U.S wildfires again demonstrate that the climate crisis is an urgent threat

Earlier this week, images emerged of a seemingly apocalyptic San Francisco, the world-famous Golden Gate Bridge backlit by an ominous orange glow, the streets as dark at 10 am as they would be at 10 pm. Wildfires are raging mercilessly across America’s West Coast. In California alone, 3.1 million acres have been claimed by the fires so far, 60 per cent more than the previous fire season record of 1.9 million acres in 2018. Some parts of Oregon have seen air quality so hazardous that it has gone beyond the scale of the state’s Air Quality Index.

Extreme weather events are becoming more frequent year on year. Australian bushfires at the start of 2020 took the lives of over 3 billion animals, and in May Cyclone Amphan caused 128 deaths in India and Bangladesh. Hotter and longer periods of drought along with warmer air and sea temperatures have intensified the severity of extreme weather across the globe, so much so that these events are no longer distant anomalies, but connected normalities, nurtured by our rapidly changing climate.

With wildfires and toxic smoke now devastating the West Coast of America, when will we start to see anthropogenic climate change as a climate crisis, a fundamental and immediate threat to human life, an imminent disaster, not merely an ambiguous concern for the future?
Shifting weather patterns as a consequence of human activity threaten everything from food production to human life, leading invariably to social and economic collapse. Reports estimate that between 150-200 million people could be ‘climate refugees’ by 2050, the same year by which Arctic sea ice is expected to have disappeared completely.

Why, then, is the climate crisis presented as an abstraction, whose repercussions lay decades in the future? Why are governments and the media so reluctant to treat it with the urgency it demands?
Public awareness of climate change has perhaps never been higher; 71 per cent of adults globally agree that climate change is as serious a crisis as the coronavirus. The reluctance of governments to propose large-scale environmental action and enact real change is therefore puzzling, they do not lack the mandate to do so, so why aren’t they? The answer is simple. A meaningful response entails confronting powerful and systemic vested interests; it is impossible to decarbonise the global economy without challenging the corporations whose business practices depend upon the depredation of the planet. Between 1988 and 2015, 100 companies were responsible for more than 70 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions, yet legislation forcing corporate entities to become more sustainable and environmentally protective remains minimal.

Governments and world leaders have shown an appalling lack of climate leadership, often with the end goal of prioritising the economy over the environment, a problem for our future selves to deal with. But the media also do little to mitigate the harmful narrative that climate change is some ambiguous future concern. Coverage of record-breaking extreme weather events is localised, disconnected from similar events happening across the globe. The focus is nearly always on what will happen by 2030 or 2050 if we carry on the way we’re going, not that what is happening now will only get worse unless we stop.

When we did stop, or rather were forced to as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, global emissions dropped a record 4.6 per cent, largely due to grounded air travel and a decrease in fuel usage. Whilst this sort of reduction has shown itself to be unsustainable within current economic systems, it did illustrate how emergency action could be taken at the will of governments worldwide.

The climate crisis is an existential threat and immediate emergency; it requires economic reordering on a global scale, rapid and permanent changes in human behaviour. But urgency is lost on governments which prioritise the economy, governments who fundamentally fail to act in the interest of this and future generations.

Image: Noah Berger via Flickr