When I began covering climate-related natural disasters back in 2017, the events that made national news ranged from California’s record-breaking Thomas Fire to the back-to-back Category-5 hurricanes that whipped through the Gulf, one of which depopulated a Caribbean island and the other which killed thousands after leaving Puerto Rico in ruins. Then there was Hurricane Harvey, displacing over 30,000 Texans after sending Houston six feet underwater in what became the wettest storm on record in the lower 48 states, followed by a set of winter bomb cyclones that led to blackouts from Virginia to Maine — but not before setting new record-low temperatures in Boston and record highs in Alaska. While it may comfort us to consider each major disaster an anomaly and hope for a better year ahead, the last four years have offered anything but relief.
As I set off in August of 2018 on a 3-month national climate outreach project to interview those both afflicted by and studying climate change, our path was twice intercepted by record-breaking hurricanes — namely Hurricane Florence that submerged parts of the Carolinas followed by Hurricane Michael, which wiped coastal towns such as Mexico Beach off the Florida map.
During the same period, the Mendocino Complex Fire broke out to become California’s new “largest wildfire on record,” only to be followed upon our project’s conclusion by the Camp Fire which became the state’s new “most destructive” wildfires on record. The latter fire killed 85 people, making it California’s deadliest wildfire by nearly threefold. The fact that such fires in the year 2018 can move with enough speed and ferocity as to catch an entire U.S. town by surprise despite modern advances in wildfire tracking, communication and fire-related expertise and management, should give us pause.
As it relates to burn acreage, nothing in California compares to last year’s August Complex Fire that burned over 1 million acres, more than doubling and quintupling the former largest wildfires that occurred in 2018 (Mendocino Complex Fire) and 2017 (Thomas Fire), respectively, as noted in our recent study. California’s own Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL FIRE), the state’s primary fire agency, acknowledges climate change as a factor contributing to the exacerbation of wildfires, as average temperatures in California have steadily increased since the early 1900s.
As drought conditions and extreme winds become more frequent and vegetation drier, the risk of major wildfires is projected to increase. And now in 2021, with the active Dixie Fire already scorching 281,000 acres, we’re witnessing the same story on repeat, only earlier in the season.
Of course, climate-related natural disasters are not unique to California or even the U.S., as we were just reminded this month as catastrophic flooding consumed towns across Western Europe, leaving over 200 dead in its path — particularly in Germany which was hardest hit.
India, too, has been feeling the impacts of a warming planet, as the nation increasingly makes headlines each summer with heatwaves that, in just 10 years, have killed over 6,500 people. Compared to the 90 percent of American households with air conditioning, in India only 5 percent of households are equipped with air conditioning, thus underscoring not just global warming as a major issue but global environmental justice.
Importantly, as I discuss in my book “Beyond Debate,” the term “global warming,” while accurately reflecting the increase in global average temperature over the last century, can cause confusion as it fails to reflect the on-the-ground experiences that many individuals feel. The so-called “Deep Freeze” event in Texas earlier this year poses a good example — an episode caused by the destabilization of the “polar vortex,” a climate-related phenomenon implicated in the occurrence of other major temperature swings that I've written about.
Even the term “climate change” causes naysayers to rightfully point out that the climate has always changed. Instead, “climate change acceleration” seems to be most accurate — pointing to an acceleration in the background rate of climatic change; in this case, caused by hundreds of years of human activity in the form of deforestation and farming compounded by the more recent dumping of heavy amounts of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere as we burn fossil fuels to power our cities and cars.
Meanwhile, those battling over whether we can assign a “climate change” label to this storm or that are engaging in a dead-end pursuit that oversteps science and misses the point. Much like we cannot ascribe any single case of lung cancer solely to cigarette smoking, since cancer also arises from other causes, we similarly cannot ascribe any single wildfire, flood or hurricane solely to climate change. Instead, given our understanding of biological and planetary systems, scientists can predict the occurrence of certain conditions given the occurrence of separate conditions.
Among people who smoke, for instance, we can expect to see more cases of lung cancer. Similarly, as ocean surface temperatures rise and as heatwaves and droughts lead to drier landscapes, we can expect to see more severe hurricanes and wildfires in those areas. So regardless of how we label a disaster, it’s the overall pattern of extreme weather and wildfire that we should consider — and that pattern is disconcerting.
As this year has come with a more environmentally progressive “changing of the guard” in the White House and Congress, the time is ripe for climate action. However, as a nation, we cannot sit back simply because the government website acknowledges climate change and outlines plans for action.
Rather, citizens must remain active and politically engaged. In a recent study published last year, over 50 percent of so-called “climate concerned” individuals whom I surveyed across the country reported never having contacted an elected official on the issue of climate change. This finding suggests that there is extensive room for improvement as it relates to climate-related mobilization, even among those who care about climate change. Such mobilization could not be timelier and more urgent than now.
Shahir Masri, Sc.D., is author of “Beyond Debate: Answers to 50 Misconceptions on Climate Change.” He is an assistant specialist in air pollution exposure assessment and epidemiology at the University of California at Irvine and also teaches at the Schmid College of Science and Technology at Chapman University. Follow him on Twitter: @ShahirMasri