The collapse of global commodity prices was sudden and severe. Workers coming off a decade of unprecedented prosperity suddenly found themselves jobless and unable to provide for their beleaguered families. For a time, they maintained hope that the downturn would be temporary, but as the first year stretched into the second, many lost hope.
Some who had come from high unemployment provinces to participate in the Alberta boom began their glum journey back. Laid-off workers saw a glimmer of hope when commodity prices appeared to bottom out. At the very least, it seemed, things wouldn't get worse.
Then nature unleashed a crushing conflagration. Searing winds swept across drought-stricken farms and forests. A young boy comes running breathlessly into the house shouting to his mom, "There's a big black cloud in the sky." They hurry outside to behold a terrifying sight in the western sky that would force the family out of their home and into an uncertain future.
This is not, as it may seem, the story of the global oil price collapse combined with the Fort McMurray wildfire. The commodity price collapse in this story was caused by the economic earthquake of 1929 that launched the Great Depression. And the conflagration was the extremely hot and dry weather that turned the fertile prairie "breadbasket" into a drought-stricken wasteland.
That black cloud was caused by hundreds of millions of tonnes of topsoil being blown away by the wind. Impoverished farmers, hoping for an early end to the drought, were encouraged by a couple of years of improved weather. But it was only a temporary respite. The summers of 1936 and 1937 brought an abrupt reversal that proved even hotter, drier and windier. Tens of thousands of farms were abandoned in what is remembered as the "Dirty Thirties," displacing 250,000 people whose only skill set was farming. Inexplicably, the devastatingly hot conditions reversed in 1940, with the arrival of a cooling period that would last until 1975.
Since the Fort McMurray disaster, some have blamed the very product the people work to produce as the cause of the hot, dry weather that nurtured the wildfires. But analysis of temperature data over the past century shows some startling facts. First, the 1930s were by far the hottest period. Of the 10 highest temperature days ever recorded in Canada, seven occurred in the 1930s. And none of those top 10 records was set during the past decade.
Yet the atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide in the 1930s was some 25 per cent lower than today's levels. While theories abound, scientists have not been able to explain why, during a period of such low CO2 levels, such an abrupt shift from a long period of moderate temperatures and ample rainfall to devastatingly hot and dry conditions could occur. Likewise, scientists struggle to explain the equally sudden shift in 1940 that saw a 35-year long cooling period, even as greenhouse gas emissions rapidly increased. But whatever the answer to that question might be, one thing is crystal clear: Tying any single extreme weather event to atmospheric CO2 concentrations simply isn't historically or scientifically credible.
The Fort Mac fires took about one million barrels of oil a day out of production. But did that reduce global consumption of fossil fuels? Of course not. Countries including Saudi Arabia, Nigeria, Angola and Ivory Coast quickly filled the void. Not only do these countries have appalling human-rights records, but – as we have become painfully aware – some of the proceeds from their sales are funnelled to extremist groups that shatter the lives of people throughout the Middle East/North African region and foment terror across the West.
Here's a note to those who celebrated the Fort Mac disaster as divine environmental justice: Shutting down the Canadian oil sands altogether would reduce global greenhouse gas emissions by a minuscule one-tenth of a per cent, only to be replaced by oil from countries whose environmental and human-rights records are vastly inferior to Canada's.
My vote goes to the made-in-Canada oil produced by those resilient Canadians who have been forced to endure job loses, destructive wildfires and environmental extremist schadenfreude as they proudly anchor a crucial economic cornerstone of our country. I'll take the values contained in their made-in-Canada oil over that Middle Eastern and North African stuff any day.
Gwyn Morgan is the retired founder and CEO of Encana Corp. He has been a director of five global corporations.