My World's on Fire

By Colleen Hagerty

By any other name


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My World's on Fire
By any other name
By Colleen Hagerty • Issue #96 • View online
Thanks for reading My World’s on Fire, a newsletter about disasters from journalist Colleen Hagerty. Let’s make this a regular thing – subscribe here for disaster deep-dives, Q&As, and context in your inbox on Thursday evenings.

If you’ve been following the floods in Montana, wildfires in New Mexico, or heat waves all across the US, you might have come across the phrase “climate disaster.” It’s become the go-to term for a number of media outlets and politicians alike, a sort of catch-all to replace “natural disasters” when describing hurricanes, wildfires, flooding, heat, and other hazard-driven happenings. 
Now, if you’re a longtime subscriber, you might have an idea of where this is headed.
I’ve written a few times about the language used to describe disasters, sharing perspectives from frontline communities and experts about why they believe it’s important to pay attention to these terms. As historian Andy Horowitz memorably said to me on the subject, “If you are homeless because of a flood, you get disaster relief. If you’re homeless because your mortgage is underwater, you do not get disaster relief. What gets defined as a disaster matters in direct, material, life and death, high-stakes ways.”
So, when an editor at KCET came to me a few months ago wanting to dig into “climate disasters,” I enlisted a varied mix of experts to share their thoughts. The article, which you can click on below, includes insights from a professional in the nonprofit sector, a sociologist, a climate scientist, an urban planning scholar, and an environmental engineering researcher.
Climate Change Is a Component of Disasters — but That’s Not the Whole Story | KCET
Throughout the piece, I tried to connect the language back to the tangible, real-world disaster of extreme heat to show how language can shape the way we see such events. (Who knew it would end up being so timely.)
Daniel Swain, a climate scientist at UCLA’s Institute of the Environment and Sustainability and the voice behind the Weather West blog, offered one example that was too long to fit in the final piece, but luckily, we have no such limits here:
“Say you’re in Los Angeles. Climate change is going to dramatically increase the severity and likelihood of really bad heat waves, but that doesn’t necessarily have to hurt more people if you’ve designed the city to accommodate people living in a hotter world. 
For example, if you’ve upgraded the electrical grid to accommodate it so you don’t have blackouts. If you ensure that people have access to cooling because a lot of people do not. If you ensure that outdoor workers and people who live outdoors have easy access to ways to avoid the worst impacts of these extreme heat events. Or if you’ve designed cities with more green spaces, or, you know, LA’s painting some of the streets white in the suburbs.
I mean, these sorts of things, some of them are more effective than others— obviously, I don’t think that painting the streets white is going to really solve the underlying problem—but you can start to chip away at the edges, and if you approach it from a bunch of different dimensions, all of a sudden you’re doing more than just chipping away at the edges. And so you’re really actively counterbalancing the climate-caused increase in risk if you can decrease the societal vulnerability.”
You can hear more from Swain and the other experts I mentioned above in the article on KCET. But I also wanted to share some replies I got when I asked about the phrase on Twitter (a chaotic but helpful early step in my reporting), as I thought it received an interesting mix of ideas:
Andrew Rumbach
@colleenhagerty I don't know. In my small professional corner I don't like the way it divides and has us re-treading the same ground. In the larger world of shaping public opinion, it lends urgency to climate change discussions and helps frame some of what is at stake. So I don't know.
Andrew Rumbach
@colleenhagerty Another way of saying the second part...there has been terrific journalism the past few years on disasters - thoroughly reported, paying attention to the long-term structural issues producing vulnerability, etc. Would these stories have been possible without 'climate disaster'?
houston climate houser
@colleenhagerty I strongly dislike the therm natural disaster for the same reason as @SamLMontano, but find myself using the phrase climate disaster in my sphere of practice (Texas) to drive home the fact that there’s indeed a relationship between climate change and acute experiences of hazards
Michele Barbato
@colleenhagerty Personally, I think it is inaccurate and misleading, similar to natural disaster, which may be even worse. We have “natural hazards”, but it is our human tendency of underestimate/neglect the vulnerability of our built environment that causes the disasters.
Jean Slick Ph.D.
@colleenhagerty I think climate change crisis would be a better term, a crisis has three elements: threat, urgency, uncertainty. You can then talk about climate change in relation to each of the 3 elements.
I hope you’ll read the article, and, after you do, join this conversation. Here is the start of the thread on Twitter—I look forward to hearing your thoughts!
As always...
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This week’s subscriber shout out goes to Alex Steffen! Thank you so much for sharing MWOF on social media:
Alex Steffen
Zombie fires are right on the Zeitgeist.

“The Calf Canyon Fire was caused by a pile burn holdover from January that remained dormant under the surface through three winter snow events before reemerging in April...”
Now, here’s a little something for reading to the end.
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