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Carbon Law roadmap risks from artificial intelligence and automation

Christopher Lyon

Centre for Environmental Change and Human Resilience, University of Dundee

Abstract: Widespread adoption of the carbon law roadmap likely means a major investment in technological innovations, including those using artificial intelligence (AI). This occurs at the same time significant concerns are being raised about AI safety risks and human labour displacement through automation. Adoption of the carbon law roadmap must therefore include social equity and AI safeguards.

In their recent and widely publicised paper Rockström et al. (2017) describe what they term a ‘carbon law’ roadmap to rapidly decarbonize the atmosphere in order to stem global warming in line with the internationally agreed target of well below 2.0C. Essentially, they argue that in order to meet this critical challenge, humanity must halve, and halve again greenhouse gas emissions as well as remove atmospheric carbon at decadal rates until 2050 in a manner akin to Moore’s Law for the doubling rates of computing power. Central to this massive enterprise are the needs for technological innovations in carbon-free energy production and atmospheric carbon removal. While there can be no doubt about the need for such a massive shift if humanity is to have a credible chance of keeping planetary warming to within Paris Agreement limits, the carbon law roadmap is also heavily dependent on technological innovation in key areas such as energy production, transportation and carbon capture and storage.

Such a radical plan for rapid technological innovation occurs while other widely discussed research stresses existential risks for humanity stemming from the rise of artificial intelligence (AI) and the mass obsolescence of human wage labour due to automation. For example, a recent prediction suggests that up to 47% of ‘routine’ US jobs are at risk from automation within the next 20 years (Frey and Osborne, 2017). What is more, AI theorists propose that in the coming years or decades advances in machine intelligence could produce technology able to meet or exceed human intelligence and capabilities (known as superintelligence or HLMI – High-level machine intelligence) that may render humans superfluous to machine aims where AI machines are able to self-perpetuate and expand in scope of capability and scale beyond human controls (Bostrom, 2014; Bostrom et al., 2016). The midpoint estimates of achieving HLMI have recently been speculated by industry experts at a 10% chance by 2024 and 50% by 2050 and 90% by 2075 (Müller and Bostrom, 2016), which roughly parallels the carbon law timeline. A worrisome scenario thus exists where the carbon law roadmap leads to a crossing of the HLMI threshold, thereby compounding a different risk for humanity as it attempts to halt another.

The risks involved in implementing the carbon law roadmap therefore involve a further sophistication of Moore’s Law, where the innovation required to decarbonise society and the atmosphere also result in even more rapid advances in machine intelligence and automation at the expense of the necessity for human beings relative to the aim of decarbonisation. At best, this may mean AI and automation play significant roles in designing, producing and even implementing low or zero/negative-carbon technologies at least decadal doubling rates. At worst, major investment in carbon law schemes may result in innovations leading to a machine superintelligence that regards human beings as the causal entity of greenhouse gas emissions and that the most effective pathway toward rapid decarbonisation (a human or AI introduced goal parameter?) is to regard humans as a carbon intensive technology. A heuristic representation of this relationship is presented in figure 1. Indeed, science and society have already drawn a form of this conclusion through the anthropogenic global warming consensus that the Carbon Law aims to resolve, as well as the general Anthropocene proposition (Lewis and Maslin, 2015).

Thus, should the carbon law roadmap be adopted at scale, very careful attention must be paid by researchers, industry, and policymakers to how policies, investments and technologies are crafted and implemented to avoid the displacing the need for humanity in a rapid technology-driven push for carbon reduction. The nascent principles of ‘friendly AI’ (Muehlhauser and Bostrom, 2014) and technology justice (Miekle, 2016) suggest conceptual research and policy pathways forward to help ensure humanity remains relevant in the effort to decarbonise society. Friendly AI involves steps that ensure AI does not harm humanity. Technology justice is a principle that ensures the fair and helpful distribution of technology across society to promote equity. Incorporating these kinds of principles into carbon law efforts will help ensure that any implementation of the roadmap contains safeguards for social equity and major unintended AI risks.

Figure 1 HLMI/automation risk and Carbon Law growth vs human necessity over time

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Bostrom N (2014) Superintelligence: paths, dangers, strategies. First edition. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Bostrom N, Dafoe A and Flynn C (2016) Policy Desiderata in the Development of Machine Superintelligence [version 3.6]. Working Paper, Oxford: Future of Humanity Institute.

Frey CB and Osborne MA (2017) The future of employment: How susceptible are jobs to computerisation? Technological Forecasting and Social Change 114: 254–280.

Lewis SL and Maslin MA (2015) Defining the Anthropocene. Nature 519(7542): 171–180.

Miekle A (2016) Technology justice: a call to action. Rugby, UK: Practical Action Publishing. Available from: http://

Muehlhauser L and Bostrom N (2014) Why we need friendly AI. Think 13(36): 41–47.

Müller VC and Bostrom N (2016) Future Progress in Artificial Intelligence: A Survey of Expert Opinion. In: Müller VC (ed.), Fundamental Issues of Artificial Intelligence, Cham: Springer International Publishing, pp. 555–572. Available from:

Rockström J, Gaffney O, Rogelj J, et al. (2017) A roadmap for rapid decarbonization. Science 355(6331): 1269.

Team MSc Sustainability

MSc Sustainability is made up of five and a half students. The half being a part-timer. It’s a small size, but I can, in fact, tell you it is a big reason why I love this unique program. Almost all our courses are taken together and, perhaps because of that, we have developed lasting friendships. There are plenty of benefits to our small class sizes. It breathes ease into the classroom; we all feel comfortable speaking in front of one another, holding conversations, and asking questions. Our friendship follows us outside the classroom as well. We often enjoy potluck dinners and even ventured to a lovely Peatbog Faeries concert together. The five and a half of us make a great team but we couldn’t do it without the support, wisdom, and kindness of our instructors and mentors. With that said, I am wholeheartedly looking forward to conquering challenges and appreciating success alongside these folks in these two final semesters. Read the profiles below to hear a little bit more about each of us.

Courtney Ehrlich

Iowa, United States

BSc Environmental Science and Urban Design from Iowa State University

Why did you choose MSc Sustainability at University of Dundee? When I graduated in 2015, I knew I wanted to move abroad and I also knew I would need my Masters to be competitive in the job market so I picked my favorite countries and applied to highly-recognized Master’s programs in them. All signs pointed to Dundee!

What is the best part of the MSc Sustainability program? The best part, for me, is our small program size and close relationship with our tutors and professors.

What is the biggest challenge we face today? I think the biggest challenge we face is a lacking in motivation from society to progress. Sometimes I feel like we are stuck doing something the way we used to because it’s familiar and we’ve figured out comfortable ways of doing it, but all this while we could be creating better (more sustainable and purposeful) lives for ourselves and for the generations we will leave.

What high profile person would you have over for dinner? I would love to have Bernie Sanders over for dinner because he seems to be the incarnate form of my worldviews and I just think he would be pleasant company. I think he would probably recommend some of the best books, too.

Patrick Mason

Originally from Midlands in England but has lived in Scotland for over 10 years

Environmental Science and Sustainability at the University of Glasgow.

Why did you choose MSc Sustainability at University of Dundee? It suited me as has a large degree of flexibility and so has enabled me pursue my interests in a way that no other Master’s that I am aware of would have.

What is the biggest challenge we face today? At risk of sounding hypocritical, I think one of, if not the greatest, challenge we’re facing is the inseparable connection between ‘doing well’ and material consumption. I think reducing our perceived material quality of life would go a long way to addressing the roots of environmental challenges such as climate change.

How would you explain climate change to a non-believer? It’s frustrating that explaining climate change is still seen as necessary. I think a new approach to disseminating information on climate change is needed if the aim is to convince more people. However, while it is ideal, I don’t think it’s essential that we must convince everyone that climate change is real and an issue. Personally, at the moment, I don’t subscribe to a world view in which a person’s belief necessarily has an effect on their action. Even those of us most aware of climate change still live unsustainable lifestyles. Very briefly, I think it more important to change society than individuals. However, a pet peeve of mine is divisive language, particularly on the issue of climate change which necessitates society-wide action to overcome.

What would you save first, the Amazon or the Coral Reefs? Tough, I don’t know a huge amount about either! As far as I’m aware, the wider environmental benefits of coral reefs are relatively limited, whereas the Amazon rainforest has significant ‘benefits’ for the world. Unfortunately for the fish, the Amazon gets my vote.

Fiona Ross

Pitlcohry, Perth and Kinross, Scotland, UK

MA in Film and Television, Royal College of Art (1989) followed by 20 year career in film and television working in London and all around the world (my carbon footprint is dire). Re-trained as an antique restorer (last 6 years) and developed a passion for sustainability. Now Chair the Carse of Gowrie Sustainability Group

Why did you choose MSc Sustainability at University of Dundee? It’s the best option in Scotland for Sustainability, and I lucked out because it is 15 miles from where I live!

What would you do with 50 million pounds? With £50 million, I would buy Scottish Mountains, plant ancient forest and preserve them for the nation and future generations (and lower my carbon footprint of the last 30 years!).

What are your plans after you finish your degree? My goal after my degree is complete is to live a more sustainable life! To get some sleep! Money has never been my inspiration, following my instincts and my heart has always taken me further than I thought I could ever go.

Jan-Andre Mai


Human Geography; Interned in Urban Cycle Traffic Planning; Intrigued by the idea of urban food production

What is the best part of the MSc Sustainability program? It’s great because we learn practical things and effectively can go out in the world and do something beyond theory.

What is the biggest challenge we face today? I think the biggest challenge we’re facing is for people to genuinely pay attention to and have awareness for others.

What would you do with 50 million Euros? I would keep 8 million for me and then go to poor people in the world and help them with the most sustainable technical features I could get them until the Euros are gone!

What’s at the top of your bucket list? The top of my bucket list is to build a house for my family.

What high profile person would you have over for dinner? I honestly don’t like high profile persons, so I would have a high profile person over who I don’t know is a high profile person (and who doesn’t show it) …. the president of Mongolia for example, I have no idea who he/she is.

What are your plans after you finish your degree? I hope to be involved in interesting work that changes things, people, the environment, and my immediate surroundings.

Rory Angus

Inverurie in Aberdeenshire, Scotland, UK

University of Aberdeen; 2:1 in Human Geography

Why did you choose MSc Sustainability at University of Dundee? I picked it because it is the only course of its kind in Scotland. I have been interested in sustainability for a long but have been unsure what career I wanted. Whilst other courses were extremely specific, a broader focus like Sustainability allowed me to take classes in environmental architecture, planning, politics, and research methods.

What is the best part of the MSc Sustainability program? For me, it has been the work placement. The staff in the department have fantastic links and I was able to do a work placement with Perth and Kinross Council. In addition to improvement in my employment prospects, it allowed me to conduct research in a professional setting, opposed to an academic environment.

What would you do with 50 million Pounds? If I won £50 million I would buy myself a nice house (everyone is a little selfish!), take my family on holiday, and set up my own environmental/sustainability charity. I would probably give a chunk of it to other charities like Oxfam and Greenpeace.

The top of my bucket list is to travel to San Francisco. It’s a city I have wanted to visit for a long time!

Simon Binks

Northumberland in NE England with the last 10 years in Bradford, West Yorkshire

Community development. More recently, I have worked in housing and as a mediator (neighbourhood and education).

What is the best part of the MSc Sustainability program? I’ve found the whole course varied and stimulating and the tutors knowledgeable, enthusiastic and approachable.

What is the biggest challenge we face today? I’d say finding a way to ensure that humans – at the level of individuals or the organisations they are a part of – make decisions based on the capacities of natural environment (its ecosystems and climatic processes) that we are intrinsically a part of.

What is at the top of your bucket list? I hadn’t thought of it as an item on the bucket list, but next adventure might be: ferry from the UK, cycling down through at least part of Europe, over the Alps, to good cup of coffee on the edge one of the Italian lakes.

Would you rather travel back in time or to a new planet? Maybe we should all go back in time to get a sense of slower, less stimulated lives we used to lead…

Love Your Mug

3…2…1…Blast off! The ‘Love Your Mug’ initiative launches on Monday, March 20 – will you be along for the ride? This is a new and exciting adventure on the University of Dundee campus which transitions from the use of disposable tea and coffee cups to reusable mugs. MSc Sustainability students, in collaboration with DUSA and Dundee University, are selling University branded mugs – perfect for your next cuppa!

You will find ‘Love Your Mug’ mugs in all cafes for sale at £3 each or you can stop by and see us outside of the Union on launch day. Each purchase of a new mug comes with a free regular sized hot drink. And it gets even better! For each consecutive hot drink purchased in a reusable ‘Love Your Mug’ mug, you will enjoy 10p off the cost. But we’re not done yet. Personal reusable mugs other than those from the ‘Love Your Mug’ initiative will also be honoured at a 5p discount.

Perhaps it seems like a trivial amount of pennies saved per cup, but in a period of one year, the average consumer could save £15 just through individual 10p discounts from their reusable mug. That is 5 times the initial investment. Your investment in saving our environment is priceless!

The University of Dundee has a wonderful opportunity to contribute to a sustainable future and reduce the negative environmental impact paper cups have. In terms of waste attributed to landfills, many paper cups are forced to end up there; generally they cannot be recycled due to contamination and their plastic lining. In Scotland alone, we throw away 208 million each year; lined up, this would circle Earth! It is our hope that you will join with us in promoting this trifecta: love coffee, love your mug, and love the planet.

Look out for the link to take our short online survey to win a high-end espresso machine and fair trade coffee and remember to come join us at the ‘Launch Stall’ 10am-2pm Monday 20th March!

For more details contact us at

Falkland Estate

These are my people. Team Sustainability forever! Wait…no, I mean lifelong friends, not lifelong students. Please.

Part of the MSc Sustainability program is a core module called Research Training and Project Planning. For Dr. Mark Cutler and Dr. Ioan Fazey, we proposed and created a research proposal as practice for our dissertation.

Our class split into two groups of three and each had our own go at what I would call research to prepare for research. The projects we chose stemmed from common backgrounds and addressed issues relevant in Scotland and beyond. While these were only hypothetical research proposals, they were developed with such detail that they could be formally carried out if desired.

Between the two groups, there was a competition to see which project would win the imaginary pot of money to have our research ‘funded.’

My group and I found a common interest pertaining to urban agriculture and food security. Through our interests and our desire to address concerns in environmental, economic, and social realms, we created a research proposal called Growing A Sustainable Urban Food Supply (GASUFS).

GASUFS looked at the positive and negative impacts of urban agriculture on UK cities, identified potential for implementation, and was guided in part by US-based case studies.

Did someone say field trip?! To switch things up, the location for the presentations did not take place on campus. We travelled to the Centre for Stewardship at the Falkland Estate where we spent the day presenting our work, hiking through the beautiful grounds, participating in dissertation workshops, and listening to an ethics presentation from Dr. Ed Hall.

Team GASUFS walked away with the win (!!!), but the day was about more than the competition. We all walked away with a broader understanding of research methods and brushed up on our presentation skills; two things that will come in handy in these months leading up to our final MSc Sustainability deadline.

CECHR Annual Symposium

The sunshine and blue sky made their 2017 debut this past Wednesday, just in the nick of time for the annual CECHR Symposium. It turned out to be a wonderful day of presentations from many backgrounds; professors, PhD students, and professionals, all set the stage for exchanges of knowledge and constructive discussion. Not to mention the unlimited tea and coffee! The event took place at the West Park Conference Centre just a few minutes bike ride out Perth Road. Though, with the weather so delightful, I must admit I wouldn’t have minded if I had to bike nearly to Perth. 

Can we just talk about networking for a second? …talk about a buzz word! Usually, when I hear networking, I usually think of that thing my parents tell me to do making connections and developing relationships with people older than me and with higher academic degrees. Specifically, I think of people who have a significant interest in something I am trying to achieve or learn more about, have the experience to back it up, and can open doors for me. I tend to assume one would have to be older than me to fit that description. With that said, if you were to ask me today what networking means, I think you might get a different answer than you would have in the past.

After the CECHR Symposium, my definition of networking broadened and I understood and appreciated that I could – and should – aim to network with people my age as often as possible. While I often engage with my fellow students, it’s rare that I consider these engagements, ‘networking.’ But in reality, they are some of the best people I could network with.

I think it’s really important to have this group of bright, motivated, creative group of academics around me all the time and the CECHR event was another one of those times we could all bounce ideas off each other, open up in a setting that is different from the classroom, and dig into subjects which we didn’t even know we had interests in.

As an MSc student in sustainability with a background in environmental science, I really enjoyed how CECHR’s symposium was a combination of both the hard and soft sciences. PhD student, Nandan Mukherjee, touched on social and philosophical issues like our relationship with water while Dr. Mark Cutler dove into the hard sciences by studying tree mortality and using remote sensing to illustrate forest resilience.

Brief but thorough presentations were followed by time to converse in smaller groups with the presenter. The day elicited questions and discussion, and I will speak for everyone when I say we walked away with our minds racing and a refreshed attitude.

One of my favorite analogies of the day was from Tony Hodgson when he explained how hard it is to make significant change in dealing with resistance. His example was of a massive ship on the sea struggling to turn and the rudder of that ship needed large amounts of energy to do so. However, if a small rudder is put on the big (for lack of better adjectives) rudder, it helps turn the big rudder which turns the ship and contributes considerably to the whole process. We can see these sort of catalytic relationships in most everything we do and I thought this example really highlighted the very thing that CECHR stands for, metaphorically and literally.

Thanks for spending the day feeding our brains and bellies, CECHR!!

Finding forest plots 2 decades on…..

Ever wondered how hard it is to find your way back to the same point in a tropical forest after 20 years?  The STEED/Carnegie project team does……. and it isn’t easy!

In 1995/96 the EU-funded INDFORSUS project (Developing ground and remotely sensed indicators of the sutainability of tropical forest exploitation systems) established 52 plots in logged and unlogged forest areas around Danum Valley, Sabah, Malaysia (see map below). In each of these 0.1ha plots all trees, saplings and seedlings were measured and tagged, creating a valuable baseline dataset in disturbed and pristine Dipterocarp dominated forests.

Working on the ground in Dipteraocarp forests around Danum Valley.

Working on the ground in Dipteraocarp forests around Danum Valley.


Location of the original INDFORSUS forest plots in logged and unlogged forests at Danum Valley, Sabah, Malaysia. Source: Foody & Cutler (2003): doi: 10.1046/j.1365-2699.2003.00887.x











Research initially funded by the Carnegie Trust for the Universities of Scotland, and now by NERC through the STEED project, is re-surveying these plots to establish change in forest biomass and tree species diversity over the last 20 years, as well as the impacts of the current ENSO event.  In particular, we hope to address questions relating to the resilience of these forests to logging, disturbance and environmental / climate change.

However, the forest has changed a lot in the last 20 years: logging roads, skid trails, and landslides have all had an impact upon moving about the forest.  What was once easy by 4×4 now becomes a long hike or even helicopter ride to access different parts of the study area.

A helicopter from SabahAir being skillfully piloted into a tight spot to drop off supplies for the STEED field team.

A helicopter from SabahAir being skillfully piloted into a tight spot to drop off supplies for the STEED field team.

Not only that, once you get there you have to find the plots.  Although tagged, many ‘permanent’ markers on the trees and marking the centre of the plot have vanished – eroded, decomposed or even absorbed into the bark of the tree!  Many plots were originally located by walking on a bearing for a set distance through the forest from a GPS point fixed in a clearing – sometimes many 100s meters away. Locating the plots some 20 years later has been a major exercise in itself.


Luckily though, we have the fantastic SEARRP Research Assistants on hand to help!  Working with the most basic of maps, the RAs are skilled at working in the forests around Danum Valley.  By walking on a fixed bearing they have found some plots, but more often have done so by walking to the general area and then recognizing key species that were recorded in the original survey: by referring then to plot maps of trees that were growing 20 years ago it has been possible to reestablish the location of almost all the original plots.

Some of the field team of SEARRP Research Assistants debating the location of the INDFORSUS forest plots.

Some of the field team of SEARRP Research Assistants debating the location of the INDFORSUS forest plots.  How helpful is the map??

The fieldwork is led by Dr Christopher Philipson (University of Dundee & ETH Zurich) and almost all plots have now been revisited.  Currently the team are undertaking a leaf trait campaign looking at the response of trees to the recent drought….but more on that later.





logo_white_small  Nott_logo  Abd_logo_2016_pad  nerc-long-logo-200

Meet the STEED project

Background:  Globally, almost half of all remaining tropical forest is allocated for timber production, illustrating the enormous economic asset that these forests represent to many nations. Additionally though, these forests provide important societal and ecosystem services, from being sources of food through to climate change mitigation and generating income from carbon offset schemes. Critically though, with the ever increasing exploitation of primary tropical forests, the economic and societal importance of previously logged and degraded forests has become much greater in recent years. However, it’s fair to say we know much less about logged and disturbed forests than primary forests.  In particular, the resilience of these forests i.e. their capacity to respond to short-term perturbations (e.g. ENSO-induced drought) by resisting damage and recovering quickly, is poorly understood. If we are to manage tropical forests, both in terms of their initial exploitation and subsequent regeneration, we need to better understand how these systems respond to environmental and climate change at local to regional scales. Only then can we develop policies and practice that explicitly take into account drought and climate impacts and can both protect and maximise economic and societal benefits from these fragile ecosystems.

Dipterocarp forest canopy at Danum Valley, Sabah, Malaysia

Dipterocarp forest canopy at Danum Valley, Sabah, Malaysia

The Project: To provide the evidence from which policy makers and practitioners can better plan forest management strategies the NERC-funded STEED project (Spatio-TEmporal Dynamics of Forest Response to ENSO Drought) is examining the impact of the current ENSO drought conditions on logged forests in Borneo, SE Asia, in conjunction with longer term research on forest response to disturbance. We’re doing this using a combination of ground-based and satellite remote sensing methods.  This includes drone-based assessments of canopy structure and liana growth, high-spatial resolution satellite images detecting tree mortality and regional assessment of drought response using Sentinel-2 and NOAA AVHRR satellite imagery.  All of this is backed-up with in situ measurement of forest response at a network of forest plots, established over 20 years ago and re-measured just prior to the current ENSO-drought.

False colour composite SPOT HRV satellite image of the Danum Valley area. Note the dark area towards the left/middle if the image - this is an area of seedlings mortality caused by the last big ENSO event in 1996.

False colour composite SPOT HRV satellite image of the Danum Valley area. Note the dark area towards the right/middle of the image – this is an area of seedling mortality caused by the last big ENSO event in 1996.

Our Partners: The project will wrap-up in November 2017 with a workshop in Malaysia, but could not be carried out without the generous support of our current funders (NERC), previous funding from the Carnegie Trust for the Universities of Scotland, and the fantastic support of our project partners: South East Asian Rainforest Research Programme (SEARRP), Permian Global and Indonesian Institute of Sciences (LIPI)

The Team:

Dr Mark Cutler (University of Dundee) and Dr Christopher Philipson (University of Dundee & ETH Zurich)

Professor David Burslem (University of Aberdeen)

Dr Doreen Boyd, Dr Geertje van der Heidjen & Professor Giles Foody (University of Nottingham)



Reflection on Facing the Future 2016

Realising Resilience was the theme of this year’s Facing the Future conference which was organised and hosted at the University of Aberdeen. I have attended each one of these conferences since they began, and each year I come away with a whole new perspective as well as a network to share this lens with. A particular focus of all FtF conference is the emphasis on interaction and connectivity, and this was really confirmed by the attendees who praised the event for feeling like a reunion. Being part of an FtF conference is really more than just tapping into a network. It’s about becoming connected, and it’s the value of connectivity and the processes by which it is forged which I think are important.

Facing the Future 2016

Facing the Future 2016

Our connectivity through this year’s event was facilitated by the International Futures Forum Tony Hodgson and David Beatty from the University of the third horizon H3 Uni. We were introduced to an exercise which involved a giant icosahedron and split into various sustainable development goals (SDG). What followed can only really be described as an expansive learning experience which not only allowed for practical principles of collaborative thinking and learning to emerge, but gave a new space in which the SDG goals could be exercised. It was an embodied experience which allowed us to really problematise in a real world context, and put into focus what is as Patrick Geddes coined our “drama in time”.

Facing the Future 2016

Facing the Future 2016

Coming away from this event, I have realised that connectivity is not just working together on research but realising and becoming conscious together of the competency in our connection, just as much as the incompetency. In times where questions like how we create rapid and significant changes are becoming increasingly popular, these experiences of connectivity are important and have practical impacts. I am really looking forward to building on this connectivity over the year where FtF17 will run before the Transformations2017 conference, held here at the Centre of Environmental Change and Human Resilience.

Whilst I am still profoundly moved by the power of ‘unlikely alliances’ (a term which I first heard from John Colvin and Mehjabeen Abidi-Habib, at the Transformation Conference, Oslo) over the past four years of FtF I have come to appreciate the value this event has for making these alliances less unlikely.

Fort McMurray Wildfire: Some difficult considerations around context and recovery

Christopher Lyon


Christopher is completing a PhD in the social dimensions of resilience at CECHR and Geography at the University of Dundee. For his MSc at the University of Alberta he examined resource-dependent community resilience following industry upheaval. Later, he conducted early scoping fieldwork on youth and wildfire recovery in Slave Lake, Alberta. He has visitKolbert-Canada-Wildfire-690x465-1462461019ed both Fort McMurray and Slave Lake.

It is early days yet in the Fort McMurray wildfire in Alberta, Canada, but there are a few things that might be said about the social and ecological context and potential impacts of this unfolding disaster.

For social context, Fort McMurray is officially an ‘urban service area’ located in the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo, and is the main permanent residential, logistics and service hub for the Athabasca Oil Sands (aka Tar Sands) bitumen extraction and distribution industry. Because of this, the city sits at the centre of volatile public, political, and academic discourses on climate change, the future of the Canadian and provincial economy, global energy markets, changes in rural and natural resource economies, pipeline development projects, social and environmental impact assessments, relationships with Indigenous peoples, and Canadian political rhetoric. What happens in and to Fort McMurray has local and global resonance. For a stark example, the wildfire immediately impacted oil prices and production.

Ecologically, Fort McMurray is located within the Earth’s northern belt of boreal forest biome. This region is deeply impacted by climate change and El Niño linked climate and weather events. Warmer winters trigger tree-killing insect infestations Mountain Pine Beetle (Dendroctonus ponderosae) and unseasonable, record setting hot and dry spells, even in Spring. The latter, driven by climate change has been long predicted to create ideal conditions for wildfire, and recent research suggests that northern boreal forests are experiencing burn rates unseen in 10 000 years (±1000 years post-Wisconsin glaciation!). Further, the bitumen extraction technology used in the Oil Sands necessitates the destruction of vast tracts of the boreal forest.
As a colleague from Alberta put it, there is a “terrible symbolism” in a climate induced wildfire destroying the place with an economy central to the production of fossil fuel that produces climate change.

This unavoidable social-ecological backdrop aside, Fort McMurray is immediately a disaster-struck community of people whose lives and livelihoods are profoundly disrupted. While the ongoing rapid evacuation of at least 80 000 people has thankfully resulted in precious few casualties (two people perished in a road accident at the time of writing), the deeper social impacts of the disaster are likely yet to be felt.

Fort McMurray is essentially a rural, remote, natural resource-dependent community with its economic fortune bound to its resource. With the dramatic increase in global oil prices and despite vast reserves, oil sands production is only lucrative over certain price thresholds. With the increase in oil price and corresponding exploitation of oil sands, the population has rapidly quickly since the early 2000s, from about 38 000 to an estimated 80 000 today, largely from people migrating to high-income oil-sector jobs. Housing construction featured in this expansion, and it has mostly been residential neighbourhoods that have been impacted by fire. This does not include the ‘shadow population’ of temporary residents in nearby mobile workcamps in the bitumen extraction areas. Indeed, while it hasn’t been stressed in reporting so far, the availability of beds in workcamps for evacuees is possibly the result of curtailed shadow workforces.

The Fort McMurray region is deeply impacted by the rapid decline in oil prices over the past couple of years, with a corresponding significant rise in unemployment (10.2% in April 2016). Even without climate change, the brutal question of the economic viability and therefore the extent to which it is feasible to rebuild Fort McMurray in the recovery remains outstanding. Some early estimates put the cost to insurers at record-setting C$9 billion (£4.82 billion), which does not include the costs of government response efforts and lost economic activity.

For evacuees (environmental refugees? internally displaced persons?), many of whom arrived during the boom period from elsewhere in Canada (or abroad), this means the impacts of the disaster are really only beginning. Indications that a large number of dwellings have been destroyed, even if critical infrastructure remains intact, suggest that any return can happen only after a major reconstruction effort, which must only occur after insurance claims are settled. In the coming weeks, displaced people without homes will leave emergency relief centres to stay with relatives and friends elsewhere in Canada. The wide dispersal of displaced residents could mean the loss of social cohesion and mutual support integral to community resilience and disaster recovery.

Thus, the longer-term direct impacts of this disaster may be much less visible and limited to individuals and families, rather than ‘community’. These impacts are difficult to address, and will be economic and psychological as lost incomes, homes, and livelihoods disrupt senses of identity, place, and well-being, sometimes for years to come. Research on Hurricane Katrina suggests children maybe hit especially hard.

Socially and politically, a hard reckoning is likely in store that pits the psychological impact of the disaster and emotional desire to rebuild against political, economic and environmental realities and competing narratives.

The challenge is immense for how governments, the public, industry, and most importantly the displaced residents of Fort McMurray collectively navigate the aftermath once the fires stop burning. It will likely define Canada’s future energy and environmental pathways, setting a global benchmark for how a developed country responds to a direct climate-linked disaster in the causal heart of anthropogenic climate change.

Literature cited

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Davidson, D.J., Gismondi, M.A., 2011. Challenging legitimacy at the precipice of energy calamity. Springer, New York.

Fazey, I., Wise, R.M., Lyon, C., Câmpeanu, C., Moug, P., Davies, T.E., 2015. Past and future adaptation pathways. Clim. Dev. 1–19. doi:10.1080/17565529.2014.989192

Flannigan, M.D., Wagner, C.E.V., 1991. Climate change and wildfire in Canada. Can. J. For. Res. 21, 66–72. doi:10.1139/x91-010

Fothergill, A., Peek, L.A., 2015. Children of Katrina, First edition. ed, The Katrina bookshelf. University of Texas Press, Austin.

Gauthier, S., Bernier, P., Kuuluvainen, T., Shvidenko, A.Z., Schepaschenko, D.G., 2015. Boreal forest health and global change. Science 349, 819–822. doi:10.1126/science.aaa9092

Kelly, R., Chipman, M.L., Higuera, P.E., Stefanova, I., Brubaker, L.B., Hu, F.S., 2013. Recent burning of boreal forests exceeds fire regime limits of the past 10,000 years. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. 110, 13055–13060. doi:10.1073/pnas.1305069110

Prior, T., Eriksen, C., 2013. Wildfire preparedness, community cohesion and social–ecological systems. Glob. Environ. Change 23, 1575–1586. doi:10.1016/j.gloenvcha.2013.09.016

Reflections on T2015 Jennifer Rao-Williams:

The opening speech of the Transformations 2015 stated that it would be a conference which would challenge us and as a PhD student, it did exactly this. Across the three days the event, like no other that I had been to previously, took my learning into new places. This was through a variety of inspiring talks, interactive sessions, and through the making of some ‘unlikely alliances’ – a phrase that I first heard during T2013, from John Colvin and Mehjabeen Abidi-Habib, and is a phrase which I continually find new relevance for.

This was especially the case during the T2015, where the event focused on interaction and provided waves of deep embodied learning, particular during the Seed of a Good Anthropocene session where I was role playing as a good social seed looking for investment from a group named business as usual. Whilst entertaining, this interactive session really brought through the reality of how powerful unlikely alliances can be, but it also highlighted the challenges that progressive change is so vulnerable to. In this respect, this conference had so much personal contribution invested in it which really helped to shape the big picture on transformation, which is that we are all learners in and of a rapidly changing context. However challenging this positionality is, I think that the Transformation conferences (Oslo, Stockholm and Dundee in 2017) have all appropriately framed the choreography of how are our understanding of this topic and its role in addressing complex challenges is unfolding. As a PhD student, I am really excited for T2017 and its focus on Transformation in practice which will be held at the University of Dundee, I think that this will be a really complementary and inspiring event which will build on the learning from the previous two conferences.