The link between climate change and the increasing intensity of wildfires in Canada is well-established

Hadrian Mertins-KirkwoodCanada’s wildfire season is off to another roaring start as uncontrolled blazes in northern BC force thousands from their homes. Whether or not 2024 matches last year’s record-breaking fires, we are on track for yet another exceptional summer of catastrophic blazes from coast to coast to coast.

The link between climate change and wildfires is well established. As the planet warms, it creates more favourable conditions for fires to start and spread during our hot, dry summers. Meanwhile, warmer winters and reduced snowpack mean the buffer between wildfire seasons is becoming shorter and more permeable.

Canadian governments have responded by spending more money on firefighting. That is no doubt essential. In this new normal of predictably widespread fires, we need more resources to keep people safe across the country.

But upping our firefighting muscle is a band-aid solution. Like climate adaptation more broadly – everything from flood-proofing homes to requiring climate risk disclosure in the financial system – firefighting is necessary but not sufficient for addressing the climate crisis.

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Photo by Mike Newbry

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A new study published by the National Bureau of Economic Research in the U.S. drives the point home.

The paper finds that global warming of three degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels by 2100 – roughly the planet’s current trajectory – will lead to “precipitous declines in output, capital and consumption that exceed 50 percent” around the world.

In other words, failing to curb global warming could cut the global economy in half.

For Canada, that means an economic loss of around a trillion dollars per year. A 2022 paper from the Canadian Climate Institute similarly warned of an $865 billion per year hit to the Canadian economy by the end of the century in a high-emissions scenario.

These projected losses are so big that our economy simply could not survive them. And that’s the key takeaway here. Whatever we think of the costs of mitigating and adapting to climate change, it will be dramatically more expensive over the long term if we do nothing.

The wildfires we’re grappling with today are just the tip of the iceberg.

The good news is these costs are not foregone conclusions. In fact, we already know what the solutions are for reducing greenhouse gas emissions to tackle climate change and avoid long-term economic devastation.

At its core, reducing emissions is an issue of eliminating fossil fuels. We must stop producing and consuming coal, oil and gas as quickly as possible. We also need to think carefully about other sources of emissions, such as methane from livestock farming, but dealing with the fossil fuel problem will get us almost the whole way there.

For Canada, that requires a clear plan to wind down oil and gas production, just like we did with coal-fired power generation. We need to accelerate the transition already underway from internal combustion engines to zero-emission vehicles. We also need to replace oil and gas heating with electric heat pumps in our homes and buildings.

To ensure there are good jobs in a productive, clean economy, we also need to invest in economic alternatives. There may be no future for the fossil fuel industry in a climate-safe world, but there is also no shortage of new opportunities in clean industries.

We can have an economy that produces zero emissions and raises the standard of living at the same time, but only if we choose it.

Politicians today are afraid to take big steps to accelerate the transition away from fossil fuels. Whether due to cynical industry lobbying or ideological opposition to public leadership, we are left with half measures that fail to significantly reduce emissions or inspire Canadians to embrace greener alternatives.

The costs of wildfires today and the costs of inaction down the road should force a rethink. We can’t afford not to.

Hadrian Mertins-Kirkwood is a senior researcher with the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives.

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