This year, we had the largest forest fires ever seen in history in California. And we had terrible forest fires in Greece, Portugal, and Scandinavia. Climate scientists were quick in stating that these fires were made more likely and more severe by global warming, but you don’t need to be a climate scientist to understand that higher temperatures mean drier conditions and more fires.
Then, if you live, as I do, in a bubble in the memesphere where climate change is regarded as a serious and imminent problem, you surely had the impression that the fires of this summer was an important factor in affecting the perception of the general public. All that sound and fury couldn’t signify nothing, right? I saw several self-congratulatory messages in the meme bubble stating something like, “now they will start understanding the problem of climate change!”
Alas, that’s not true. The results are starkly clear: there is NO evidence of an increased public interest in global warming as a result of the fires. Below, you can see the results of a search on Google Trends for the United States. These data record the number of times that a certain term was searched on the Google Search Engine.
Note how the interest in the term “wildfires” spikes up in correspondence with major wildfire events. You can see in the graph the three California fires of 2017, August, October, and November. You can also see the rising interest in the 2018 fires. But climate change? No detectable effect. At best, a very minor increase, not even compensating for the decline generated by the Trump administration starting to use deception by omission. (note how the spike in interest in climate change in 2017 is the result of Trump’s announcement that the US would withdraw from the Paris treaty). Other countries showed the same pattern: I could detect some rising interest in climate during the 2018 fire season only in France, in Germany, and in some other countries of central Europe. A minor effect, anyway.
All that is nothing less than stunning. We had this big disaster, fires everywhere, giant columns of smoke, incinerated buildings, all pointing directly to global warming. Of course, it is possible to argue that there are other factors that caused the fires, but at least you would think that people would have been stimulated to look over the Web on the subject. Instead, nothing, zero, null, zilch, nada. No detectable rise in interest in climate change despite the fires. People just didn’t make the connection.
So, what’s happening? One of the problems is that the media didn’t emphasize the climate factor in causing the fires. The many articles published on the subject normally contained a few sentences about the effects of climate change buried somewhere in the text, but the subject never appeared in the title and was never emphasized in the summaries. But it was not a conspiracy of the media: simply, they found that mentioning climate change in the news about the fires was a “palpable ratings killer.” So, the media had no interest in diffusing a subject that the public found uninteresting and the public found the subject uninteresting because it was not diffused by the media. It is a damping feedback which is gradually marginalizing climate change to the status of a non-problem. (see this post on Cassandra’s Legacy and this article).
In the end, the problem is that we have a wrong model for how to generate action against climate change. We tend to think that, as the change becomes more evident in the form of major disasters, people will take notice and that will force politicians and opinion leaders to do something. That’s not happening. We are having giant fires, scorching heatwaves, and droughts, besides, of course, rising temperatures. But people don’t care if they are not directly affected and, if they are, they have other priorities than worrying about climate change. The bottom-up model of diffusion of the climate change meme is simply not working.
So, what do we need? One thing that can be said is that no major environmental problem was ever solved by means of a bottom-up meme diffusion mechanism: refrigerator owners never pushed for their CFC refrigerating fluid to be replaced with non-ozone depleting fluids. Instead, manufacturers were forced by law to stop their production of CFCs. We need to find a way to go in that direction in order to stop greenhouse emissions, hoping that it is not too late.
As a further note, during this year’s fire season, I published a comment on an Italian newspaper on the fires in Greece, trying to highlight the connection with climate change. The result was discouraging: most commenters angrily disagreed with me and much preferred a conspiracy theory that attributed the fires to “arsonists.” It seems that not only people can’t see the connection between forest fires and climate change, they become positively angry when it is pointed out to them.