Last weekend a sudden wildfire near Perpignan in the French Pyrenees burned through 500 hectares of land, destroying a campsite and causing 2,000 people to be evacuated before finally being brought under control. According to a government minister, a combination of intense heat, dryness and very high winds added to the speed and impact of the fire, which, fortunately, did not kill anyone.
It was a smaller-scale and far less devastating version of the disastrous fire that destroyed the historic town and tourist centre of Lahaina on the Hawaiian island of Maui a few days earlier. There the death toll is over 111 and rising, with many still unaccounted for. The direct cause is not known but may have been trees brought down over power lines in near-hurricane-force winds. Contributing factors were heat, the tinder-dryness of invasive grasses that had replaced sugarcane cultivation in the area and the failure of fire hydrant water supplies at a crucial stage.
The Lahaina disaster is the latest impact of climate breakdown to affect a rich country, following the fires in early summer in Greece. The loss of life was actually much higher in the scarcely reported disaster across the Mediterranean in Algeria, where recent fires have killed at least 34 people, injured hundreds and displaced thousands.
Elsewhere in the Global North, the direct impact of climate breakdown is becoming unavoidable, whether last year’s heat dome in western Canada, the more recent hurricane-force storm in Nova Scotia, the Texas/Mexico heat dome, and fears over the risk of massive wildfires in Australia as the fire season looms.
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All of these are small scale compared to the far greater problems affecting the Global South, but these get reported in Western states only when they are especially grievous, such as the Pakistan floods last year. As UNICEF reported six months after those floods:
“It will take months, if not years, for families to recover from the sheer scale of the devastation. The floods affected 33 million people, while more than 1,700 lives were lost and more than 2.2 million houses damaged or destroyed. The floods damaged most of the water systems in affected areas, forcing more than 5.4 million people, including 2.5 million children, to rely solely on contaminated water from ponds and wells.”
The greater long-term concern is with the increasing impact of global heating on food production, leading to specific regional and district shortages, mostly affecting the poorest communities.
This is one reason for the increasingly impatient voices coming from politicians in the Global South, such as Mia Mottley of Barbados. They repeatedly point out that while the Lahaina fire might rightly gain wide media coverage, such media treatment is minimal when it comes to generic problems, especially in southern Asia and Africa, even though centuries of fossil carbon burning across the North is their primary cause.
An immediate point stemming from the Lahaina fire is whether that and all the other effects now being felt are having a cumulative impact on the public mood in wealthy countries. An obvious question, then, is whether this will prove enough to force radical changes in government policy. Given the huge lobbying power of the fossil carbon industries this is still unlikely. Those powerful vested interests are all too often intent on making as much money out of burning fossil carbon as possible before the public mood in many northern states changes.
But (and it is a major ‘but’) change is happening, faster than many realise, and usefully illustrated by the evolving attitudes seen in the US state of Oklahoma, especially around the oil city of Tulsa. There, a small settlement on the Arkansas river was the site of an oil well drilled in 1901. It proved the first of a string of successful wells that led to an extraordinary boom over the next 30 years, with Tulsa growing into the so-called ‘oil capital of the world’. It was also the site of the 1921 Tulsa race massacre, possibly the worst in US history, when a prosperous black community was the target of a white mob that killed hundreds and wrecked the community.
The white politics of Tulsa, and to a large extent Oklahoma, is decidedly right-wing Republican and deeply pro-business, but in recent years the city has embraced a potential post-oil business environment, part of a more general development in US business practice, and quite probably part of a global change.
In Tulsa a $1bn plant for manufacturing solar panels is under construction, an electric school bus factory is up and running, and the city’s main energy utility already gets close to a third of its electricity from wind turbines – all this in the oil capital of the world! That change is repeated across the United States, whatever the local or regional politics. According to The New York Times, “About two-thirds of the investment in clean energy is in Republican-controlled states, where policymakers have historically resisted renewables. But with each passing month, the politics seem to matter less than the economics.”
This is hardly surprising – since 2009 the price of electricity generated from wind has fallen by more than half and solar power by 83%, while lithium-ion battery cells have declined in cost by 97% in the past 30 years. Global investment in renewables is expected to hit $1.7trn this year compared with $1tr for fossil carbon, the New York Times reported.
The move to renewables is happening much faster than appreciated, but whether it is sufficient is still open to doubt. Electricity is a major source of energy in a country such as the UK, but it still makes up barely a third of all energy used, so massive progress really needs to be made, not just in the UK but right across the Global North by 2030.
If that happens then there is a chance that the worst excesses of climate breakdown can be avoided. If not, then the 2030s will be a very rough decade, but change is possible and all is still to play for.
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