What Everyone Missed About the California Forest Fires – Climate Change Affects Us All

Aside from attempts to undermine the authority of climate scientists and outright deny scientific facts, one of the biggest PR problems faced by climate change is that it is such a large, systemic issue. This makes it difficult for most of us to understand how it affects our lives. The nature of science itself is partly to blame: scientists routinely remind us that we can’t say X-issue was caused by climate change, only that it was made more likely/more severe etc. While objectively true, this can lessen the sense of urgency demanded by climate change. We humans are not scientifically minded. We want a simple ‘X causes Y’ not an ‘X contributes to Y’. When we hear the latter, many of us see climate change as less pressing and more inconsequential than it really is.

There are many other hurdles facing the communication of climate science to the public. Take the way that climate change is portrayed in the media, for instance. My own anecdotal experience suggests that when most people think of climate change, what comes to mind first are dying polar bears or some other distantly depressing scenario they have seen on the National Geographic channel. Or if they think of the dramatic consequences of climate change on future generations, they do so through the overblown lens of blockbusters like ‘The Day After Tomorrow’ with whole cities flooded and thousands dying.

Andreas Weith [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], from Wikimedia Commons Depressing images of polar bears too often come to mind when we think about climate change.
Add to this the common perception that climate change impacts are largely a third world problem (climate change impacts will affect developing countries more severely 1) and climate change can seem detached from our own lives, just one of a myriad other issues we see in the news, get a bit sad about, and then instantly forget.

But the fact is, we live in a globalised world. Climate change affects all of us just as all of us contribute to the problem. The forest fires ravaging California 2 are a stark reminder of our vulnerability to environmental change. While we can’t draw causality between climate change and the infernos, the reality is that the global average climate is already a degree warmer than the preindustrial period 3 and this has had a measurable impact on the climate of California – affecting temperatures, rainfall, seasonality and vegetation 4. Climate change is undoubtedly a factor in the forest fires 5 and will only make them more frequent in the future 6. What’s more, the resulting property losses suffered by some of Hollywood’s own 7 (not to mention the tragic deaths of dozens of people) shows that everyone from the peasant farmer in Bangladesh to the wealthiest of the 1% is vulnerable.

Forest fires ravaged much of California this month claiming over 50 lives and devastating homes and property.

As the death toll continues to rise 8, the significance of this fact has understandably been lost in the reporting on the fires and is certainly lost in most climate change discourse in the media. Climate change affects us all and is doing so now. The sooner we appreciate that the better.

There is nothing abstract about the dangers, either. Consider the uncomfortable truth that most of us in the UK are dependent on foreign food imports 9. Over half of what we eat is imported 10 and – as I’ve discussed in an earlier article 11 – unsustainable groundwater depletion is embedded in the global food trade 12. While this is a disaster waiting to happen, it’s just one of many risk factors at play. A less predictable climate with more extreme weather will further affect global food supply 13 in ways that affect everyone. How many of us really think about where our food comes from, how it was grown or its dependence on colossal volumes of water and a stable climate? How many of us reflect on where our water or energy comes from for that matter? Our lives are so detached from the natural world that we forget how much we depend on it – how much we depend on a stable climate.

© Copyright David Howard and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.
Over half of all the UK’s food is imported.

Climate change is already taking its toll whether we realise it or not – and often in complex and nuanced ways. It directly contributed to the hike in food prices which in turn contributed to the Arab Spring 14. This arguably exacerbated the migration crisis in Europe 15 which has shaped European politics ever since 16. Climate change is affecting us now, influencing the natural systems that sustain us and forming a silent backdrop to global politics. In the grand scheme of problems, the demise of the polar bear is almost a side-show; and yet that is what we spend our energy getting sad about.

Photo by Jordi Bernabeu Farrús (https://www.flickr.com/photos/jordibernabeu/15596725158) licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.
Climate change directly contributed to the Arab Spring and the Syrian Civil War.

It’s already too late to prevent the climate from changing but it is not too late to start cleaning up and saving lives. If we want to mitigate climate change, we all need to change the way we live. The beauty of our democratic, free market system is that individuals have agency and a voice for change. Small changes in lifestyle replicated by millions can make a difference. Calling out policies that contribute to the problem, boycotting industries that harm the environment, voting both in the ballot box and with your wallet – all these decisions can shape the world for the better. Climate change may be a colossal problem but all of us contribute to it and that means we can all make a difference.

It starts with us.





1. https://www.ipcc.ch/pdf/assessment-report/ar5/wg2/WGIIAR5-Chap15_FINAL.pdf

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