Yesterday was September 21, the traditional day of the equinox, marking the beginning of autumn in the northern hemisphere. Given the events of the summer of 2017, I’m none too sorry to see the end of the season. The summer of 2017 has every right to be called “the summer of climate change.” Several events, both man-made and natural, have hammered home the urgency and magnitude of the challenges we face as a result of climate change. No one can look at the recent wildfires and hurricanes, and the political and economic problems left in their wake, and still question that climate change is a serious problem, and that we’re going to have to deal with it whether we like it or not.
For those of us who study climate change, the events of summer 2017 are not all that surprising. Scientists have been warning us for years that global warming has been “pumping up” hurricanes into ferocious catastrophes much more powerful and deadly than they would otherwise be. Even a small change in sea level rise can drastically alter the footprint of a hurricane’s storm surge. Human development along coastlines exacerbates the effect—as was seen in 2005 with Hurricane Katrina—and the inevitable consequence is not only a stronger storm surge, but more vulnerability. We saw this with Hurricane Harvey and Hurricane Irma too. The effects of these storms are not mysterious. Climate change makes them worse, and also reduces our resistance to them, the way fatigue or cold reduces a human body’s resistance to disease.
Hurricane Irma wreaked havoc throughout Florida and many other places in September 2017. Is this the new normal?
I live in Oregon, and 2017 was definitely our own “global warming summer.” You could smell it in the air. Tens of thousands of acres of wildlands burned in Oregon and Washington this summer. In early September I had to make a business trip to Eugene, and I arrived on the worst air-quality day in the town’s history up to that point in time. The very atmosphere was toxic and the sky was as dim and hazy as an overcast day in winter. The smell of smoke was everywhere. Back up in the Portland area, we had our own spell of smoky days not long afterward. The smoke effects are particularly difficult for the elderly or children with respiratory conditions. Combine a wildfire smoke condition with an abnormally hot day—numerous days in Oregon spiked over 100° this summer—and you’ve got a disaster that will begin to strain social services, like hospital emergency rooms.
Increased fire incidence is definitely linked to climate change. As droughts grow deeper and longer, especially in the U.S. West, the statistical incidence of wildfire—and the likely severity of wildfires that can be expected to start from any cause—increases dramatically. Depending on where you live, the incidence of wildfire may increase literally hundreds of percentage points with each degree of warming of the Earth’s atmosphere as a whole. Scholars have studied the impact of increased wildfires on property and land use patterns, especially in California, and have specifically identified climate change as a contributing factor to increased wildfire risk. Because business and property risk is one of the things Centric Law is all about, wildfire is definitely an area of concern for me. Should you buy property in a wildland area? If you already own it, should you sell it? Answering these questions will necessarily involve some engagement with climate change impacts.
The smoke from wildfires was so pervasive across the Western U.S. this summer, it could be seen from space. Sattelite photo, 29 August 2017.
Disasters aside, summer 2017 was also an important season for how we think and talk about climate change. In June, as the summer was just beginning, President Donald Trump announced the U.S. would be withdrawing from the Paris climate accords; the next day, for the first time in my memory, climate change was headline news on every major newspaper in America and across the world. That’s never happened before. In July, David Wallace-Wells wrote his controversial piece for New York Magazine, “The Uninhabitable Earth,” which sparked controversy from climate scientists and others about whether or not “scare tactics” work in motivating action on climate change. (Generally, they don’t). If I could have retained as a client and charged a fee for every friend and acquaintance who asked me what I thought of the David Wallace-Wells piece, Centric Law’s coffers going into September would be bursting. Clearly people are now thinking about climate change more than they used to, and that is not altogether bad.
Yet we must be careful not to let images--and imaginations--of disaster control our thinking. The disasters of 2017 are sobering, but we should not think of them as "punishments" to be endured, but rather challenges to overcome. Tackling climate change will involve building a future that is cleaner, more prosperous, more just and more inclusive than the past. This is the key that we must keep our eyes on: building a future where disasters like those of 2017 can be anticipated, managed and overcome. This will be a long process and a difficult one, but we must, above all things, keep our eyes on the ball.