Opinion: Orange County fire magnifies a stunning truth about climate change

These are headlines of the warming world we’ve created.

But sadly, I’m here to offer more bad news.

I don’t think these disasters will convince us to curb fossil fuel pollution.

Let me explain.

First, available social science doesn’t support the notion that climate disasters lead to widespread changes in public opinion. A 2021 study from the journal Climate Change found hurricanes provide a modest nudge in favor of support for reducing carbon dioxide pollution.

Wildfires and floods, the other disasters studied, did not sway people.

Think about this for a moment. Yes, the research showed that US counties hit by hurricanes are associated with a statistically significant increase in beliefs that climate change is happening and that it’s caused by humans. OK, sure. But even this paper notes that “the pace at which this feedback occurs … appears to be slow.”

“For example,” the researchers wrote, “our results indicate that it would take multiple hurricanes hitting a county to increase the proportion of individuals supporting policies that greenhouse gas emissions by one percentage point.”

As a result: “It seems unlikely that an increased frequency of natural disasters alone will have a dramatic impact on public support for climate change related policies,” one of the study’s authors, Jordan Suter, a professor at Colorado State University, told me by e-mail.

In non-science terms: Disasters probably won’t fix this for us.

Second, consider a wonky little theory called “shifting baselines.”

Daniel Pauly, a fisheries biologist, coined the term in the 1990s to describe the fact that humans are remarkably terrible at perceiving slow-moving changes in the world around us.

Fires have to keep getting bigger to snag our attention.

And these changes land with us as just “eh, kinda weird and unusual.” We don’t actually feel the full timeline of the climate crisis, which plays out over decades and centuries.

Fran Moore’s research at the University of California, Davis adds to our understanding of this pernicious phenomenon. She studied thousands of social media posts about the weather and concluded that the memory we access when deciding whether today’s weather is unusually “hot” is only two to eight years long. And it shifts forward with us through time.

In that context, these disasters won’t trip our alarm sensors.

I’m directing a documentary film about the topic called “BASELINE: Part 1.” It follows four young people growing up on the front lines of this crisis — between now and 2050.

My hope is that it might be an antidote of sorts, stretching our collective memory.

But solutions to these problems are difficult.

What would push us to act aggressively on the climate crisis?

An important part of that question is which “us” we’re talking about.

“Us” could be the US voting public. In the United States, 72% of adults already believe (correctly) that global warming is happening, according to surveys from the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication. Nearly 60% know it’s caused by humans.

“Us” could be the wealthy, presumably like many of the homeowners in Orange County.

“Us” could be the fossil fuel companies profiting from the apocalypse.
Or “us” could be members of Congress, who cynically fail — time and again — to pass meaningful laws that would put this country on track to net zero carbon emissions by 2050.
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My conclusion is that convincing the executives and legislators is far more important. What arguments will work on them in the face of fossil fuel profits, political divisions, the war in Ukraine and so on is an open question. Nancy Pelosi recently dispensed a common bit of rhetoric at the Aspen Ideas: Climate festival when she said that climate action was needed “for the children.”
The issue: Kids have been pleading with adults to do something about environmental collapse at least since the Rio Earth Summit in 1992. Greta Thunberg and many others added to that chorus.
“The [Democratic] party doesn’t even seem to realize that it’s blowing a once-in-a-decade chance to pass meaningful climate legislation,” Robinson Meyer wrote in The Atlantic.

So, I don’t have a tidy solution for us — whoever “us” is.

We’ve had the science in front of us for decades.

We see the disasters. They disproportionately affect the world’s most marginalized and low-income people, who are less poised to mitigate them and to rebuild. But they also hit the wealthy. Think not just of the mansions in Orange County but of Superstorm Sandy in New York in 2012 and the eroding cliffs of Malibu.

None of that, unfortunately, has been persuasive.

At least to those with the power to change the global economy.

Perhaps a grassroots mobilization of ordinary citizens could change that.

The point is that the concerned public must not sit back and wait, as we have been, for the intensifying calamities of the climate crisis to somehow prove that we must rid the world of fossil fuels.

We have all the evidence we need.

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