When hurricanes Harvey and Irma hit the U.S. earlier this year, conservatives including Environmental Protection Agency chief Scott Pruitt and Fox News personalities argued that it wasn’t the right time to talk about climate change. But a number of local leaders and journalists in the storm-hit states of Texas and Florida disagreed. They called for attention to the fact that climate change is making disasters worse, even as they worked to address and report on the immediate needs of their affected communities.
Now many political leaders and newspapers in California are following the lead of those in Texas and Florida -- demanding that we recognize the threat of climate change and how it’s exacerbating weather events like the wildfires that have been blazing through parts of Northern California for the last week and a half, the most deadly and destructive fires in the state’s history.
Many scientists have pointed to climate change as a significant factor that’s intensifying fires like those in California. Columbia University bioclimatologist Park Williams, who co-authored a study last year that found climate change was markedly worsening wildfires in the American West, talked to McClatchy about the California fires last week: “The fingerprint is definitely there,” Williams said. “The connection between temperatures and fire is one we see again and again in the correlation analyses we do.”
California Gov. Jerry Brown emphasized the connection last week: “With a warming climate, dry weather and reducing moisture, these kinds of catastrophes have happened and will continue to happen,” he said.
And five of California’s biggest papers have published editorials clearly connecting the dots between this year’s out-of-control wildfire season and climate change.
The Los Angeles Times, the largest newspaper in California, published an editorial on October 12 explaining how the fires fit into a broader pattern of weather disasters that scientists have been telling us to expect as the world warms:
When this is over, it may well be the state’s worst fire catastrophe in recorded history by any measure.
This is not just bad luck. Coming on the heels of other large-scale natural disasters — Houston inundated by a slow-moving tropical storm, swaths of Florida and the Caribbean ripped to shreds by a monster hurricane, much of Puerto Rico leveled by an equally powerful hurricane, a handful of Western states swept by massive fires that burned up millions of acres — one can’t help but see a disturbing pattern emerge. Those superstorms that scientists warned would result from climate change? They are here. The day of reckoning isn’t in the future. It is now.
The Sacramento Bee made similar points in a strong October 10 editorial and put the heat on President Trump for ignoring climate change:
Puerto Rico is in ruins. Thousands are displaced in Houston. The Gulf Coast is bracing for a fresh round of hurricanes.
Now, epic wildfires are incinerating California.
Climate change is doing what scientists predicted — amplifying storms and lengthening wildfire seasons. … If it wasn’t clear last year — or the year before, or the year before that — it is obvious now that a new normal is at hand.
Given that, it’s ironic, if not delusional, that the Trump administration would pick this, of all weeks, to move to repeal Obama-era limits on greenhouse gases, which drive global warming.
The San Francisco Chronicle, The Mercury News (San Jose), and The San Diego Union-Tribune all published editorials arguing that governments need to be better prepared to fight wildfires, in part because climate change is making fires more of a danger.
Of the six largest-circulation California newspapers that publish editorials, only The Orange County Register -- whose editorial board has a record of climate denial -- failed to make mention of climate change in its editorial about the ongoing fires.
Editorial boards beyond California are picking up the thread as well. The Miami Herald, a major paper in a state recently hit by Hurricane Irma, made note of wildfires in an editorial last week that criticized President Trump’s reversal of the Clean Power Plan, a key Obama-era policy to fight climate change: “Ironically, the repeal is being announced at a time when the impact of climate change is too powerful to deny — in hurricanes of unprecedented frequency and power, in increasing droughts, in expanded wildfires.” The Washington Post and The New York Times ran editorials last week making similar points.
Papers in disaster-afflicted areas are right to explain the connections between climate change and extreme weather. They have a responsibility not just to report on-the-ground happenings, but to put critical events in context -- especially in their editorials.
Newspapers and networks with national audiences should do the same, following the lead of The Washington Post and The New York Times. The U.S. has suffered through a stunning string of disasters in recent months, exactly the kinds of extreme weather events that scientists have said we'll see more of as the climate continues to heat up. Media outlets have a duty to explain that climate change is driving some of the damage and will drive far more in the future if we don't curb our greenhouse gas emissions and better prepare our communities for disasters.
This job is all the more important given that we have a president who not only denies basic climate science, but fails to take many disasters seriously. Trump has shown callous disregard for hurricane-devastated Puerto Rico, and he has almost entirely ignored the California wildfires. He hadn't even tweeted about the fires until today, 10 days after they started. Major media outlets need to step in and help fill that void.
This post was updated to reflect the fact that President Trump tweeted about the wildfires on October 18.