Ancient people in different parts of the world, even while looking at the same sections of sky, connected the stars into very different constellations. The bears, dogs, and swans that the ancients saw in the heavens are arbitrary, whimsical, and shaped by myths, not science. The Big Dipper is not a given, it’s almost random aside from the general tendency to pick out the brightest stars to form constellations.
The same tendency is on display when people try to make sense of events in the world. We are drawn to the brightest lights, the proximate causes of fire, flood, or massacre, and we have a harder time winnowing out the larger context, the deep and principal causes of what is transpiring in the headlines.
The events in Santa Barbara are an example of this. Even referring to what is happening as ‘mudslides’ misinforms: it’s not the rain falling that is the true cause of the devastation there. It what enabled — made nearly inevitable — by the wildfires that preceded it, and those wildfires, in turn, were fated to happen by the preceding years of drought. And that drought? Well, the final backstop is climate change, as Leah Stokes tells us in Climate Change in My Backyard:
There is a clear climate signature in the disaster in Santa Barbara. We know that climate change is making California’s extreme rainfall events more frequent. We know it’s worsening our fires. We know that it contributed substantially to the latest drought.
There are simpler stories we could tell. Stories with more proximate causes: Those people bought in dangerous places. Those people should have left their homes. Those people are somehow to blame. These events are normal. These things just happen there.
But these simple stories mask a larger truth. How many times do we need to hear adjectives in their superlative form before we spot a pattern: largest, rainiest, driest, deadliest? Records, by their nature, are not meant to be set annually. And yet that’s what is happening. The costliest year for natural disasters in the United States was 2017. One of the longest and most severe droughts in California history concluded for most parts of the state in 2017. The five warmest years on record have all occurred since 2006, with 2017 expected to be one of the warmest yet again.
I have researched climate change policy for over a decade now. For a long time, we assumed that climate policy was stalled because it was a problem for the future. Or it would affect other people. Poorer people. Animals. Ecosystems. We assumed those parts of the world were separate from us. That we were somehow insulated. I didn’t expect to see it in my own backyard so soon.
Climate change devastated ecosystems, species and neighborhoods in Houston and much of struggling Puerto Rico last year. Now climate change has ravaged one of the wealthiest ZIP codes in the country. We know now that even the richest among us is not insulated.
These extreme events are getting worse. But when I read the news after each fresh disaster, I rarely see a mention of climate change. Whether it’s coverage of a fire in my backyard or a powerful hurricane in the Caribbean, this bigger story is usually missing. To say that it is too soon to talk about the causes of a crisis is wrongheaded. We must connect the dots.
And finally, we have to move beyond the dots, beyond the story constructed of a connected wireframe of cause, cause, cause. We need to start to move past the storytelling, and begin the thousand year task before us.
Yes, make no mistake: terraforming the planet we are not living on — to get it back to the historical norms of heat, water distribution, storm severity, and CO2 levels — will take a thousand years even if we mobilize into a war against climate change.
As Bill McKibben puts it, we are now living on Eaarth, a new planet, but not the Earth that we grew up on.
And this discussion has gone on far too long with little action. Consider this article from Eduardo Porter from 2015:
Last week the so-called Risky Business group of business and political leaders pushing for action against climate change issued its report on California, laying out an array of challenges from extremely hot days that would reduce productivity in agriculture and construction, to flooding that could swamp much of Silicon Valley.
Even if carbon emissions were to peak before midcentury, calculations by Mr. Cook and his colleagues suggest that the Southwest will still face an exceptionally high risk of suffering a mega-drought of a scale not seen since the “Medieval Warm Period” parched the region from about 1100 to 1300.
Some researchers say that period caused the end of the Anasazi civilization, driving its people out of their stone cities perched high on the cliffs in the Four Corners region of the Southwest. “Our results point to a remarkably drier future that falls far outside the contemporary experience of natural and human systems in Western North America,” wrote the researchers. That “may present a substantial challenge to adaptation.”
Yes, we aren’t talking about a dozen or so people perishing in mudslides: we are talking about changes that ‘pose a substantial challenge to adaptation’, and tens of millions will have to move from the Southwest as it becomes uninhabitable.
Here’s a scenario I wrote in 2011 for an Institute of the Future contest, My California Dream: The California Territory. I got the dates wrong, and Michelle Obama is not the president, but the thrust of the piece really connects the dots. It was too dark and stark to win.
And yes, I predicted the mudslides in Santa Barbara, and the wildfires:
The violent weather of the ’10s was especially devastating to southern and mountainous areas of California, based on strengthening of El Niño and global climate changes. A drastic increase of typhoon-like storms led to widespread and enormous mudslides (like the ones that buried Glendale and Santa Barbara in 2015), and an increase in summer temperatures by 4º-5ºC led to growing severity of wildfires, culminating in the near destruction of San Diego in 2018 by the Tijuana Fire. The growing heat, erratic summer rainfall, and decreased snowpack of the Cascades led to drought conditions in California for most of the ’10s, contributing to the Bee Famine of 2016.
Originally published at https://stoweboyd.com in January 2018.