Racing Wildfires and Climate Change

Amalie Wilkinson

November, 2021

Last July, I raced a wildfire.


I was on a four-day canoe trip with my father in the stunning wilderness of northern Saskatchewan, our favourite father-daughter tradition.


On the first day of the trip, we were flown up the river from our final destination by a small prop-plane, dropped miles from the nearest mark of human civilization. Out the window of the jet, I saw a wildfire raging in the not-too-distant distance. From the safety of a jet window, it was remarkable and chilling; the power and the destruction it contained.


When we were dropped onto the first lake of our trip, my father and I could still see the fire’s massive pillar of smoke, reaching high into the hot summer sky. But it remained far enough for comfort.


Over the next three days, our route seemed to be taking us closer and closer to the smoke, our sky getting more and more grey. By the afternoon of the third day, the pillar seemed on top of us, and we began to grow nervous.


Just after lunch, we were portaging our packs between lakes, to avoid a risky set of white-water rapids. As we walked down the trail –about a mile long—I peered into the trees on my left and was alarmed to see an opaque wall of smoke, drifting closer. My father and I hurried to the end of the portage, dropped our packs, ran back to the start of the trail to get our canoe, and shot the rapids to save time.


At the bottom, we re-loaded our gear and pushed quickly off the shore. About 2 minutes later, we glanced back to see the shoreline burst into flames. The wildfire demolished the trees within seconds, sending bursts of flames over 50 feet into the air. If we had paddled slightly slower, or taken a longer lunch break, we would have been standing beneath those trees.


Paddling onwards, we rounded a corner to find the wider lake too ringed by fire. A small gap in the burning framed the lake’s only exit; a massive set of white-water rapids with a long portage on which it would be very easy to get trapped by fire. Luckily, we made it there and across in time. But even as I was paddling furiously towards that portage, racing the wildfire, I knew that this was nothing compared to my future.


Almost everyone I know has a story like mine of how they have been personally touched by climate change. The wildfires that now ravage British Columbia, Saskatchewan and many other Canadian provinces are now a fact of life in Canada. So are the floods, the droughts, the melting permafrost, and the countless other effects of climate change that will continue to displace and harm millions, if not billions of people.


These effects are guaranteed; but if the world cannot limit global warming to 1.5C, they will become exponentially more catastrophic. COP26 recently concluded in Glasgow, and according to the International Energy Agency, we can limit global warming to 1.8C if political leaders and corporations promptly implement everything they have promised.


This is progress. Until recently, the 2-degree threshold set in Paris was completely out of sight. However, the commitments made in Glasgow have been labelled a suicide pact for Small Island Developing States. They fail to account for the way security and prosperity in the Global North continues to be predicated upon the subjugation and subjection of the Global South to the worst effects of the climate crisis. Canada continues to be a leading exporter of oil and gas, while me make commitments for a domestic clean energy transition.


Climate justice is needed, and fast.


As environmental lawyer Polly Higgins put it,


“All existing proposals fail to disrupt the very system that is destroying our world. Of those that have been put on the table, none are enforceable, none are capable of delivering on time, and none have proven to be turnkeys.”


Fortunately, a growing movement around the globe has a turnkey to propose: criminalizing ecocide.


Ecocide refers to massive destruction of the environment. The Stop Ecocide campaign is an international movement to make this a fifth crime at the International Criminal Court, alongside genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes and crimes of aggression.


In June, a panel of independent legal experts from around the globe announced an official legal definition for ecocide. It is as follows:


“Ecocide” means “unlawful or wanton acts committed with knowledge that there is a substantial likelihood of severe and either widespread or long-term damage to the environment being caused by those acts.”


If ecocide were codified as an international crime, corporate and government leaders would be accountable when they cause major environmental destruction.

The terms ‘severe,’ ‘widespread,’ and ‘long-term’ mean that only the most serious and shocking environmental destruction would be criminal. Still, prosecuting even a few perpetrators would raise awareness and deter future harm to the environment. It could propel efforts to save our globe.

Perhaps even more importantly, an ecocide law would catalyze a massive shift in our society’s extractive and neocolonial norms around nature. In the status quo, we conceive our animals, forests, rivers, and natural world as something that exists only to serve humans; something from which we can take endlessly.

An ecocide law would endow nature with its own set of rights; not to be destroyed, harmed, neglected. This would force us to reframe our conventional thinking, fundamentally changing our cost-benefit analyses when it comes to environmental destruction.

And there are so many other potential impacts – spanning sectors from mining to finance, domestic politics to diplomacy. Companies, who must act to make money for their investors in the status quo, would now have legal legitimization for prioritizing environmental concerns. Politicians would be more aware of the need for comprehensive environmental assessments and community consultations before approving new extraction projects. The list goes on.

For these impacts to materialize, ecocide would need to be added as an amendment to the Rome Statute, the document that established the International Criminal Court. Any of the Court’s 123 member states could propose it, and the proposal would then go through a ratification process by the Court’s administrative body.

Canada is a member state. In fact, we were the first country in the world to adopt comprehensive legislation implementing the Rome Statute.

Right now, Canada is looking to assert itself as a leader in the fight against environmental destruction and climate change. But words are just words until there is action to back them up, and Canada continues to have per capital carbon emissions that dwarf others around the world. We continue to be a mining capital and to make ourselves rich off an unsustainable, destructive oil industry.


This is a prime opportunity for Canada’s leaders to prove their commitment to addressing environmental destruction and climate change, by proposing the crime of ecocide to the International Criminal Court.


Polly Higgins once said, “This is a story with two possible endings: one is fertile and abundant with life, the other is arid and speaks of death.”


Well, in the summer I was very nearly trapped inside a wildfire. It is easy for me to say that we are headed toward the second ending. Criminalizing ecocide represents an opportunity for the world to change course –before it is too late.

The writer of this piece says: "My name is Amalie Wilkinson, a student at the University of Toronto. I am also the Team Lead of Stop Ecocide Toronto, a local Canadian branch of the Stop Ecocide International campaign. We seek to criminalize ‘ecocide’ —the massive destruction of the environment— as a fifth crime at the International Criminal Court (ICC), as a means of preventing environmental destruction and holding leaders accountable to climate commitments. 

. . . The topic of climate justice and ecocide is intensely relevant, considering the recent closure of the COP26.