On Tuesday morning, half an inch of water fell in nearby Montecito — half an inch in five minutes. Even in the best of conditions, this pace could cause flooding. But it wasn’t the best of conditions.
Last month, we endured the largest wildfire in California history. For two and a half weeks straight, the fire burned closer every day. Air quality turned unhealthy and forced schools to close. Businesses had to shut their doors during the peak holiday season. The local economy was decimated. I moved out of my home for weeks, as did many others. But at least I had a home to return to. Hundreds of others lost theirs. Thousands more lost their livelihoods. As a climate policy researcher, I was seeing the consequences of climate inaction in my own backyard.
Life was just beginning to get back to normal when the rains came this week, hard and fast. The scorched land could not absorb the water, and so the mudslides began.
Many residents, exhausted from weeks of displacement, were at home that night despite evacuation warnings. The forecast called for heavy rains, and the county was persistent in its preparation for mudslides and flooding. But the rain’s intensity was extreme. Rain was not supposed to fall this fast, not in our memory. No one thought it would be so bad.
Houses were ripped from their foundations. City streets were unrecognizable. Helicopters flew back and forth in a near continuous line for days, hoisting people from roofs. The names of the missing and the dead swelled.
We say the extreme rain caused this disaster. We say it was the fire. And we say that multiple years of drought didn’t help. But what caused the rain, the fire and the drought?
There is a clear climate signature in the disaster in Santa Barbara. We know that climate change is making California’s extreme rainfall events more frequent. We know it’s worsening our fires. We know that it contributed substantially to the latest drought.
There are simpler stories we could tell. Stories with more proximate causes: Those people bought in dangerous places. Those people should have left their homes. Those people are somehow to blame. These events are normal. These things just happen there.
But these simple stories mask a larger truth. How many times do we need to hear adjectives in their superlative form before we spot a pattern: largest, rainiest, driest, deadliest? Records, by their nature, are not meant to be set annually. And yet that’s what is happening. The costliest year for natural disasters in the United States was 2017. One of the longest and most severe droughts in California history concluded for most parts of the state in 2017. The five warmest years on record have all occurred since 2006, with 2017 expected to be one of the warmest yet again.
I have researched climate change policy for over a decade now. For a long time, we assumed that climate policy was stalled because it was a problem for the future. Or it would affect other people. Poorer people. Animals. Ecosystems. We assumed those parts of the world were separate from us. That we were somehow insulated. I didn’t expect to see it in my own backyard so soon.
Climate change devastated ecosystems, species and neighborhoods in Houston and much of struggling Puerto Rico last year. Now climate change has ravaged one of the wealthiest ZIP codes in the country. We know now that even the richest among us is not insulated.
These extreme events are getting worse. But when I read the news after each fresh disaster, I rarely see a mention of climate change. Whether it’s coverage of a fire in my backyard or a powerful hurricane in the Caribbean, this bigger story is usually missing. To say that it is too soon to talk about the causes of a crisis is wrongheaded. We must connect the dots.
Climate change helped cost my friends’ businesses’ revenue. Climate change helped put my community in chaos for weeks. Climate change paved the way for lost lives next door. If climate victims here and across the globe understood that carbon emissions from burning fossil fuels played a role in their losses, perhaps they would rise up to demand policy changes.
We know this could happen because research from the political scientist Regina Bateson, now a congressional candidate in California, shows that being a crime victim can spur people into activism. Perhaps some of the people affected by the fires in California, the hurricanes in Puerto Rico and Texas, and the drought in the Dakotas will be similarly motivated. Maybe some of these climate change victims will become the climate policy champions we sorely need.
It is never too soon after one of these disasters to speak truth about climate change’s role. If anything, it is too late. If we do not name the problem, we cannot hope to solve it. For my community, as much as yours, I hope we will.
Leah C. Stokes is an assistant professor of political science at the University of California, Santa Barbara.