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Climate Regionalism Is Stupid

Oh, you were into wildfire smoke before it got cool?

An argument amidst thick smoke.
Heatmap Illustration/Getty Images

This is how the climate apocalypse arrives: In a haze of smoke, petulance, and tribalism.

Let’s start with the obvious: Social media can be a cesspool in the best of times. And for folks in New York City, this week is not the best of times — they’re choking on smoke from Canadian forest fires, struggling to breath, or even see the city’s major landmarks very well. It’s the worst wildfire pollution event in U.S. history, one that will almost certainly leave a trail of excess deaths in its wake.

Naturally, a few folks took to Twitter to mock the media coverage — and New Yorkers for whining.

Some complained that the media is too East Coast-centric. (OK, there’s often some truth to that.) That nobody really pays attention when California or Colorado or other places west of the Mississippi face similar emergencies. (Not true.) That New York’s experience is no big deal. (Reallynot true.)

“I care very deeply about our collective lungs and, broadly, the state of the planet,” Politico’s Megan Messerly wrote on Twitter, “but there is not nearly as much interest in wildfires and their impact on air quality when they are hurting the West or anywhere else outside of the D.C. and New York media bubble.” The media, she suggested, “should care more about wildfires everywhere, all the time.”

“Zero shade for the New Yorkers dealing with this — it’s awful — but it's wild to see the way East Coast media is suddenly doing wall-to-wall coverage of something that's been reality on the West Coast for a decade,” added the Salem Report’s Rachel Alexander, who linked to a New York Times article that was first published last year before the East Coast was affected by wild fires.

“California lives in near-permanent fire-and-smoke crisis and it barely rates New York covered in haze from fires for two days and it consumes Twitter like the end times,” Australian writer Neil McMahon wrote. “Guess where all the journalists and big newsrooms are.”

These were among the more thoughtful comments. You won’t be surprised to learn there were a few snarky posts as well.

How to respond?

We can start by agreeing that climate change is one of the biggest challenges facing the entire world, and there can never be enough coverage of its effects and all the ways — and places — human life is becoming more difficult as a result. Heck, that’s why the publication you’re reading exists.

But the Twitter commentary is also a troubling signal of what might lie ahead.

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  • As climate change gathers momentum, we’re likely to see a growing number of petty and not-so-petty scraps over who has it worse, who needs more help. Why isn’t my problem getting more attention? Why are they getting all these resources? And the consequences will be more meaningful than the irritation sparked by a few social media throwdowns.

    Climate change is a “catalyst for conflict,” the United Nations says in an explainer on the topic. The livable parts of the planet are being pushed away from the equator and toward the poles, which suggests there will be more people competing for shrinking shares of land, food and water in the spaces that remain. Already, the U.N. notes, “droughts in Africa and Latin America directly feed into political unrest and violence.”

    The United States won’t be exempt — if Americans can’t live in Phoenix, they’ll have to move somewhere. Indeed, we’re seeing the effects already: Immigration is one of the most-divisive issues in American politics right now, and it’s driven to a large extent by climate refugees fleeing places in Central America that are too hot and too poor for many migrants to remain and thrive. That trend is only going to become more pronounced.

    Some Americans want to welcome those refugees. Others want to build a wall. And some see the clash as an opportunity to build their own power.

    Just think what our politics might look like 10 or 20 years from now.

    We humans are excellent at drawing us-versus-them lines, and that’s never more true than when times get bad. Intramural squabbles are natural in times of emergency — but they can also be a diversion from facing and fixing the broader forces that got us to this point. Wall-to-wall New York Times coverage of the city’s smoke crisis isn’t reallythe big problem here.

    Maybe a few Twitter comments about that crisis don’t actually mean all that much. Or maybe social media is the canary in the climate crisis coal mine — a harbinger of harder, meaner, more selfish times to come.

    Read more about the wildfire smoke engulfing the East Coast:

    The 5 Big Questions About the 2023 Wildfire Smoke Crisis

    Wednesday Was the Worst Day for Wildfire Pollution in U.S. History

    When There’s Smoke, Getting Indoors Isn’t Enough

    How Many People Will This Smoke Kill?

    Nowhere Is ‘Climate Proof’

    Joel Mathis profile image

    Joel Mathis

    Joel Mathis is a freelance writer who lives in Lawrence, Kansas with his wife and son. He spent nine years as a syndicated columnist, co-writing the RedBlueAmerica column as the liberal half of a point-counterpoint duo. His honors include awards for best online commentary from the Online News Association and (twice) from the City and Regional Magazine Association.


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