Alberta Is on Fire, but Climate Change Is an Election Taboo

When I came to Alberta recently to report on an upcoming political story, there was no shortage of people wanting to talk about politics and the May 29 provincial election. But, even as wildfires broke out earlier than usual, ripping through a swath of forest, discussions of climate change were largely absent.

[Read from Opinion: There’s No Escape From Wildfire Smoke]

[Read: 12 Million People Are Under a Heat Advisory in the Pacific Northwest]

Wildfire smoke has blotted out the sun in Calgary, Edmonton and Vancouver multiple times in recent years and has kept runners, cyclists and walkers indoors. Charred forests, already burned by previous wildfire seasons, lined the roads I drove on in the Alberta mountains.

I was in Alberta in 2016 to cover the fires that ripped through Fort McMurray, but that fire, almost miraculously, claimed no lives except in one traffic accident. But the fires in Alberta, British Columbia and Saskatchewan have gotten bigger and stronger, and research suggests that heat and drought associated with global warming are the main reasons. When the city of Lytton, British Columbia was consumed by wildfires in 2021, temperatures reached a staggering 49.6 degrees Celsius.

survey after survey has shown that Albertans more or less agree with other Canadians on the need to take action to reduce carbon emissions. But the candidates don’t talk much about it.

During Thursday’s debate between Danielle Smith, prime minister and leader of the United Conservative Party, and Rachel Notley, former prime minister and leader of the New Democratic Party, the climate issue came up only in an economic context.

Ms Smith repeatedly accused Ms Notley of setting up a “surprise” carbon tax in the province, warning that any attempt to limit emissions would inevitably lead to reduced oil production and reduced revenue for the province (an assessment not universally shared by experts). ).

I asked Feodor Snagovsky, a professor of political science at the University of Alberta, about this apparent disconnect in Alberta between public opinion on climate change and campaign discourse.

“It’s very difficult to talk about oil and gas in Alberta because it’s kind of a cash cow,” he said. “It is the source of a remarkable level of prosperity that the province has enjoyed for a long time.”

This year, oil and gas revenue will account for about 36 percent of all money the province receives. And during the oil embargo of the late 1970s, those revenues accounted for more than 70 percent of the province’s budget. Among other things, that has allowed Alberta to be the only province without a sales tax and has kept income and corporate taxes generally low relative to other provinces.

But oil and gas production accounts for 28 percent of Canada’s carbon emissions, the largest source in the country. While the amount of carbon released for each barrel produced has been reduced, increases in total production have more than offset those gains.

However, the energy industry is also an important source of high-paying jobs. So the suggestion that production might have to be capped for Canada to meet its climate targets raises alarm.

“People hear that and think: my job is going to disappear,” Professor Snagovsky said. “It hits people very close to home.”

He told me that he had lived in Australia in 2020 when that country was plagued by extreme heat and bushfires. At the time, Professor Snagovsky said, not only was there very little discussion of climate change, but politicians and others argued that it was not an appropriate time for such talks.

Professor Snagovsky said he hoped the fires and smoke would prompt Albertans to start thinking about the weather effects that caused them, but he is not confident that will happen.

“I think it’s unlikely, but you can always wait,” he said.

A native of Windsor, Ontario, Ian Austen was educated in Toronto, lives in Ottawa, and has reported on Canada for The New York Times for the past 16 years. Follow him on Twitter at @ianrausten.

How are we doing?
We look forward to hearing your thoughts on this newsletter and events in Canada in general. Send them to

Do you like this email?
Forward it to your friends and let them know they can sign up here.