As the conflagration of California continues, the 17 blazes that have cumulatively burned an area the size of Delaware have also gotten people thinking about the connection between climate change and wildfires like never before.
Take the people who are writing in to NPR, for instance, criticizing the public media company for not mentioning climate change enough in its current fire coverage.
But it's also showing up in online search behavior, as laid out in this graph from Google Trends mapping searches that contain both "climate change" and "California fires" over the last three years. It clearly shows a marked upswing in those queries since 2015.
Have we reached an inflection point where extreme weather and the warming climate have become inextricably linked in the public's mind?
Back in the 1990s, climate change -- in its earlier linguistic incarnation as "global warming" -- was something most people only knew as that weird thing Al Gore liked to scold people about. Before that, NASA's James Hansen brought the issue to the fore by testifying to Congress that it was a near certainty that greenhouse gases were the culprit behind the earth's warming trend.
In 1965, a panel of the Presidential Science Advisory Committee reported that “Man is unwittingly conducting a vast geophysical experiment. Within a few generations he is burning the fossil fuels that slowly accumulated in the earth over the past 500 million years." The report said the climatic changes caused by the buildup of CO2 "could be deleterious from the point of view of human beings." President Lyndon Johnson later made a public statement referring to the findings : "This generation has altered the composition of the atmosphere on a global scale through radioactive materials and a steady increase in carbon dioxide from the burning of fossil fuels.”
So how far back does awareness of climate change go? Well, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change traces the evolution of the science back to the 18th century.
As for American media, you may be surprised that the idea made it to television in the 1950s. Check out the video at the top of the page, starting at the 50:12 mark. It's a bit from a 1958 Bell Science Hour television special called "The Unchained Goddess," part of a series produced and mostly written by Hollywood directing legend Frank Capra. This particular episode is all about weather, and the clip above specifically addresses the effects of climate change. The exchange features Dr. Frank C. Baxter, a popular academic of the time, playing "Dr. Research," and the actor Richard Carlson playing "The Writer."
It goes like this, and, with accompanying apocalyptic visuals and music, plays like a 45-second version of "An Inconvenient Truth":
Dr. Research: Even now, man may be unwittingly changing the world’s climate through the waste products of his civilization. Due to our release through factories and automobiles every year of more than 6 billion tons of carbon dioxide, which helps air absorb heat from the sun, our atmosphere seems to be getting warmer.
The Writer: This is bad?
Dr. Research: Well, it's been calculated a few degrees rise in the Earth’s temperature would melt the polar ice caps. And if this happens, an inland sea would fill a good portion of the Mississippi valley. Tourists in glass-bottom boats would be viewing the drowned towers of Miami through 150 feet of tropical water. For in weather, we’re not only dealing with forces of a far greater variety than even the atomic physicist encounters, but with life itself.
We should say here that nobody's anticipating a 150-feet sea level rise. But the projections are bad enough as is.