Press Rogue — May 16, 2019, 4:00 pm

Playing With Fire

California’s fire season is quickly approaching, and as New York magazine argued this week, it may never end. In the cover story, climate reporter David Wallace-Wells describes the fires that devastated greater Los Angeles last year as “a portent of something new”: by mid-century, the “area burned each year by forest fires across the western United States will at least double, and perhaps quadruple.” Not only are these fires growing, they’ve become more terrifying than ever before. “They’re producing not just firestorms but fire tornadoes,” Wallace-Wells writes, “in which the heat can be so intense it can pull steel shipping containers right into the furnace of the blaze.”

Wallace-Wells’s report focuses on the aftermath of the Woolsey Fire, which burned close to a hundred thousand acres of the spectacular hills that press Malibu up against the Pacific. Though the sheer size of the fire took Southern California by surprise, it is hardly the only blaze to have threatened Malibu in recent decades. “Since 1970,” Wallace-Wells writes, “the city has endured 57 fires of more than 5,000 acres.” The force lurking behind these bouts of devastation is, of course, climate change—not that such knowledge makes the fires any easier to contain. As Los Angeles mayor Eric Garcetti says in the piece, “To turn the corner on something like global warming, it’s like grasping at clouds. You’ll never hold it.”

This sort of dramatic fatalism is all too common in climate reporting, harkening back to an era when natural disasters were described as “acts of God.” In his report, Wallace-Wells gestures at a future where people have made peace with their inability to address the spiraling effects of emissions, and instead seek only to “endure in a world increasingly defined by the brutality of climate change by normalizing that suffering as quickly as warming produces it.” His message is stark: climate change is here, and life as we know it is over. True enough, but what gets lost is the fact that the suffering promised by climate change has as much to do with societal inequality as it does with the wrath of nature.

Remember, this is Malibu. “No one I spoke with who lost a home expected a long reprieve from fire,” Wallace-Wells writes, “but all planned on rebuilding anyway.” A prime reason he cites for such pertinacity is financial: were these residents to leave, they would forfeit substantial insurance payouts, including some “generous enough” that the homeowners “can talk, with some guilt, of erecting ‘dream homes’ from the burn scar.”

If suffering is to be normalized, I suppose it helps to be a multimillionaire. Meanwhile, poor residents of South Florida are struggling to preserve their livelihoods against not only the approaching sea, but the rich South Beach denizens it’s driving inland. Last year in The Believer, the journalist and poet Mario Alejandro Ariza reported on Miami’s ineffective response to “a future sea-level rise of several feet,” which would erase the beach, cause “constant flooding,” and transform at least one neighborhood into “a wastewater-infused bog.” He details activists’ efforts to push Miami-Dade County to invest “the billions of dollars it will take to successfully adapt an urban region of seven million people to frequent, unstoppable sunny-day flooding,” as well as to address the more immediate concern of what one of his subjects, a Haitian-American community organizer who goes by Vee, describes as “climate gentrification.”

The economic dynamics Ariza describes border on the surreal: because many of Miami’s poorest neighborhoods occupy the city’s high ground, speculators have begun buying up properties they hope to eventually flip to refugees from oceanfront condos. Compounding the problem is the extreme heat, which forces many of the people Vee works with to spend their summers deciding whether to make rent on time or pay monthly electricity bills that can reach two thousand dollars.

Clearly, for folks on either coast, the story of climate change is also a story about extreme wealth disparity. How reporters acknowledge this can go a long way in determining the reader’s sense of scope. Wallace-Wells writes of Angelenos who once drove “past the same flickering flames along the 405 and thought, California,” now seeing them and thinking “Climate change”—suggesting the most lasting effect of the fires has been cerebral. Ariza, on the other hand, equates what is happening in Miami to “trauma,” how it “often makes you vulnerable forever, no matter which socioeconomic group you belong to.” In many ways, the differences between Wallace-Wells and Ariza’s articles come down to the communities they’re profiling, but it’s not like these places were picked out of a hat—the first and most fundamental choice a reporter makes is what to cover.

Of course, wildfires and sea level rise are only two of the innumerable symptoms of climate change. A new United Nations-backed panel report found that “as many as one million plant and animal species are now at risk of extinction,” as the New York Times put it. To ballast the heady topline conclusion, the Times gave specific examples of what these mass die-offs would entail for humans, like that “the decline of wild bees and other insects… is putting up to $577 billion in annual crop production at risk.” In a Times “Insider” note about the article, the writer pointed out that many scientists now feel it is necessary to “quantify in dollar terms all the benefits that nature provides to humanity, in order to make an economic case for conservation.” The reporter explains that he then mirrored that strategy, an attempt to “appeal more forcefully to humanity’s own naked self-interest.”

However calculated that seems, quantifying climate change in such a way is a strong method of guarding against total fatalism. Not that it works for everyone—the dollars-and-cents case didn’t seem to resonate with Times columnist Margaret Renkle, who wrote on Monday, “Devastation on this scale is beyond the reach of imagination.” She bemoans her lack of power to reclaim “soil degraded by industrial farming” or persuade “equatorial countries to protect their rain forests,” but finds comfort in what little earthly real estate she does control: her garden. “I can make my yard a haven for insects,” she writes, “I can keep my yard free from chemicals and let the wildflowers go to seed.”

Renkl’s op-ed, like Wallace-Wells’s reporting, plays into the notion that climate change is an inexorable force, one that ordinary people cannot hope to address. However blinkered Renkl’s reasoning, she’s hardly alone in turning inward after reading warnings like the Times’ that “piecemeal efforts to protect individual species or to set up wildlife refuges will no longer be sufficient.” But what if the media dwelled, instead, on the quantifiable? By foregrounding the financial costs of climate change, reporters could expose outright submission as a luxury reserved for the select few—those with the resources to preserve a comfortable standard of living no matter what natural disasters intrude. Perhaps the residents of Malibu have decided they’re willing to endure regular wildfires in exchange for ocean views—and why not, since they can off-load the cost onto insurers? Meanwhile, those sweltering in Little Haiti can’t even afford air-conditioning.

“There’s a difference between doing something and doing nothing,” Renkl writes. But that “something” should be more than gardening, or embracing the “bargain” Wallace-Wells describes that places “intuitions of doom alongside everything beautiful the world has to offer.” Renkl thinks only of herself; Wallace-Wells focuses on the aggregate. In between, though, there’s space for reporting like Ariza’s, reporting that details the efforts ordinary people go to when coping with an existential threat.

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More from Kyle Paoletta:

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