The hellish, record-breaking summer of 2018 is forcing us to learn new words to describe it. Consider, for example, the "firenado" — a lethal twister of flame that occurs as a fire spreads through the overheated air of a 110-degree heat wave, as the rising heat turns a blaze into a 100-foot-high cyclone that sweeps through neighborhoods spewing hot embers from its bright-orange core.
That's exactly what happened last week on the outskirts of Redding in far northern California, where the Carr wildfire — currently the same size as the entire city of Philadelphia — continues to grow. "They say it was like a 'firetornado,'" Chris Corona, a resident who watched the flaming twister jump the Sacramento River, told CBS News. "People started driving on the curbs, through lawns, everyone was running."
The Carr wildfire is an American tragedy. On Sunday morning, the death toll had climbed to five — two heroic firefighters and two preschool-aged children along with their great-grandmother who were on her rural property outside of Redding when the blaze engulfed them. "My babies are dead," a distraught Sherry Bledsoe wept after learning the news from sheriff's deputies. More than a dozen more are still listed as missing amid the stunning destruction of entire subdivisions; at least 300 homes are gone and as many as 5,000 dwellings remain threatened.
If any of this sounds painfully familiar, that's because it was just last autumn that California experienced its worst wildfires ever, the epic blazes centered on the Sonoma and Napa regions north of San Francisco that claimed 42 lives and caused $1 billion in property damage. In fact, 15 of the 20 worst wildfires in Golden State history have occurred in the last two decades, an era dominated by extended droughts and record-high temperatures. And 2018 has been off to a hellishly hot start in much of California, including temperatures as high as 117 in parts of Los Angeles earlier this month. The traditionally hottest months out there — September and October — are still ahead.
This weekend's "firenado" events near Redding have caused Americans to pay at least a little attention to a massive global story that we've been remarkably successful at ignoring. Across the planet, the summer of 2018 has been a wild one for weather disasters — mostly the kind of calamities that scientists have been warning, for the last generation, would occur with accelerating frequency as climate change caused by humans and our greenhouse gas pollution takes deeper and deeper roots.
We've seen — well, for a few seconds, anyway, at the end of the news hour as the anchors are trying to race into a commercial break or a different topic — horrific fires outside of Athens, Greece, that killed dozens, melted cars, and destroyed entire villages; an unprecedented heat wave, drought and flurry of wildfires centered on Sweden and Norway that have made parts of Scandinavia feel like, well, California; the highest temperatures ever recorded in Japan amid a lethal heat wave; and the United Kingdom and Ireland wilting under a summer of unrelenting high heat.
"The logic that climate change will do this is inescapable — the world is becoming warmer, and so heat waves like this are becoming more common," Friederike Otto of the University of Oxford told the Guardian after releasing research showing that global warming had made northern Europe's deathly hot summer twice as likely. "What was once regarded as unusually warm weather will become commonplace, and in some cases, it already has. So this is something that society can and should prepare for."
Are you with me so far?
Probably not. Indeed, another thing we're learning in the Long Hot Summer of 2018 is that, to update Carly Simon, you're so jaded, you probably stopped reading this column four or five paragraphs ago. That's if you even bothered to click on the headline once you deduced that it had something to do with climate change. The unrelenting rise of man-made global warming and the uncertainty over whether civilization can cope with it is, almost beyond argument, the biggest story not just of the summer but of the 21st century. And here in the United States, any news of this crisis raises the inevitable question … I wonder if the other channel has the latest on Trump and his Playboy-model payoffs?
In fact, MSNBC's Chris Hayes caused a mini-stir last week when — amid the worsening wildfires and more evidence that 2018 will again be one of the hottest years on record — he tweeted that it's hard for TV to cover climate change because while it may be important, it's a ratings buzzkill.
What Hayes said was cynical but like many cynical things, also drenched in truth. I've noticed it myself as a columnist — that the pieces I write every few months or so about climate change are also my least-read columns, and this one will probably be no exception. It's a vicious cycle, though — public apathy leads to diminished and half-hearted news coverage, which only inspires more apathy. And that bleeds into the area where it matters most: politics. In a critical midterm election year, with a wave of new and allegedly fired-up candidates, how many of them have made climate change a front-burner issue? Very few that I'm aware of.
Why is this, and what is to be done?
In the Why Dept., climate change is ultimately a science story — which is bad news on several fronts. Bill Nye aside, America is pretty much a nation of Not Science Guys and Gals — with study after study showing that the U.S. lags the rest of the developed world when it comes to science education. Lack of education typically leads to lack of interest, but I don't think that's the only reason viewers reach for the remote. We've also seen a steady devolution as reality-show production values trump (pun intended) any kind of real-information culture in the news media.
Donald Trump's presidency is fulfilling the prediction of media thinker Neil Postman that America would eventually amuse itself to death, and — honestly– how could an issue story like climate change ever compete with the cast of "Goodfellas" constantly moving in and out of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, with a narcissistic anti-hero drama king at the center of it all?
What's more, we've managed to suck any serious discussion of global warming and what to do about it into our own "firenado" of American politics, with lethal consequences. On the right, the audience has been numbed by remarkably successful, Big Oil-funded and talk-radio approved war on the very idea of science, successfully branding climatologists as pointy-headed intellectuals who look down their noses at "real Americans" and are thus worthy of hate just like their other bete noirs — journalists and Hollywood stars and females in politics or whatnot. But on the left, the idea that climate change is real and that our GOP-led government will never do anything has become so entrenched and such a source of bitter cynicism that liberals have become channel-changers, too.
Not that public uninterest should give the media a free pass. No, the messenger deserves a lot of the blame. Just this week, for example, it was noted that National Public Radio, in reporting 2018's wild weather events, has a hard and fast policy of NOT mentioning climate change unless a climate scientist is contacted and interviewed. The result, of course, is that global warming is almost never mentioned, the dog that doesn't bark.
Those with a strong motivation to deny climate change have become skilled at "working the refs." Since we've always had wildfires or floods to some extent, no one weather event can be directly linked to global warming — even though the world's documented rise in temperature is causing a steep rise in the overall number of such disasters, just as science predicted. The result is journalism that stands helplessly on the sidelines while the world burns and is too scared to say why.
Even England's supposedly feistier media has this problem. "That map is a sea of red because the climate is changing," Adam Corner of Climate Outreach wrote in Sunday's New York Times. "But in Britain we have been stuck — save for a few exceptions that prove the rule — with the no-single-weather-event-is-caused-by-climate-change rhetoric that is not only scientifically outdated (attribution studies can tell us just how much extreme weather events are caused by climate change), but increasingly feels like an abdication of moral responsibility."
That moral abdication has sharp consequences — but especially back here in the States. Climate change apathy and tribal politics have allowed the Trump administration and its GOP allies to do the bidding of their biggest and most self-interested campaign donors and set American policy back by decades. Although the more symbolic move of withdrawing from the Paris climate accord — the only nation on earth not participating — generated a day or so of coverage, it's the constant drip-drip-drip of regulatory rollbacks to protect Big Polluters and favor dirty fossil fuels like coal and oil over clean energy that's doing the most damage. And our own failures — the press, the public, the politicians — to talk about the science openly and honestly that's letting them get away with it.
It doesn't have to be this way. Climate change may never have the soap opera sex appeal of "The Apprentice President," but the dramatic changes that could save the planet from peril, in a future driven by electric cars and solar panels, are exciting and even, dare I say it, interesting … if we challenge ourselves to do a better job. That means journalists finding the gumption to report the truth and candidates with the gumption to excite voters by telling it. Because Planet Earth is facing a "firenado" of trouble if we keep avoiding what is really going on with our climate.