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Many in the West have been experiencing the deadly and destructive impact of climate change firsthand, as unprecedented wildfires have burned in California, Oregon, Washington and Colorado. 

Shannon Osaka spent two weeks indoors at her home in Seattle because of the smoke and poor air quality from nearby wildfires. “I would go outside and immediately feel it in my chest, in my lungs, in my throat,” she said.

Covering Climate Now

Osaka is a reporter for the environmental news site, Grist, and she wrote an article recently titled, “Will the West’s giant fires spark a climate awakening?”

LISTEN to The Allegheny Front’s Kara Holsopple talk with Osaka about her reporting.

Kara Holsopple: Your piece asks if these massive, destructive wildfires this season will make people more likely to want to act on climate change. But first, you say people have to know the two are connected, and that’s not necessarily intuitive. 

For example, a lot was made, and rightly so, of the fact that one fire was started as a result of a baby gender reveal party. But that’s not the totality of why there was a fire or why it was as destructive. Can you talk a little bit about that? 

Shannon Osaka: I think that this is a common confusion that people have. People think about wildfires, and they’re like, “Okay, what’s the cause?” It could be a lightning strike, or in this case, the gender reveal party gone wrong. It could be arson. 

There are lots of different causes that can create the spark. But there are connections to climate change that don’t have to have to do with the spark. It can be that climate change is making the overall situation more likely to turn into a giant fire or a huge blaze. That could be because the terrain is drying out. The forests are drying out. There’s less water. There’s more drought. It also can be just that the temperatures are higher, which also can fuel wildfires. 

When I talk to people about this, I try to separate out the proximate cause of the fire versus what are the other causes that make it more likely or potentially more severe.

Holsopple: When it comes to people’s perception of climate, and the connection between climate and wildfire, I think that you found that it’s a little bit complicated by where you live. Tell me about what you found about this perception from your reporting in the West, talking to people there, and from data.

Osaka: I think in California, 69 percent of the state’s inhabitants connect these record breaking wildfires with the changing climate. A lot of the people who I talk to in California — particularly people who are waking up under the bright orange sky — a lot of those people said that they were thinking about climate change. It might not have been the top thing some people were thinking about, like obviously friends or organizations that they knew who had been affected, who had had land burned down. But it was definitely on their minds. That was really encouraging for me. 

I also did talk to some people who said, “You know, climate change is not really on my radar. I’m not thinking about it. I’m just thinking about how to move forward.” So it was definitely a mix. 

But in the country as a whole, that number is only 52 percent. That can be because the country as a whole is maybe less predisposed to think about climate in general, but also because they’re not seeing the same headlines or media reporting that are connecting these wildfires to global warming.

Holsopple: And those data were from the Yale climate connections, right?

Osaka: Right. The Yale Center on Climate Change Communication. They do a lot of really good long term polling on this.

Holsopple: In the piece you talk about how, overall, only three quarters of Americans believe that global warming is actually happening. Less than two thirds understand that it’s human caused.  But you do cite some data in the story that shows that people can change their minds. 

Osaka: It’s very interesting. The folks over at Yale have found that every year, about eight percent of people report that they’ve recently changed their opinions on global warming. For most people, it means that they’ve become more concerned. 

Every year, about eight percent of people report that they’ve recently changed their opinions on global warming.

When they ask those people, why has your opinion changed, why have you become more concerned, most people say either because they’re personally experiencing climate change impacts or they’ve heard about climate change impacts affecting someone else. 

So it’s clear that things like wildfires, things like drought, seeing these more frequent heat waves, are really having an impact on how Americans think about this issue. 

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Holsopple: There was another study in the journal Nature Climate Change about how people who have some experience with natural disasters do change their behavior, too. 

Osaka: Yeah, there was this fascinating study in the UK. It was almost 10 years ago now, but basically it found that people who experienced severe flooding that had been made worse by climate change were more willing to change their energy use. They were more willing to cut their personal carbon emissions. 

That’s one of the strongest links that’s been found in academic literature between people experiencing in their own personal lives, in their own homes, these devastating impacts and being willing to say, “Hey, I think I can change my behavior. I think I can switch my energy use.”

Holsopple: But you point out in the piece that that may not be enough to actually turn things around. It’s going to be more what we do in the political realm and in policymaking.

Osaka: Right. In the U.S. we have not had significant federal climate policy for over 10 years. 

This is a thing that individuals definitely need to contribute to, but we definitely need some sort of federal response. It’s this crazy patchwork of state attempts to regulate greenhouse gas emissions. 

It’s important to have people doing their part because that can also affect others. If I start cutting my energy use, if I start putting solar panels on my roof, that can encourage other people to do it. But ultimately, it’s going to need to be led at the federal level.

Media’s Role in Climate Change Connections

Holsopple: It’s been pointed out that in the initial week of the wildfires in California, some of the national news outlets covering this story, including The New York Times and NPR, didn’t mention climate change. What do you make of that? And what part does the media play in the public’s perception of the connection of climate change and natural disasters?

Osaka: I think it goes back a little bit to what we were talking about earlier, which is that the connection is not as obvious as people want it to be. You know, climate change wasn’t out there with a match. Climate change made these fires more likely and more severe. That is a jump that is difficult even for a reporter who doesn’t do climate change generally. 

We have a lot of work to do in the media in terms of training reporters how to make these connections and how to make them in a scientifically robust way.

It really takes someone with more expertise. I think that we’re seeing that a lot of general assignment reporters are bringing climate change in more. But I think you’ll see people who work on climate change, specifically in the media, making these connections.

Holsopple: Isn’t that letting reporters off the hook a little bit?

Osaka: Yeah, maybe it is. I do think that the public is not going to understand this connection unless it comes from the media. The media is still really important for making climate change connections with weather. Unless it comes from big outlets, unless it comes from the first or the second or the third story that people read — because we know that people don’t they’re not like combing through the entire corpus of media reporting on the wildfires — they’re just going to look at whatever first comes across their plate. 

So I do think that we have a lot of work to do in the media in terms of training reporters how to make these connections and how to make them in a scientifically robust way. Because we don’t want people running around and saying, ‘You know, climate change sparked the wildfire’ either. We want it to be scientifically based.

Has Wildfires Sparked a Climate Awakening?

Holsopple: So back to the title of your piece, which is “Will the West’s Giant Fires Spark a climate awakening?” What is the answer? 

Osaka:  I think the answer is a qualified “yes.” If you’re already thinking about climate change, these fires were kind of a moment to say, “Okay, this is a really serious problem.”

In terms of people who are already say, “Oh, I don’t think climate change is a big deal or it’s not human caused,” I don’t think the wildfires are going to move those people. 

But to a certain extent, we don’t necessarily need to move those people. We need to move people who are already concerned, and who are already going to vote with climate change in mind. 

Osaka is a reporter for Grist.

The Allegheny Front is participating in Covering Climate Now, a global journalism collaboration strengthening coverage of the climate story.

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