Source: Cameron Strandberg / Wikimedia Commons

Canada is currently experiencing its worst wildfire season of the 21st century, and scientific research undeniably points to the fact that this is linked to the climate crisis—undeniably, that is, if you actually care about finding the truth. But the right wing and the capitalist media do not, and they have been busy finding a million and one ways to lie about why Canada is burning. 

Woke ecoterrorists causing the fires?

Danielle Smith’s explanation of the fires is almost admirable for its brainless simplicity: it was arson! In early June, she went on a local radio show where the host mentioned that, “Every expert that we talk to indicates the significant factor that climate change is playing on our susceptibility to wildfire.” Smith countered, changing the subject entirely, “We are bringing in arson investigators from outside the province. We have almost 175 fires with no known cause at the moment.” She went on to imply that because we know those fires weren’t caused by lightning or train derailments, they were probably caused by arson.

First of all, there is nothing especially suspicious about a fire having “no known cause,” as Smith implies. Michael Flannigan, professor of wildland fire at Thompson Rivers University in British Columbia, explains that lightning strikes cause about 50 per cent of all wildfires, while human behaviour is responsible for the other half. Of that 50 per cent, he says, “Few wildfires are malicious in nature and many are a result of unfortunate circumstances.” Common human causes of wildfires include offroad vehicle exhaust, campfires, cigarette butts, and so on. Determining which of these causes is to blame for a fire and then linking them to an individual person can take years, Flannigan says. 

With this in mind, it’s not strange or suspicious that we don’t know exactly how all of the fires started. The province was turned into a tinderbox by a dry, hot, windy spring. In these conditions, any number of non-criminal human activities could have caused the fires. But in order to avoid discussing climate change, Smith implies that there are only three ways fires can start: train derailments, lightning, and deliberate conspiratorial arson. 

This is of course not true, but even if some or many of the Alberta wildfires were caused by arson, what about the rest of the country? Are we to believe that hundreds of no-good hooligans have randomly decided to set the country ablaze? This would be silly—unless of course it was all part of a woke conspiracy

Maxime Bernier, leader of the right-wing populist People’s Party of Canada, has taken a similar stance to Smith’s. He posted: “Several arsonists have been arrested in the past weeks in different provinces for lighting forest fires. But the lying woke media and politicians keep repeating that global warming is the cause.” 

While he references “arsonists” (plural), the article he links in his post actually just refers to the arrest of one man in Cold Lake, Alberta. This man mainly targeted buildings and cars, causing fires that were put out rather quickly, and which all took place a whole year before the wildfires even started. 

Bernier and Smith are clearly endorsing the theory spread by far-right conspiracy theorists that the fires were intentionally started by eco-terrorists and the government is covering this up to push their climate agenda. Pierre Poilievre, leader of the Conservative Party, and Doug Ford, Progressive Conservative premier of Ontario, have also flirted with these ideas by denying the role of the climate crisis in the wildfires. 

CBC reports that “false claims about the origins of Canada’s wildfires have been getting millions of views online.” The Rebel, a right-wing media outlet, picked up on this sentiment with an article titled, “Nova Scotia RCMP blame arson for multiple wildfires,” which gained enough of a hearing that the RCMP had to step in and explain that the arson in question didn’t cause any wildfires. 

Right-wing populist politicians are now trying to draw on this well of paranoia and misinformation to deny the role of the climate crisis in the wildfires, and to instead redirect the public’s attention and energy toward imagined woke eco-terrorist enemies. 

Missing the forest for the… forest management

However, the theory that a whole country is burning because of wokeness is a bit far-fetched for most. This is why the more mainstream right-wing media establishment has become absolutely obsessed with the issue of forest management as a more “reasonable” method of denying or atleast downplaying the climate crisis. Article after article champions poor “forest management” as the obvious, common-sense culprit that hysterical climate change-believers simply refuse to acknowledge. Publications from tabloids to  mainstream, outlets—Daily Mail, Fox News, New York Post, Fraser Institute, Financial Post, National Post and so on—have all made almost the exact same argument: the global area burned by wildfires is decreasing, which means climate change is not resulting in more wildfires; therefore, poor forest management must be the issue. 

Nearly every single article about forest management begins with the same study from 2016 by the Royal Society showing that the total global area burned by wildfires has been decreasing in recent decades. This is the right-wingers’ pièce de résistance; their best—and often only—bit of evidence to prove that climate change must not be causing more wildfires. If there are now fewer wildfires than in the past, how could climate change be causing them? 

There is a simple reason for this, which is explained by the very organization that conducted the study! In a 2020 blog post from The Royal Society, they revisit their 2016 study and explicitly address its misuse, stating, “The decline in global average area burned has indeed been misused to support false claims numerous times. There is strong evidence that the increase in fire activity we are seeing in many forested regions is indeed linked to climate change.” 

They go on to explain that a “global decrease” in area burned does not in fact mean that the whole globe, country by country, is experiencing that decrease. Rather, the “global decrease” really expresses a decrease in just a few regions which account for the most area. As the Royal Society explains: “The global decrease is mostly driven by less fire in savannahs and grasslands, mainly in Africa, but also in South America and Australia. In quantitative terms, fire in those grassy ecosystems account for around 70% of the total global area burnt, so the reduction in fire activity here outweighs the increase in burned area that we are seeing in other parts of the world.”

Where these increases have taken place, they are associated with a “rise in fire impacts, for example in the number of fatalities.” These impacts are what really matter to the people suffering from wildfire crises, and they are strongly linked to climate change. Hotter, drier climates mean more flammable trees and plants and bigger, more severe fires. This in turn leads to destruction that we are unprepared for, as is happening right now: evacuations, destruction of homes and infrastructure, permanent dislocation, airline disruptions, dangerously bad air quality and even rising home insurance rates are affecting thousands of people in Canada and the U.S. right now. Simply pointing to the global decrease in area burned misses a rather crucial factor in wildfire analysis: human lives and human suffering. 

Overall, there is not a whiff of evidence in the Royal Society study to show that wildfires cannot be linked to the climate crisis. This decimates the argument (again, supported almost exclusively with this study) that because climate change can’t be linked to wildfires, forest management must be the only issue. To say that this misses the forest for the trees is an understatement; it is an intentional diversion and distraction from the obvious issue of the climate crisis. 

Silver bullet, or ‘chainsaw medicine’?

However, while forest management isn’t the only issue contributing to the current crisis, it is certainly an important one. The problem with the argument that forest management is a silver bullet solution (aside from ignoring the climate crisis) is that the government was whipped into submission by the lumber industry long ago, and this is part of the reason why our forests have not been properly managed up to this point.

Clear-cutting trees is the most commonly used harvesting practice in Canada, a practice which maximizes profits as well as future wildfire risk. After a clear-cut, old-growth forests are usually replaced with tightly-packed plantations of younger trees, usually pine and Douglas fir. Due to their highly flammable resin, the fact that they are younger, and their tight spacing, these replanted forests burn far quicker than the old-growth forests full of both coniferous and deciduous trees that they replace. On the other hand, clear-cuts that aren’t replanted create vast expanses of dry soil and woody debris left to dry in the sun, also creating a tinderbox situation. 

Every year, over ten thousand hectares of deciduous trees in B.C. are sprayed with herbicide, with the explicit intention to make more room for commercially valuable, and flammable trees like Douglas Fir, and pine. Lori Daniels, a professor of forest ecology at the University of B.C has argued that deciduous trees, specifically Aspen, form “natural fuel breaks” for wildfires. By killing broadleaved trees, the province eliminates these breaks, allowing fires to grow faster. Aspen stands are even called “asbestos forests” by forest management professionals, referring to their fire resistance. This forest management practice of killing deciduous trees aids the spread of wildfires, at the service of the logging industry. 

Aspens left standing after a forest fire.
Source: James Steidle

The fact that these methods are common practice despite the profoundly negative effects—not just wildfire risks but all manner of environmental damage—is proof of the inability of federal and provincial governments to regulate the activity of the lumber industry. There have been attempts to reduce clear-cutting going back decades, but all the lumber industry has to do is say that they might need to close up shop if they can’t make enough money to prevent the implementation of any pesky regulations. 

Currently, the industry is in an even better position than usual to make demands on the government given that they’ve had to shutter some sawmills due to the fires (although it’s worth noting they are also enjoying a temporary spike in prices due to the fires). 

Likely sensing this advantage, more clearcutting is already being proposed by the drooling mouthpieces of the lumber industry. The CEO of an industry group called Forest Products Association of Canada, Derek Nighbor, says that federal and provincial governments should allow for expanded tree harvesting, especially of older trees, to reduce fire risk. He justifies this by saying, “There’s this sense in some political circles that protecting trees is going to be some solution for climate. We need to be looking (at forestry) through a fire lens.” 

This “sense” that Nighbor refers to is more commonly referred to as “a fact.” There would be zero debate about the risks of clear-cutting if it weren’t for rabid wildfire-enthusiasts like Nighbor and his rich friends in the lumber industry. The ridiculousness of this argument has even earned it a nickname from environmental activists: “chainsaw medicine.”

Yet there is a real possibility that, like usual, they will get the go-ahead from the government, and that the government will echo the propaganda of the lumber bosses that this is somehow eco-friendly. 

On the other hand there are plenty of scientifically sound ways to reduce wildfire threats via forest management, but none are being proposed by governments on a provincial or federal level at the moment. 

Prescribed burns, for example, are effective at ridding a forest of its accumulated fuel (like dry foliage) and have been carried out by Indigenous people for centuries. But Canada has historically not made enough use of them, and has even suppressed their use by Indigenous people in many provinces. This is especially grievous given that 60 per cent of Indigenous communities in Canada are in remote and forested areas, and are 30 per cent more likely to be displaced by, and suffer from, the outcomes of wildfires. This means Indigenous people are disallowed from using effective methods of fire prevention and then forced to suffer the consequences of poor government management. 

Changing this narrowly suppression-focused approach would be a truly momentous task given the costs and the need for central coordination. This is proven by past attempts to change forest management.

After B.C. was ravaged by fires in 2003, the province planned to remove fuel from forests using several different methods, including controlled burns. But by 2018 they hadn’t even addressed the fuel in one per cent of high-risk areas. This is no doubt because the cost of implementing the full fuel cleanup plan is estimated at $6.7 billion. 

The Globe and Mail argues that Canada needs to step up from its “ad hoc, province-by-province response” and prepare a real, nationwide plan. But so far, no fundamental changes look to be in the works, and this is not for lack of “political will” as many will say. It is because ending clear-cutting and implementing more controlled burns—which are only two steps in improving forest management, not a complete solution—would push up against the limits of capitalism. Ending clear-cutting would not fly with the lumber bosses, who would threaten capital strike like they always do when faced with regulations; and investing enough money to turn around Canada’s forest management policy and implement more controlled burns poses a difficult question: where are the billions of dollars going to come from?

While forest management certainly plays a role in the spread of wildfires, climate change has created the conditions for the fire season to be as bad as it is. Hot, windy weather turned those “managed” forests into tinder, and multiplied the danger of more extensive and destructive wildfires.

Would the right-wing forest management fanatics advocate for the nationalization of the oil barons and lumber bosses so as to implement a proper forest management scheme? Of course not! This would go against the laws of capitalism. 

Suddenly, all this fanfare around forest management turns into so much smoke and mirrors, a diversion almost as empty as the nonsense around “woke ecoterrorists” and the climate agenda. It’s a way to paint anyone who is concerned about the climate crisis as a woke hysteric who should just accept the simple solution right in front of us—even though the solution is not simple at all, and even though its implementation would actually require us to go beyond the capitalist system we live under. 

What’s behind the smoke and mirrors? 

The country is on fire, and it seems like nobody can tell the truth about it. Our politicians and media outlets are leading us into a maze of funhouse mirrors where the terms of the debate are never centered on the problem itself: instead of discussing real solutions to the climate crisis, we are stuck debating about whether it even exists, the threat of “woke ecoterrorists”, and policies that have little hope of ever getting enacted.

But what about the Liberals? After all, they have admitted that the climate crisis is linked to the fires, and spoken extensively about the need to protect the planet, right? This is precisely the problem—they have spoken extensively and done little else, making it very easy for right-wing populists to sow doubt and mistrust about the climate crisis. Still, the brazen lies and conspiracies of the right-populists allow the Liberals to appear reasonable and sensible for at least talking about climate change. Then, the cycle continues as a small group of people continue to amass profits off environmental destruction.

While this endless cycle appears to be the result of vicious debate within the media and political establishments, it’s actually the result of unanimous agreement on one crucial point: the necessity of defending capitalism. The politicians’ and journalists’ dramatic squabbles about whether the climate crisis is real only serve to distract us from the obvious reality that it is, and that it is linked to capitalism. In fact, this link has become so obvious that it’s impossible to seriously discuss the climate crisis without discussing the colossal, decisive role of private industry—just to mention the connection between the two shows that in order to deal with climate change, the oil barons, the lumber industry, and the commanding heights of the economy cannot be allowed to continue destroying the earth. Instead, they must be run on a rational plan of production to curb emissions and switch to renewable energy. This means to call for the overthrow of capitalism. 

That is precisely what all this distraction and diversion is meant to cover up, and that is precisely the way forward: we need to end capitalism and fight for socialism. The capitalist class is currently proving that there is no disaster bad enough to make them take the climate crisis seriously. They did not care in 1959 when oil executives were warned about the link between fossil fuels and global warming, and they do not care now. They will keep distracting us with smokescreens no matter how bad the climate crisis gets. It’s up to the working class to cut through the confusion and overthrow the capitalist class that’s not only letting the planet burn for profit, but lying about it too.