The West Coast Fires in the United States
The western part of the United States is now on fire. These fires are unprecedented and represent the beginning of a terrifying new reality if climate change is not substantially curbed. A period of drought from 2011–2019 combined with lots of dry vegetation have meant that the fires are spreading at a rapid pace. Climate change has contributed to this drought and is helping make these fires burn longer and hotter. As of early October, these fires have burned 4 million acres in California alone, and the fire season is far from over.
Action on climate change lags well behind meeting targets from the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement. Under the Trump administration, a NYT analysis found that nearly 70 climate rules and regulations related to air pollution, drilling, water pollution, and air safety among other things were cut back. Another 30 rules and regulations are in the process of being phased out. It is shockingly reckless and irresponsible to be presiding over environmental cuts at precisely the time that the US is reeling from the effects of climate change.
With these major fires, it is increasingly important and necessary to assess to what extent public perceptions around climate change are affected by natural disasters. If the public connects climate change with the severity of these natural disasters, then they may be more predisposed to demand action from politicians on climate change. The US is a particularly pertinent case to look at these public perceptions because of its powerful climate denialism lobby. Ideally, large natural disasters can be a wake-up call for people who were previously doubting the severity of the crisis or who assumed that climate change only posed a threat to future generations.
While it is not yet clear if these fires will spark greater public interest in climate change, they urgently highlight the need to act upon climate change. The drastic size of the fires also underscores the need to look at what has allowed the fires to grow so large. One of the main factors in the fire’s spread is also the marginalization of indigenous burning practices. After white settlers arrived in California, they began a policy of fire suppression, and the 10 am policy where all fires had to be put out by 10 am the next day. This policy led to widespread vegetation growth and the ideal conditions for the giant fires that are raging through California. The devaluation of indigenous practices highlights the intersection between racial justice and climate change. Respecting indigenous practices will be crucial to building a livable planet and mitigating the impacts of climate change.
I will now take a look at the perceptions around natural disasters and how that affects thinking about climate change. I will also address the climate denialism lobby in the United States and the importance of political affiliation. I will conclude with a call to action on protecting our planet.
Perceptions of Natural Disasters and Climate Change
The idea that extreme weather events may make people take climate change more seriously is relatively simple. If people can see the massive and intense hurricane or fire barreling towards their home, then they would be more likely to want to take action on climate change. After all, climate change will make extreme weather events more likely, so naturally people who experience such extreme weather events firsthand might be more likely to support climate change adaptation measures.
Although not conducted with participants from the United States, a promising 2016 study found that those who had been exposed to severe flooding in the UK in the winter of 2013–2014 had both a greater concern about climate change and a desire to support climate mitigation policies. Support for climate mitigation policies was not limited to only those policies related to flooding but also other policies such as those related to reducing intense heatwaves. The results of this study are incredibly promising, but it is uncertain if people will support climate mitigation policies over the long-term or whether this study can be generalized to other countries.
Other studies that have used data from US participants have produced less promising results. A 2015 study using data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the Cooperative Congressional Election Study (CCES) showed that extreme weather events did impact climate change perceptions. However, with weather events that took place over a long period of time did not really affect public opinion on climate change. The results of the study suggested that ideology or political affiliation was a greater causal factor for caring about climate change than experiencing extreme weather. The results of this study were still more promising than a 2014 study, which found that public perceptions in the United States were not really influenced by climatic conditions but rather by the political views that the person had.
Clearly political views are very important in determining how people feel about climate change but experiencing natural disasters should still not be discounted. A 2017 study found that people in the United States who experience natural disaster events are more likely to support climate mitigation policies, but the relationship is not strong and with time people become less likely to support such policies.
Thus, there is some disagreement within the literature about whether experiencing natural disasters influences public perceptions of climate change. The UK study was the most promising study in terms of indicating that experiencing extreme weather could have long lasting beneficial effects in terms of public support for climate mitigation policies. The US studies are more ambiguous, but there is at least some support in the literature for the idea that experiencing natural disasters influences support for climate mitigation policies. However, the political views of the public are, unsurprisingly, relevant in determining views on climate change, and this is particularly true with the climate change denialism lobby.
Climate Change Denialism
A 2019 survey conducted by YouGove found that 13% of Americans said that they either did not know if climate change was occurring or that humans were not responsible. The United States was the Western country with the highest percentage of climate deniers. It is true that the US has many people who believe in climate change, but there is still a large minority of climate change deniers. One of the main drivers of this climate denial is the Republican Party and the fossil fuel industry.
Jean-Daniel Collomb argued in a 2014 article that climate change denial stems from two additional factors in addition to the lobbying of the fossil fuel industry. First, he argues that climate denial stems from US conservatives’ commitment to laissez faire and deregulation. Second, he argues that climate denialism comes from defending the US’s so-called “way of life,” which translates to protecting materialism and high consumption. These factors do certainly play a role in climate denialism. In fact, the opposition to veganism could also be seen in a similar light because conservatives argue it threatens the American way of life (part of which conservatives define as eating meat). However, the fossil fuel industry always lurks in the background of American politics.
The success of the fossil fuel industry is manifest in the fact that the Republican Party always supports their interests. In Dark Money, Jane Meyer outlines how the Koch brothers (Charles and David) used their extensive fortunes to promote their radical libertarian ideology that is opposed to all regulation (including efforts to protect the planet from pollution). Their money has been instrumental in ensuring the Republican move towards the radical Right and in ensuring that climate action is stifled because it might interfere with profits.
The difference between the two main parties is stark. In a Pew Research poll conducted in 2020 showed that 88% of Democrats considered climate change a major threat to the United States, while only 31% of Republicans considered climate change to be a major threat. 24% of Republicans did not consider climate change to be a threat at all to the US. While probably not all of that 24% are climate deniers, that is still 25% of the Republican party that does not take climate change seriously. The difference that party identity makes is very clear and shows why experiencing natural disasters may not cause people to want to take action on climate change. If people are climate deniers, then they are not likely to suddenly support climate mitigation policies if they experience a natural disaster. The divide also shows the importance that, as Collomb argued, conservatism plays in climate change denial and opposing action on climate change. The Republican party is much more conservative and thus much more likely to thwart action on climate change and the same goes for Republican supporters.
A Call to Action
While it is clear that experiencing extreme weather events may lead to greater concern about climate change, it cannot be assumed that all those experiencing the west coast fires will become ardent advocates for climate action. Those who are more conservative and who have ties to the fossil fuel industry will continue to put profit over the planet.
Climate change is not going away and it is up to us to do something about it. All the people who consider climate change to be a major threat to the planet must stand up and challenge the status quo. We need a radical overhaul of transportation, agriculture and energy. The fires like those on the west coast of the United States will only become more intense with the passage of time. Climate change is a truly global threat. It affects all of humanity. That is why all humans across the world must stand together in solidarity regardless of race, gender, ethnicity, class or any other division to demand change from our governments and drastic changes to the way we live. The planet demands nothing less!
If you are curious about what I referenced (although I am not including the newspaper articles or surveys. Those are hyperlinked):
Collomb, J.-D., 2014. The Ideology of Climate Change Denial in the United States. European journal of American studies, 9(1).
Demski, Christina et al., 2016. Experience of extreme weather affects climate change mitigation and adaptation responses. Climatic change, 140(2), pp.149–164.
Konisky, David M, Hughes, Llewelyn & Kaylor, Charles H, 2015. Extreme weather events and climate change concern. Climatic change, 134(4), pp.533–547.
Marquart-Pyatt, Sandra T et al., 2014. Politics eclipses climate extremes for climate change perceptions. Global environmental change, 29, pp.246–257.
Mayer, J., 2016. Dark money : the hidden history of the billionaires behind the rise of the radical right First., New York: Doubleday.
Ray, Aaron et al., 2017. Extreme weather exposure and support for climate change adaptation. Global environmental change, 46, pp.104–113.