicting that this smoke haze could persist in varying degrees of intensity for months as firefighters in Canada struggle to get wildfires under control.

“The forest fires have been everywhere in Canada, in particular in northern Quebec, where it’s becoming really, really bad, and the prime minister is already telling communities to leave because their communities won’t be saved,” Mr. Hétu said.

“We’re not talking about major, large communities, but it is people [who have been] living there for a long, long time, whether they’re aboriginal or they are local white folks. People are being moved out in emergency [conditions], and all that is happening really quickly.”

Mr. Hétu said Canadians experience such wildfires each year owing to lightning strikes and “careless people,” but no one can recall conditions like this. Especially unprecedented is the lingering smoke haze over major cities and the sheer number of fires raging simultaneously. Canadian firefighters have been overwhelmed, and firefighters from the United States and South Africa have been arriving to lend a hand.

Canadians experience wildfires each year, but no one can recall conditions like this. Especially unprecedented is the lingering smoke haze over major cities and the sheer number of fires raging simultaneously.

He noted that the connection of the wildfires to climate change should be clear even to the most skeptical at this point. According to Mr. Hétu, in recent years the weather in Canada has become increasingly unpredictable.

Just before a month of drought created the tinder-box conditions that have contributed to the fire crisis, he said, Canada experienced uncharacteristic rainfall and flooding, sometimes “a month of rain falling in just a few hours.” The capricious weather, anticipated by climatologists as one of the effects of climate change, has thrown the planting season for Canadian farmers into havoc this year.

“I think it’s fair to say that over the last 15 years that any Canadian can see a change,” Mr. Hétu said. “It’s often subtle.” And sometimes it is not. He explained that in the past his home province of Ontario rarely experienced tornados that are seasonal hazards in “tornado alley” states just south of the border. Now tornadoes are becoming more common as Canadians struggle to adapt to their ferocious impact. And warming temperatures have meant contending with mosquitos and ticks that had never been significant pests and new illnesses like Lyme disease that had barely been known before.

“Clearly we see there is a trend, a change,” he said. But policymakers in Canada have not kept up. “We’re totally out of resources and caught by surprise each time,” he said.

He points out that when wealthy countries like the United States and Canada seem unable to cope with the extreme weather that climate change propels, how much harder will adaptations prove for countries with far less wealth and civic capacity to respond?

“For us as an organization, we’re looking [at what is happening] in Canada, and we’re saying: ‘Climate change. It’s not just a business in the south anymore; it’s global,’” he said. “But the problem is, as usual, it hits always the poorest nations and the poorest people first.”

The connection of the wildfires to climate change should be clear even to the most skeptical at this point. In recent years the weather in Canada has become increasingly unpredictable.

The cross-border impact being experienced this month, as U.S. cities contend with smoke conditions created hundreds of miles away in a neighboring nation, should bring home the importance of a comprehensive, multilateral response to this global challenge, he suggested. Low-lying and heat-afflicted states in the Global South, he said, now face existential challenges because of climate change.

He perceives a “green revolution” growing across the world as nations seek to transition away from a reliance on fossil fuels, and that is good news. But he warns that this revolution threatens to replicate older patterns of market exploitation and practices of resource extraction that leave vulnerable communities, particularly Indigenous communities around the world, paying the greatest costs in human and ecological deprivation.

Noting that even the worst gloom-and-doom predictions about the loss of Arctic sea ice have proved to be overly optimistic, Mr. Hétu said, “there’s something going on that is undeniable.”

It is clear, he said, that with global hunger and migration on the rise because of climate change, “the current situation is no good.”

“We need to make some sense of it and continue the good work of raising awareness…and I think that’s the role of the church—to really sit down and have a hard discussion among ourselves about how we can influence policymakers and how to be part of those movements that demand that the poor don’t have to pay again for the [transition from fossil fuel] we’re going into.”

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