Georgia dodges disaster in a “tipping point” summer
By Tom Baxter
At summer’s end, Georgians have a lot to be thankful for, though most of us may not know it.
The Washington Post reported Saturday that 32 percent of Americans live in counties which have been declared disaster areas over the past three months. Earlier this year, eight Georgia counties got federal emergency declarations after a wave of spring tornadoes struck the state, but we’ve been spared the worst of a summer of devastating weather-related disasters.
Hurricanes, floods and forest fires have dominated the evening news, but by far the greatest number of deaths — estimated at 800 as of July — were the result of the unprecedented heat wave which sent temperatures into triple digits in the Pacific Northwest and Canada. A lot of people who had never needed air conditioning simply died in their homes, with no dramatic news footage to mark their passage.
Georgia’s coast lies more westward than its neighbors, giving some protection from Atlantic storms, and this year Ida, the big Gulf Coast hurricane, swept lightly by the state on its way to more havoc in the Northeast. The rain we got may even have helped prevent the conditions which caused forest fires elsewhere.
But as people in central Tennessee and New York City learned this summer, the map of where disasters can happen has expanded dramatically, and sooner or later it will affect us more directly.
There used to be a newspaper maxim that one murder in your home town was as big a story as 10 in your state, and so on. It’s more complicated than that, especially in the internet age, but the truth that underlies that formula continues to have a big effect on how the news about climate and weather is being reported.
Stories that happen in New York and Washington generally trump the rules of distance, so Hurricane Henri, which pounded the East Coast with no direct fatalities, received greater notice than the flash flood which killed 22 people around Waverly, Tenn. There is more than the death toll which makes this the bigger story: this level of flooding in Central Tennessee is so rare the government has no records with which to compare it.
It’s also usually the case that the next murder is less news than the first one, at least until quite a few more have accumulated. This is especially true when the distance rule is also at play. You may have seen a few stories earlier in the summer about the big flood in Germany and Belgium, maybe even the fires in Greece and Turkey. There’s less about the flooding happening now in Spain, or the fires that ravaged the Jerusalem Hills.
We’ve heard even less about the biggest story of all: the wildfires in Siberia which are greater than all the other wildfires in the world this summer combined. It’s hard to find consistent estimates of the scale of these fires, but we know that at a time when the race to cut emissions is quickening, these fires have released more emissions than most European nations do in a year.
The scale of weather-related disasters had led to predictions this summer will be a tipping point in the national debate about climate change. The history of tipping points during the pandemic offers a useful way of judging what that means.
In the sense that some things about COVID-19, vaccines and the value of prevention methods have been documented in such grim detail they are no longer debated, you might say there’s been a tipping point. You don’t see those Facebook memes anymore that purported to show the virus was no worse than the flu.
But the debate endures, over masks in school, ivermectin, and vaccine passports, moving from one opportunity to the next with the efficiency of a virus. The debate over climate change isn’t likely to be much different. In both cases, the true shock of recognition occurs at the local level: the overflowing hospitals, the burned-out Western towns, the Louisiana parishes still struggling to clear streets and roads, the schools forced to revert to virtual. That’s where the real tipping points are likely to happen.