UCI Experts On: Global warming
- March 25, 2022
- Eve Darian-Smith, professor and chair of global and international studies at UC Irvine, breaks down the role political and economic decisions play in our world’s mounting climate crisis
Out-of-control fires burning around the world are rising in frequency and intensity each year. How and why is this happening? The scientific answer is that this is a result of escalating greenhouse-gas emissions. But this process didn’t just happen on its own – it is not some inevitable scenario.
In our latest episode of the UCI School of Social Sciences Experts On series, Eve Darian-Smith, professor and chair of global and international studies at UC Irvine breaks down the role political and economic decisions play in our world’s mounting climate crisis.
Her new book, Global Burning: Rising Antidemocracy and the Climate Crisis, explores the causes and consequences of catastrophic wildfires that have been burning in both the northern and southern hemispheres, and which disproportionately impact poor and marginalized communities.
“I use the fires that burned in Australia, Brazil and the US from 2018-21 as a lens through which to explore the bigger issue of global climate change, one that includes a range of issues such as toxic pollution, megadroughts, rising seas, and the massive destruction of biodiversity around the world,” she says. “These fires can be interpreted as an omen of ecological collapse as temperatures rise, glaciers melt, and oceans warm. In the words of Greta Thunberg, the Swedish environmental activist and global leader on fighting climate change, ‘our house is on fire.’”
So what do we do? First, she explains that we need to understand how climate change is connected to politics and economics.
“We need to acknowledge that the upswing in wildfires is linked to neoliberal policies and the acceleration of extractive capitalism – mining, deforestation, agrobusiness and so on. And we must also analyze the connection between catastrophic fires and the ultranationalist, antidemocratic, extreme right leaders who are taking hold of governments around the world. This wave of leaders ignore, deny, excuse, and in some cases actively encourage the burning of unique ecological systems that affect animals and people directly in the name of economic progress.”
Her book focuses on bushfires burning in Brazil, Australia, and California in the U.S. because they share striking similarities in the scale of their devastation, and common features in terms of why they occurred, who they impact most, and what they suggest about a global pattern of devastating firestorms and the political conditions that foster them. Importantly, all three countries claim to be liberal democratic societies, with Brazil and the U.S. being two of the biggest democracies in the world in terms of population. They are all also among the richest countries in the world - the US is ranked number 1, Brazil as number 9, and Australia as number 14. And so it is reasonable to expect that their governments could provide adequate firefighting equipment and resources to stop widespread death and destruction. However, this is not the case, she explains.
“Millions of acres of bushland have burned, billions of animals have been incinerated, and untold numbers of human lives lost. Notably, between 2018 and 2020 these three countries were led by pro-business political leaders—Trump, Bolsonaro and Morrison —who were elected to power on ultranationalist policies that lean heavily toward being antidemocratic and authoritarian. Interestingly, all three leaders are skeptical of climate-change science, calling it a hoax promoted by environmental activists, scientists, and academics.”
“We urgently need to ask what are the connections between catastrophic fires and these radically conservative governments that explicitly prioritize corporate interests over ordinary citizens. Why did these leaders blatantly block, disregard, or dismantle environmental protection laws and the regulatory agencies that enforce them? And why is this happening when consensus on climate science is almost universal, and most people around the world understand that humanity is facing some form of ecological collapse?”
Turning around the escalating climate crisis requires enormous efforts by everyone. But it is especially important that those wielding global power, such as the political leaders of rich carbon-emitting countries, take a leadership role.
“As we work together, analyzing wildfires through a global lens is essential because fires and toxic smoke are not contained by national borders,” she says. Satellite images show smoke from the Brazilian fires in 2020 blanketing South America and rising high into the atmosphere, to be seen from outer space. Similarly, raging wildfires across the Arctic region in 2021 sent smoke across the northern hemisphere into Canada and North America.
“We must think with and through fires - moving beyond our conventional nation-bound worldview. Conceptualizing fires as inter-continental phenomena blurs boundaries between lands, seas, and atmospheres. It underscores the need to connect what is happening in local communities coping with fire on the ground to global forces beyond what most of us can recognize or even understand,” she says.
“Conceptually and practically, this means we must connect the global political economy – and its relentless drive for profit – with what is happening to ordinary people as they wake up in the morning breathing thick smoke and listening fearfully for evacuation warnings. This calls for a new kind of global consciousness that pushes back against the dominant individualism and selfish nationalism of our modern era and recognizes humanity’s collective planetary future.”