May 11, 2020
Climate Change: Do You Need to See it to Believe It?
An artistic representation of a deer standing on the precipice of its past life in a lush, thriving forest v.s. its future in a dry, hollow desert with staggering dead treesSource: Adobe Stock
Bodies of water dry up before our eyes. Temperatures rise and the heat grazes our skin. We hear the calls of stray wildlife forced out of their natural homes by land development in our backyards. We can smell toxic pollutants and have learned to idolize “fresh air.” Contaminants slither into our rivers and we ingest them through dishes of fish delicacies.
Climate change is happening all around us, and yet, many individuals surveyed during the 2012 to 2016 California droughts felt the situation and climate change were a “distant” problem that didn’t directly affect them.
“Even in more directly affected places, there was often reference to the drought having a greater impact ‘elsewhere’ in the State,” the study explains.
The 2012 to 2016 California Drought
California is characterized by five distinct types of climate, “desert,” “cool interior,” “highland,” “steppe climate,” and “mediterranean climate,” says an Atlas of Biodiversity in California study.
Southern California is hot and dry, contrasting the cool, rainy, and snowy elevated regions of the state.
Overall, the 2012 to 2016 California drought was marked by “greatly diminished precipitation, snowpack, streamflow, and higher temperatures,” says a 2018 Journal of Water Resources Planning and Management study.
“Water shortages to forests, aquatic ecosystems, hydroelectric power plants, rural drinking water supplies, agriculture, and cities caused billions of dollars in economic losses, killed millions of forest trees, brought several fish species closer to extinction, and caused inconvenience and some expense to millions of households and businesses.”
The drought period was abnormally dry and warm, and these warmer temperatures accounted for up to 25 percent of the moisture deficit in soil, reduced snowpack, and increased river temperatures.
“The 2012 to 2016 drought was broad and deep enough to test all water management sectors in California,” the study adds. “Areas with the most severe impacts, in rough economic order, were agriculture, forests, hydropower, rural groundwater supplies, recreation, protected fisheries management, and cities.”
In addition to $3.8 billion in agricultural losses and $600 million in costs to pump extra water throughout the state, this drought saw the death of 102 million forest trees.
“These millions of dead trees in California’s forests has implications for wildfires, erosion, and public safety,” the study explains.
This drought period brought about long-term environmental and economic changes. It has also affected water management in California and how the state will plan for future droughts.
Californians’ Attitudes Towards the 2012 to 2016 California Drought
Lake Shasta lays barren during California’s 2015 droughtSource: Adobe Stock
Although the 2012 to 2016 California drought had detrimental statewide impacts, many individuals reported feeling they weren’t directly affected by it, a 2020 Weather and Climate Extremes study demonstrates.
71 people were interviewed on the street, in public places, and via email between Sept. 25 to Dec. 8, 2015. Researchers asked the interviewees whether they were affected by the drought, what they thought caused it, and if they felt it was linked to climate change.
Many participants based their views on whether the drought’s impacts were normal or not by comparing the effects to their past experiences.
For example, a woman felt the lack of snow in the mountainous regions of eastern California was abnormal. Whereas a man who had migrated to Los Angeles said other locals were “used to not having water, as it had always been transported into the city from elsewhere.”
“It’s weird, when you talk to people that have lived here all their lives,” he said to the researchers. “They’re kinda like, ‘yeah, whatever’ … ‘we’ve never had water’ … It just never rains here, and they’re used to that and they get their water somewhere else and always have … If you look around, there’s nothing different.”
Observation in changing landscape were common among individuals who lived in more rural areas, where as city residents sometimes described the changes in weather.
“In larger cities, people seemed more likely to mention learning about the drought through the media than from direct experience,” the study continues. “… Although people had been asked to reduce their water usage, some people in the city didn’t describe this mandate as a significant way in which the drought affected them.”
Many city residents in California felt their lives were continuing on as normal, and as a result, felt “isolated” from the drought. Others felt they didn’t understand the “seriousness” of the situation or only had an “intellectual awareness” of it.
Even in the cooler, wetter eastern regions of California, residents took note of the drought’s impact but some still felt it was probably worse in other parts of the state.
Yet, several individuals said the drought changes were scary, especially when referring to the lack of snow or depleting water levels in Lake Shasta.
While some individuals spoke of the situation with a tinge of optimism, others discussed the political dimensions of the drought.
“Some participants felt the severity of the drought was exaggerated and used by politicians for ulterior motives, although they did not argue that the drought was being ‘made up,'” the study says.
There were some communities that were severely impacted by the drought, yet they seemed to receive less attention.
“For example, there were low-income, mostly Latina/o, farm-working communities in the Central Valley who had actually run out of water,” the study states. “… Further, one of the springs that was running dry seasonally is a sacred site for one of the Native American tribes.”
One of the interviewees described how the drought led to decreased salmon populations near the tribe and how salmon extinction would lead to cultural changes for those communities.
A protestor holds a sign that reads, “Ask not what your planet can do for you. Ask what you can do for your planet.”Source: Pexels
While statistical data can inform us of how climate change is impacting the environment, interviews such as the ones in the study above shine light on how individuals perceive climate change.
Taking action to save life on Earth requires a unified effort on behalf of mankind. However, it’s difficult to expect socio-political changes to occur if entire communities are rationalizing extreme climate events or dismissing them as “exaggerated.”
The economic and environmental impacts of the 2012 to 2016 California drought are statistically indisputable. But personal perceptions of the impacts are heavily shaped by the individual’s experiences and media consumption.
“While media representations do not determine public response to climate change or drought, many people do rely on media coverage to make sense of the complexities of climate change,” the Weather and Climate Extremes study notes. “Accordingly, it is important to acknowledge the widespread reach and potential sway the media can hold.”
For example, one of the individuals surveyed said they only knew of the drought because of what they had seen in the media. They “personally didn’t feel anything different,” and said they believe there’s a drought, but hadn’t been affected by it.
Climate change has diverse consequences and thus warrants diverse responses. On a scientific level, continuing to research the impacts and predict future trends is essential to formulating effective public response.
On a socio-political level, conversations on climate change need to continue to help raise awareness and foster a widespread understanding of what’s at stake if we as a species don’t take action.
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