Zum Inhalt springen

In April 2019 a report from Environment and Climate Change Canada revealed that Canada was warming twice as fast the rest of the world (Environment and Climate Change Canada 2019). Amongst the many anticipated consequences of global warming is an expected increase in Canadian wildfires. Wildfires (also known as ‘forest fires’) manifest routinely in Canada’s forests: each year, approximately 8,000 wildfires occur, burning an average of over 2,000,000 acres (Natural Resources Canada, 2017). Wildfires play a pivotal role in the revitalization of forest ecosystems. However, wildfires that create extensive and destructive impacts to surrounding human communities — thereby creating social disruptions — prompt special attention from several disciplines, including geography, sociology, natural and biological sciences, and also media studies. Of great import is the increasing frequency and magnitude of wildfires (Jolly et al., 2015; Environment and Climate Change Canada 2019): recent mega wildfires in 2016 and 2017 that burned Alberta, British Columbia, as well as California and Texas reveal the social, environmental and political implications of this new reality. Indeed, the scientific community continually reminds us that extreme weather and natural disasters are born out of anthropogenic climate change and pose measurable threats to infrastructure, economies, and communities (Stoker et al., 2013). Despite the danger of such calamities, the option to ignore, dismiss, revoke, or reinterpret science based assertions about the interaction between human activities and the atmosphere remains. Moreover, in a time of deep ecological crisis and deep mediatization, public understanding of crisis comes, at least in part, from its mediated representation. As such, critically examining case studies of mediated disaster against a backdrop of climate change and ecological disaster offer an important window into the representation of crisis.

This working paper presents a discourse analysis of Canadian news media coverage of one specific wildfire that encircled the municipality of Fort McMurray, Alberta beginning in May 2016. Named “The Beast,” the blaze displaced the city’s population and the aftermath continues to affect the lives of the residents. The attribution of climate change to the cause of the wildfire triggered debate in traditional and social media and in the statements of prominent federal politicians. As an array of sources and speakers advanced different interpretations of the wildfire, varying degrees of concern were placed on the science of attribution – scientific work that quantifies the extent to which greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions affect the risk of extreme weather events (Corneliussen 2016).

About the authors

Martine Stevens
Martine Stevens holds a MA in Communications from the University of Ottawa. She works as Communications Officer at the Indigenous Services Canada. Her research focuses on opinion discourse published following the 2016 Fort McMurray wildfire in order to gain an understanding of the powerful use of language in commentary post-natural disaster.

Patrick McCurdy
Patrick McCurdy is Associate Professor in the Department Communication at the University of Ottawa. In 2017, he was ZeMKI Visiting Research Fellow at the University of Bremen. His research draws from media and communication, journalism as well as social movement studies to study media as a site and source of social struggle and contestation. Most recently, Patrick’s work has studied the evolution of oil/tar sands advertising and campaigning from 1970 to present day with his project Mediatoil (www.mediatoil.ca). Patrick’s work has been published in several academic journals and he is the co-author of Protest Camps (Zed 2013) and the co-editor of three books Protest Camps in International Context: Spaces, Infrastructures and Media of Resistance (Policy Press 2017), Beyond WikiLeaks: Implications for the Future of Communications, Journalism and Society (Palgrave 2013) and Mediation and Protest Movements (Intellect 2013)