By Alatheia Larsen ~
Eleven days after a raging forest fire forced the entire town of Fort McMurray to evacuate, there is still no timeline for the displaced families to return home. The media, however, have been busy using the tragedy as yet another opportunity to promote climate change rhetoric.
On May 10, Canadian environmental scientist Blair King took to Huffington Post Canada’s blog to call out journalists for “not really listening” to what experts said caused the wildfire. King also criticized journalists for “just looking for quotes to insert into articles that simply reinforced their pre-existing biases.”
According to King, the Fort McMurray fire was so severe thanks to “the effects of El Nino and historic forest management decisions.”
Yet, between May 4, and May 10, 2016, however, at least ten separate media outlets, including The New York Times, The Huffington Post, and CNN, all claimed that the wildfire was caused by climate change.
While most outlets mentioned El Nino in passing, they blamed its severity on climate change. The Guardian and the Los Angeles Times ignored El Nino altogether.
The Huffington Post and Climate Central were the first major sources to blame climate change for this particular fire.
On May 4, The Huffington Post quoted Michael Mann, director of Pennsylvania State University’s Earth System Science Center, who said, “The conditions that made these wildfires possible — namely, the unusually warm and dry winter the region has experienced — almost certainly had a climate change component.”
Climate Central agreed.
“What’s happening in Fort McMurray is a perfect encapsulation of the wicked ways that climate change is impacting wildfire season,” wrote Climate Central’s Senior Writer, Brian Kahn. Scientific American picked up Kahn’s story and ran it the same day.
The New Yorker and BBC weighed in on May 5, while The Washington Post and The Guardian added their climate change hypotheses on May 6. CNN, The Los Angeles Times, and CNBC also ran similar climate change stories in the days following.
The climate change rhetoric became so dismissive and disrespectful that on May 6, Vice published a profanity-laced article entitled, “Climate Change Was a Factor in the Fort McMurray Wildfire but You Don’t Have to Be an Asshole About It.”
In the article, the author said climate change is “hellishly complex” and it is “very tricky” to claim one event was caused by climate change. He also argued that talking about the “ironic” nature of fire destroying part of Canada’s oil industry had “some pretty fucking cruel undertones.”
On May 5, The New York Times cautiously suggested that “global warming may have played a role,” but quickly pointed out that Mike Flannigan, a wildland fire expert at the University of Alberta, said it was “impossible to link an individual event like this one directly to climate change.” But by May 10, the newspaper fully committed to the climate change alarm as both as cause and effect of the Fort McMurray fire.
“Global warming is suspected as a prime culprit in the rise of these fires,” declared the Times’ climate activist journalist Justin Gillis and science writer Henry Fountain. “[S]cientists say a large-scale loss of the [Canadian Boreal] forest could have profound consequences for efforts to limit the damage from climate change,” they added.
The media coverage of the Fort McMurray wildfire lines up with previous fire coverage by ABC, NBC, and CBS. In June 2014, the broadcast news networks blamed wildfires and droughts on climate change, despite their decrease. In July 2014, NBC claimed that firefighters battling California wildfires were on the “front lines of climate change.”
Similarly in 2007, CNN’s Anderson Cooper used fires in southern California to warn of possible “century of fires.”