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The astonishing fire at Fort McMurray evokes the legend of the monster destroying its maker, reveals the looming outlines of the age of human domination called by many geologists the "Anthropocene," and should be an awakening for us all. Although it's always hard to ascribe individual weather events to general climate trends, the fingerprints of global warming are all over this conflagration in Canada's Alberta Province.

Fort McMurray is a community of 110,000 permanent and transient residents dedicated to mining the surrounding Athabasca tar sands. The sands are, after Saudi Arabia and Venezuela , the world's third-largest reserves of oil, enormous deposits of sludge-like crude that Shell, Total, Chevron, BP and other companies are surface mining. This is "difficult" oil in the sense that it is less energy-efficient and more expensive to capture than oil from traditional wells in, say, Texas and Saudi Arabia. It is oil we never should have mined, oil we must not mine if we are to have any hope of remaining below the 1.2 Celsius degrees of additional global temperature increase (beyond the 0.8 degrees already attained) that is generally considered to represent a boundary beyond which warming becomes intolerable.

In a tragic twist of fate, much of Fort McMurray burned down. The blaze quickly spread from a few square miles, to 400 square miles, to 1,000 square miles today, destroying 2,500 homes, forcing 90,000 terrified residents to evacuate through exploding pines along the single road out of town, creating smoke visible in Florida and walls of fire that jumped miles at a time. Like the firestorms raised by the World War II bombings of Dresden, Tokyo and Hiroshima, the fire created its own weather: wind, clouds, and lightning.

Earth's hottest year on record was 2014. So was 2015. So, probably, will be 2016. Temperatures in northern Alberta soared 40 degrees above normal for this time of year. A drier-than-usual winter left a paltry spring snowpack that quickly melted, leaving dry fuel for wildfires. In Alberta's pine forests the soil itself stores carboniferous peat that ignites easily, is nearly inextinguishable, and can smolder for months, even re-emerging following the winter snows.

Officials predict they will fight this fire for months to come. Mike Flannigan, University of Alberta professor of wildland fire, says "This fire is unprecedented. It's impossible for scientists to say global warming caused this specific fire, of course, but polluting the atmosphere is creating conditions that make such disasters more likely, bigger and costlier. In Canada, our area burned has more than doubled since the early '70s. We've published work that states that this is because of human-caused climate change."

Boreal (snowy, pine-covered) forests are now burning at a rate unprecedented in 10,000 years. Fire seasons are 40 percent longer today than 65 years ago. Large wildfires have doubled over that time. The Canadian wildfire season now starts a month earlier than it used to.

The wildfires next time will be even more fierce. A report from the U.S. National Academy of Science says certain parts of the American West could see a six-fold increase in the annual area burned by wildfires if temperatures rise another 1 degree Celsius (1.8 degrees Fahrenheit). Yet such a rise is expected even under the most optimistic scenario for worldwide carbon dioxide emission reductions.

The hour is late. Yet, in a kind of tragic farce, we walk with eyes wide open, window-shopping along the avenue of material delights, chatting of business as usual, toward the cliff's edge. Humankind understood this threat with brilliant clarity by 1990, and could have easily avoided the plunge. We can no longer avoid terrible consequences, but there is time to ward off the worst if we can be rational long enough to seriously discuss the fate of the only planet we have.

The irony is that the required action is easy, obvious and beneficial for our quality of life. The most effective action would be a simple price on carbon emissions, preferably through a "carbon fee and dividend" -- a fee for all fossil fuel extraction, with proceeds remitted equally to every citizen. The fee would start low and gradually ratchet upward. A national law of this sort would have immediate effects on energy markets because it would change economic expectations. The U.S. example would set the world standard.

If we cannot summon the common sense to do something like this, the storms, droughts, floods, and fires of the Anthropocene will soon destroy most of what we hold dear.

Commentary on 05/24/2016

Print Headline: Fires of the Anthropocene

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