Welcome to the Climate Fwd: newsletter! Join us on Tuesday for the second episode of Netting Zero, a series of virtual events looking ahead to key international climate negotiations next year. This panel, focusing on cities trying to become carbon-neutral, will be moderated by Brad Plumer, a reporter on The Times climate team. You can register here.
By John Schwartz
It’s pretty scary out there these days. There are wildfires in the West and a hurricane causing “catastrophic” flooding in the South. And the destructiveness of those disasters is being aggravated by climate change.
All of that is keeping those of us on The Times climate team very busy.
For decades, climate journalists focused on the science of climate change, which proves the planet is warming and forecasts the consequences. That goes back at least to 1988, when The Times published a front-page article about the NASA scientist James Hansen, who testified in the Senate and warned in an interview that “It is time to stop waffling so much and say that the evidence is pretty strong that the greenhouse effect is here.”
The government, as we all know, continued to waffle. And here we are. Now, to an ever increasing degree, being a climate reporter is all about catastrophes, reported in real time.
And so, we do what we do. We cover the news.
In the West, more than 5 million acres have now burned, and fire season still has months to go. Our coverage has focused heavily on the links between wildfires and climate change.
We’ve also looked at the health risks associated with all of that choking smoke. We introduced you to the self-proclaimed “grunts” who fight the fires on the ground, and took you around the world to see how hotter, drier seasons have made much of the planet more prone to erupt in flames.
We’ve also pointed out the ways that heat waves, wildfire smoke and the coronavirus can combine to batter the most vulnerable in our society.
What may be most troubling about the wave of Western wildfires is what can be called the cascade effect, “in which a series of disasters overlap, triggering or amplifying each other.”
We know many of the things we need to do, as a society, to respond to wildfires in the decades ahead. But the nation is far behind in adopting policies widely known to protect lives and property, even though worsening fires have become a predictable consequence of climate change.
Then, there’s that other climate-amplified threat: water. On the National Hurricane Center’s map of the Atlantic basin on Wednesday morning, four named storms could be seen: Sally, which had slowly approached the Gulf Coast with its pounding rains; Paulette; Teddy and Vicky. Another, Rene, had dissipated on Monday.
This hurricane season is “hyperactive,” so much so that meteorologists are nearly out of English-language letters to name them. (They plan ahead; they will switch to Greek.) And while hurricanes cause suffering for everyone in their path, we’ve also explored the unequal impact on the poor or minority populations that more often live right up against chemical plants, and who get fewer government resources when it’s time to rebuild.
What might be the result of these roiling events? The New York Times Magazine has published a major article that suggests that millions of Americans could become “climate refugees,” moving away from places where extreme weather events have simply made life too hard.
These disasters have long been predicted by climate scientists. Camilo Mora, an associate professor in the department of geography and environment at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, published a 2018 study with colleagues that focused on the likelihood that, by the end of this century, some parts of the world could face as many as six climate-related crises at the same time — a prospect he described to me as being “like a terror movie.”
I called him last week, and he said that even vigorous action against climate change would mean overlapping disasters for decades to come. Further inaction will make things much worse.
“Somebody asked me if there is a good ending to the horror movie,” Dr. Mora said. “The good ending was 20 years ago. Now, the choices for the ending are ‘bad’ and ‘terrible’.”
“The planet, it’s screaming to us,” he said. “When are we going to start listening?”
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