Has extreme weather altered people's attitude towards climate change?

Recent events show that we cannot take anything for granted when it comes to global warming

Screens show firefighters battling a wildfire in the US. AP
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The beginning of May is when brush clearance inspections start for the city of Los Angeles with an eye on the start of the wildfire season. Firefighters advise residents to trim weeds and grass as well as the bottoms of bushes and trees to reduce the amount of fuel available should a blaze begin. Minimum clearances around properties are also checked. A failed inspection could cost more than $2,000 in fines and fees.

Although 2024 is not forecast to be as severe for wildfires in North America as the blazes of previous years, the memory of infernos, burning skylines and dangerous, smoke-filled air is enough to have everyone preparing for the worst.

The most obvious example of such destruction was in 2018, when celebrities including Neil Young, Kim Basinger, Miley Cyrus and Gerard Butler were among those whose homes were burned amid the thousands of fires that hit southern and northern California, including Malibu.

TV images of famous locations going up in clouds of smoke, as well as the raging orange glow overwhelming once-picturesque landscapes, came across as apocalyptic. The people and land of California endured but a huge price was paid.

University researchers have estimated that the economic cost from the 2018 wildfires was about $148.5 billion, which equates to about 1.5 per cent of the state’s annual gross domestic product. There were $32.2 billion in health costs and indirect losses because of disruption to 80 sectors valued at $42.7 billion. The knock-on effect on the wider US economy was estimated at $45.9 billion as a result of the impact on national supply chains.

“We were able to sketch a more comprehensive picture about economic losses due to the wildfires, but we cannot measure people’s psychological trauma and other social impact, and I am sure that is more profound than the economic cost,” said Dabo Guan, a professor of climate change economics and chair of University College London’s Bartlett School of Construction and Project Management.

Climate change has, together with rising populations and economic growth, increased the consequences from more frequent wildfires. The response to such disasters has not always been adequate. These have included poor communications, lax land and forest management and substandard fire-suppression efforts, as well as flawed decision making.

Since 2018, fire prevention strategies in California have become more targeted. Tactics such as intentional blackouts have become the norm and prevention is being taken increasingly seriously as demonstrated by the fines for failing a property inspection.

The state has always been a resilient place. The reality of being located on the San Andreas Fault has meant that people and businesses based in California have had to accept a higher threshold of risk to be based there. The psychology of this presents a strange dichotomy. An online search for why businesses set up in California when there are earthquakes and wildfires offers results about resilience, preparedness and warning systems. So why even be there?

Ironically, the state’s weather is famously pleasant all year round. It has a relentless PR machine that doesn’t stop in Hollywood. It has been the fifth largest economy in the world since 2017, one place below Japan and one above India. On a per capita basis, California is the second largest economy in the world.

Agriculture, film and television, technology, and tourism are some of California’s biggest sectors. Finance and insurance too. The rewards on offer are considerable and you can take your business to the world from there. Just ask Disney - or aviation companies. Archer and Joby, for example, which are planning to bring air taxis to the UAE, are introducing the next phase of autonomous mobility. They are both California-based companies.

The state is home to 40 million people and an estimated 18,237 foreign-owned businesses were operating there, according to 2022 figures.

However, California does have some major problems aside from the risk of natural disasters. These include a huge inequality problem and a homelessness crisis. Its high taxes and cost of living, as well as a demanding regulatory environment, are also challenging features. Nevertheless, its economic diversity and consumer base make it a highly resilient place, attracting foreign direct investment year after year.

The example of California thriving amid its environmental threats offers an argument for other regions to explore the best defences against the long-term effects associated with climate change and extreme weather. The answer might be to ensure that you are never not on the front foot.

One aspect of an offence first posture is to ensure policies promote a diversified economy and support and attract entrepreneurs, innovators and talent. Add to this the advantage of a multilingual, multicultural and internationally minded workforce, helped by a world-class education system featuring high levels of research and development.

Taken together, some of the above sound a lot like the characteristics being developed in the UAE, where the last few weeks have also shown us – like California’s wildfires – that we cannot take anything for granted when it comes to global warming.

Record rainfall and related flooding could well be a more frequent feature in this region. As well as strengthening precautions and preparedness, boosting emergency responses and communication, and ensuring that infrastructure can cope, an adaptable and resilient economy is also important to ensure a country can cope with such risks and prosper for years to come.

Published: May 03, 2024, 7:00 AM