There has been a lot of burning lately. Last week, wildfires broke out in the Arctic Circle, where temperatures reached almost 90 degrees; they are still roiling northern Sweden, 21 of them. And this week, wildfires swept through the Greek seaside, outside Athens, killing at least 80 and hospitalizing almost 200. At one resort, dozens of gueststried to escape the flames by descending a narrow stone staircase into the Aegean, only to be engulfed along the way, dying literally in each other’s arms.
Last July, I wrote a ''cli-fi''-ish much-talked-over magazine cover story considering the worst-case scenarios for climate change — much talked over, in part, because it was so terrifying, which made some of the cli-fi scenarios a bit hard to believe. Those worst-case cli-fi scenarios are still quite unlikely, since they require both that we do nothing to alter our emissions path, which is still arcing upward, and that those unabated emissions bring us to climate outcomes on the far end of what’s possible by 2100.
But, this July of 2018, we already seem much farther along on those paths than even the most alarmist climate observers — e.g., me — would have predicted a year ago. In a single week earlier this month, dozens of places around the world were hit with record temperatures in what was, effectively, an unprecedented, planet-encompassing heat wave: from Denver to Burlington to Ottawa; from Glasgow to Shannon to Belfast; from Tbilisi, in Georgia, and Yerevan, in Armenia, to whole swaths of southern Russia. The temperature of one city in Oman, where the daytime highs had reached 122 degrees Fahrenheit, did not drop below 108 all night; in Montreal, Canada, 50 died from the heat. That same week, 30 major wildfires burned in the American West, including one, in California, that grew at the rate of 10,000 football fields each hour, and another, in Colorado, that produced a volcano-like 300-foot eruption of flames, swallowing an entire subdivision and inventing a new term — “fire tsunami” — along the way. In Japan, rain bombs flooded the island nation's mid-section, leaving 200 people dead and more missing, and 1 million people evacuated from their homes. The following week, a heat wave struck there, leaving many elderly Japanese people dead (and one 6 year old schoolboy returning froma field trip on a hot summer day).
In other words, it has been a month of ''climate horrors.'' The major networks aired 127 segments on the unprecedented July heat wave, Media Matters usefully tabulated, and many mentioned climate change. The New York Times has done admirable work on global warming over the last year, launching a new Climate Desk run by Alaskan-born and raised Hannah Fairfield and devoting tremendous resources to special climate change and cli-fi novels “features.” The Times story on the wildfires in Greece made no mention of climate change since it was reported that the 3 major fires were set by Greek leftwing arsonists.
Over the last few days, there has been a flurry of chatter among climate writers and climate scientists, and the climate-curious who follow them, about cli-fi in the world today. In perhaps the most widely parsed and debated Twitter exchange, MSNBC’s Chris Hayes — whose show,All In, has distinguished itself with the seriousness of its climate coverage — described the dilemma facing every well-intentioned person in his spot: the transformation of the planet and the degradation may be the biggest and most important story of our time, indeed of all time, but on television, at least, it has nevertheless proven, so far, a “palpable ratings killer.” All of which raises a very dispiriting possibility, considering the scale of the climate crisis: Has the end of the world as we know it become, already, old news?
If so, that would be really, really bad. As I’ve written before, and as Wen Stephenson echoed more recently in The Baffler, climate change is not a matter of “yes” or “no,” not a binary process where we end up either “fucked” or “not fucked.” It is a system that gets worse over time as long as we continue to emit greenhouse gases. We are just beginning to see the horrors that climate change has in store for us —but that does not mean that the story is settled. Things will get worse, almost certainly much, much worse. Indeed, the news about what more to expect, coming out of new research, only darkens our picture of what to expect: Just over the past few weeks, new studies have suggested heat in many major Indian cities would be literally lethal by century’s end, if current warming trends continue, and that, by that time, global economic output could fall, thanks to climate effects, by 30 percent or more. That is an impact twice as deep as the global Great Depression, and it would not be temporary.
These are not the kinds of findings it is easy to ignore, or dismiss, or compartmentalize, even though we have all become exquisitely skilled lately in compartmentalizing the threat. Neither is it easy to forget the stories of the Greek wildfires, or the Japanese heat wave. Which is why it is perhaps important to remember that the media did not ignore these stories, or the month of global climate horrors that gave rise to them. Television networks covered those heat waves 127 times. That is, actually, a very lot! They just utterly failed to “connect the dots,” as somemone put it incisively — broadcasters told the story of the historic temperatures, but chose not to touch the question of why we were seeing so many of them, all at once, with the atmosphere more full of carbon, and the planet hotter, than it has ever been at any point in human history.
When you think about it, this would be a very strange choice for a producer or an editor concerned about boring or losing his or her audience — it would mean leaving aside the far more dramatic story of the total transformation of the planet’s climate system, and the immediate and all-encompassing threat posed by climate change to the way we live on Earth, to tell the pretty mundane story of some really hot days in the region.
As NPR’s science editor Geoff Brumfiel said, “You don’t just want to be throwing around, ‘This is due to climate change, that is due to climate change.’”