Don’t Let Canada Burn: Communicating Climate Change in Wildfire Season

A tree burns during a prescribed fire on the ?aq’am community’s territory near Cranbrook, BC.

Cranbrook, BC — A tree burns during a prescribed fire on the ?aq’am community’s territory. Prescribed fires like this one are an important tool for reducing the potential damage of a wildfire, especially as climate change exacerbates the intensity, scale, and likelihood of these fires. Image: Jesse Winter

In June 2024, Re.Climate hosted a webinar with panellists Dr. Louise Comeau, Dr. Chris Russill, Sergio Velasquez-Rose, and Dr. Robin S. Cox about how to communicate the connection between wildfires and climate change, how to identify and address wildfire misinformation, how to use images more effectively, and how to start thinking beyond each season and prepare for a future with stronger, more frequent and more widespread wildfires.

Don’t Let Canada Burn: Communicating Climate Change in Wildfire Season” webinar

For many people, the 2023 wildfire season was a wake-up call. Many Canadians were affected in some way, such as being under an evacuation order; needing to stay indoors because of smoky, unbreathable air; experiencing the event indirectly through someone they know or seeing images of people and places under threat in the media or online.   

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Plan Wildfire Communication in Phases

What brings our experts together is their work on how to improve communication about wildfires, with a focus on the best times to share information to make a difference. All the panellists emphasized that we should carefully consider when we share messages about wildfires.

BEFORE Wildfire Events:

During the webinar, Dr. Louise Comeau, a Senior Advisor at Re.Climate, drew attention to the proactive work needed ahead of wildfire season. Communicators should start connecting the dots by forecasting summer conditions, highlighting the role of climate change in intensifying wildfires, and the burning of fossil fuels as the most significant contributor to climate change. The term “unnatural disasters” brings attention to the fact that these disasters are not normal and are caused by human activities. Research by U.S. non-profit firm Potential Energy Coalition shows that “unnatural disasters” resonates more strongly across political spectrums than terms like “extreme weather” in shifting public perceptions about carbon pollution’s key role in causing extreme weather events.

DURING Wildfire Events:

During wildfires, the focus should be on protecting people and places. Panellists also emphasized the need to address misinformation during a wildfire, which can significantly hinder evacuation and rescue operations. Research by Dr. Chris Russill, Academic Director at Re.Climate, shows how conspiracy climate narratives, particularly those suggesting government involvement in starting fires, took shape quickly following wildfire-related events like the declaration of an emergency in Alberta and the evacuation of Yellowknife. In August 2023, these conversations had real-world consequences, hindering evacuation efforts during crucial moments. Dr. Russill urged climate communicators to be prepared to respond to these narratives during heightened information-seeking periods, especially those that may erode trust in public institutions.

Since there’s a natural spike in media attention during extreme weather events, it’s a strategic moment for communicators. Sergio Velasquez-Rose, Head of Strategy and Analytics of Potential Energy Coalition, recommended leveraging this attention to educate about the role of burning fossil fuels in exacerbating wildfire conditions. People become information-seeking during times of crisis. Communicators should link what people are witnessing to wildfire causes while foregrounding the stories of those affected. 

AFTER Wildfire Events:

In post-wildfire communications, Dr. Robin Cox, Director of Resilience By Design Research Lab at Royal Roads University, acknowledged the desire to return to normalcy. However, she also emphasized the need for community discussions about solutions and ideals that benefit everyone, not just a select few. This is the time for communicators to help the public expand their view of the future. What does a truly wildfire-adapted community look like? What happens if we can’t go back to the places we love? What forums could we create to share stories, grief, and hope about what’s been lost and how to ensure we save what’s left? Dr. Cox suggested sharing stories of people finding new ways to adapt and showcasing their transformative approaches to overcoming new challenges. One example is the collective effort undertaken by Logan Lake, British Columbia to protect and prepare their community. This proactive approach proved invaluable when wildfires struck the town in 2021. 

Dr. Cox also urged framing wildfires as a symptom of deeper issues. Communicators “should make visible the patterns of material and ideological choices that have created this crisis,” such as the failure of “fire suppression and other forest management practices that have deferred wildfire risk to today in service of corporate profits and the economic benefit of the few.” These practices and fossil fuel pollution have created the hotter, drier conditions that make wildfires longer, more likely, and more intense. 

Strengthen Emotional Connections

When talking about wildfires, communicators have a tough job. They need to show the impact of wildfires while making sure not to trigger too much anxiety or paralyzing fears. Wildfire imagery can be very intense, not only for those directly impacted but also for those who are observing. It is important to draw a line between end-of-world narratives and those focusing on the human experience. Every wildfire season, people are losing their homes and the places they love. It could be any of us—but not everyone sees the risks of climate change the same way or thinks others are as worried or affected as they might be. Communicators can help to bridge these gaps by using images showing people engaging in healing, care, and repair. They can move away from doom and gloom by
focusing on human experiences—sharing stories of communities coming together to prepare and heal.

Our speakers discussed the need for building emotional connections when explaining the impacts of climate change and wildfires. Dr. Comeau pointed out that people’s bonds with their loved ones, homes, parks, and neighbourhoods drive them to act. Research from Potential Energy in 23 countries supports Louise’s point, showing that love inspires people to take action. 

It’s important to look after our kids during these times, Dr. Russill highlighted. Part of this caring is providing narratives that kids can relate to through their instinctive love for animals and nature. 

Caring is what makes resilient communities. As Dr. Cox said, communities that embrace local, community-driven, and equity-centered approaches, prioritize volunteerism, and foster functional networks for local and regional collaboration demonstrate resilience. By identifying and addressing vulnerabilities proactively, they exemplify the qualities of wildfire-resilient communities.

Wildfires are challenging events. But by keeping in mind the human dimension of wildfires and using tested strategies, communicators can be invaluable resources for their communities and critical to showing the connection between climate change, fossil fuels, and wildfires.

For more, watch the webinar here.

Our Panellists

speakers from left to right Dr. Robin Cox, Dr. Louise Comeau, Dr. Chris Russill and Sergio Velasquez-Rose for Re.Climate Webinar Don't Let Canada Burn.

Dr. Robin Cox | Professor and Program Head Climate Action Leadership, Director Resilience by Design Lab, Royal Roads 
Robin advances leadership in climate and disaster resilience. Drawing on design thinking and open-learning approaches, Robin is cultivating climate action leadership through education, research, and advocacy. As the Director of the Resilience By Design Lab at RRU, Robin works with an interdisciplinary and multi-sectorial team of faculty, students and external partners (government, business, academic) to conduct regional, national and international climate adaptation research and capacity-building projects.

Dr. Louise Comeau | Re.Climate Senior Advisor | Member of the Net Zero Advisory Body
Louise is a Senior Advisor at Re.Climate, Carleton University’s centre for climate change communications and public engagement. She is also a member of the federal Net Zero Advisory Body. Louise has more than 30 years’ experience in climate change policy, communications, and solutions-related advocacy and programming. She holds a doctorate in environmental management, focused on environmental ethics and behaviour change from the University of New Brunswick.

Dr. Chris Russill | Re.Climate Academic Director | Associate Professor in the School of Journalism and Communication, Carleton University
Chris Russill’s current work focuses on problems of disinformation and denial in their relevance to climate action. Chris co-edited Critical Approaches to Climate Change and Civic Action with Anabela Carvalho and Julie Doyle, a collection exploring conceptual invention in public forms of climate action.

Sergio Velasquez-Rose | Head of Strategy and Analytics | Potential Energy Coalition
Sergio is a seasoned and innovative leader, driving the strategy and analytics behind Potential Energy’s work. With experience at leading firms like McKinsey & Co and Saks OFF 5TH, Sergio brings a deep commitment to the data and a drive for impact to the organization. Sergio is a passionate advocate for diversity, equity, and inclusion, championing initiatives aimed at fostering a more inclusive workplace culture.

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