West Coast Fires: Will they finally push us to act?

By Steven Beschloss and Peter Schlosser

San Francisco on September 9, 2020. Photo by By hkalkan (Shutterstock)

This past week in San Francisco, mid-morning, the city was enveloped in darkness, the sky dark orange, the air smoky and acrid. The images reminded some people of Mars, but it was assuredly planet Earth. Video of tornados inside the massive California wildfire did not make comprehension easier for anyone who never imagined it would come to this.

The facts so far, across California, Oregon and Washington, underscore the scale of the conflagration: Nearly 100 fires are still active. More than 4.6 million acres — an area larger than the state of Connecticut — have burned. At least 36 people are dead and there are warnings in Oregon of a “mass fatality incident.”

Rewind to November 2019 in Australia to see a similar reality. Dark orange skies, scorched earth, “firenados,” an estimate of over a billion dead animals, the loss of 2/3 of the Koala bear population — another historic conflagration. This was major news across the globe, an unprecedented catastrophe. But the focus on this disaster soon moved from front-page news and a leading story on cable TV to barely noted and quickly forgotten.

With the arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic and its deadly, disruptive impact across the globe, extreme weather events lost their power to command attention — at least for a while. The threat of this contagion entered nearly everyone’s home, demanding us to question what changes were needed to avoid infection — or worse — and carry on with everyday life. In a politically divided US, where the virus continues to spread rapidly and cause more than a thousand deaths a day, the question of the appropriate response remains a matter of public controversy and political discourse.

But as the latest West Coast fires have reignited fears about the combustible consequences of heat and drought, and hurricane season along the Gulf and East coasts threatens to force quarantined families out of their homes to “safety,” it’s worth asking if any one of these individual climate-based events or their combination is capable of finally shifting public consciousness and motivating changes in behavior. This could include new demands from a pummeled public to political and business leaders resisting systemic change that threatens their often lucrative status quo.

In short, are these fires, is this deadly pandemic, is another round of pounding from hurricanes, capable of awakening a reluctant, distracted public? Has the alarm bell grown so loud that it can’t be ignored any longer? Have we reached a tipping point when Americans and others walk to their proverbial window and shout: “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore”?

We have seen the challenge of convincing people that a disaster in another part of the world represents a coming crisis for them — that we live in a highly interconnected set of systems in which, for example, melting ice sheets in the Arctic and around Antarctica affects sea levels thousands of miles away. Perhaps the smoky orange haze in the Washington, DC, skies, evidence of the West Coast fires across the country, might finally provide the necessary visual to confirm we are all in this together now.

It’s encouraging to think these events could drive an intensified commitment to make change that will end the domination of fossil fuels, reduce meat consumption, meaningfully lower carbon emissions, redesign global food and water systems, and give Earth a fighting chance to stay within its environmental and societal boundaries.

As much as the pandemic has limited human interaction and expanded fatigue, it’s reasonable to believe that the sense of crisis on so many fronts could finally motivate people, from the grass roots to the echelons of power, that we cannot keep traveling down the same road and expect to avoid accelerating tragedy. We were able to mitigate acid rain with the 1990 amendments to the Clean Air Act. We were able to establish the Environmental Protection Agency to clean up and protect our national resources after hellish pollution caused the Cuyahoga River to catch fire in the heart of Cleveland.

The potential to make change is not simple optimism. Over the past few years, as global temperatures rise and major climate events increase, we see movements like Fridays For Future take hold on a global scale. As this youth movement insists, we cannot let current catastrophes become normalized. We are still capable of making the right choices to secure our future.

The Julie Ann Wrigley Global Futures Laboratory at Arizona State University represents the urgent belief that we can and must make a meaningful contribution to ensuring a habitable planet and a future in which well-being is attainable. The Global Futures Laboratory is creating a platform built upon the deep expertise of ASU and leveraging an extensive network of partners for an ongoing and wide-ranging exchange across all knowledge domains to address the complex social, economic and scientific challenges spawned by the current and future threats from environmental degradation. This platform positions a new world headquarters for an international array of scientists, scholars and innovators and lays the foundation to anticipate and respond to existing and emerging challenges and use innovation to purposefully shape and inform our future. For more information visit globalfutures.asu.edu.

Designing and shaping a future in which Earth will thrive.

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