Op-Ed: The Day the Climate Crisis Came Home

Christina Farr | CNBC
  • On the anniversary of the "orange day" caused by wildfire smoke in San Francisco, CNBC Climate Editor Matt Rosoff shares his personal recollections of how that day brought the climate crisis home.
  • The good news is: As more people experience events like this, collective will to solve the problem will grow.
  • CNBC intends to cover climate change through a business lens, focusing on what's happening today and maintaining an appropriate level of skepticism toward "magic bullet" solutions and greenwashing.

One year ago today was the most terrifying day of my life.

I've faced personal tragedies and professional setbacks, but there are templates to deal with those. You rely on friends and family, you nurse your grief and anger, you seek counseling. With any luck and a lot of hard work, you heal and you move on.

But the day the sky turned orange in San Francisco from widespread wildfire smoke was a different kind of tragedy, precisely because it wasn't personal — it was communal. It affected all of us. Nobody could help. Everybody was equally freaked out.

We had been breathing wildfire smoke for about three weeks, and all I could think about was how long this new phase, this deep-orange darkness, would last. A day? A week? Three weeks? We were already locked down at home from the Covid pandemic, with the kids out of school and most businesses closed. The added feeling of isolation from this new phase was almost too much to bear.

Those of us who are old enough might remember a brief window in the 1990s when it seemed like the environmental movement was ascendant. Politicians and corporations were paying attention. The entire world banned chlorofluorocarbons in less than a couple years after it became clear they were depleting the ozone layer, exposing us to more solar radiation. The ozone layer is now recovering.

But that moment faded, replaced by the urgency of the War on Terror and the gridlock of hardcore partisan politics, along with a global economic expansion that has lifted hundreds of millions of people out of poverty and into the middle class.

That global economic expansion has been fueled by cheap fossil fuels and accompanied by a dramatic rise in greenhouse gas emissions. This year's report from the United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, released in August, shows the picture very starkly. We are currently averaging 410 parts per million of CO2 in the atmosphere — well above the 382 ppm figure that Al Gore used in his famous chart of CO2 concentrations in the 2006 movie, "An Inconvenient Truth."

The wildfires in the West aren't caused entirely by climate change — fires have always been part of the landscape, and forest management practices have definitely played a part. But so did two decades of record heat and a drought that has killed millions of trees. Today's fires burn hotter and spread faster than any in recent memory, according to scientists and firefighters.

Climate change has been hard for most of us to see and feel. That's beginning to change. This year's continuous parade of extreme weather events — floods, hurricanes and wildfires — is a foretelling of what the world faces. If you haven't faced your orange day yet, chances are you will.

The positive side of all this: More people than ever before are committed to finding solutions. Personally, the orange day in San Francisco inspired me to shift some of my attention from the tech industry, which I've been covering for more than 25 years, to focus on what I believe will be the most important news story of the next few decades.

Similar events are inspiring people to take action all over the world.

Many are advocating for major political changes, and the upcoming U.N. Climate Change Conference of the Parties, or COP26, in Glasgow, Scotland, will almost certainly be a lightning rod for protests.

But while political solutions are a necessary part of the puzzle, those changes can be reversed or their impact blunted by the next election cycle.

More excitingly, the business world is finally, belatedly climbing aboard. Venture capitalists and billionaires such as Bill Gates and Tom Steyer are racing to fund start-ups dealing with everything from clean energy to agriculture to transportation. Companies are boasting about their plans for reaching net-zero carbon emissions. Banks and insurance companies are quietly acknowledging the risks associated with climate change and adjusting their practices accordingly. ESG funds with a strong emphasis on green solutions are immensely popular — although not always effective. Tesla, the biggest auto company in the world by market cap, pioneered making zero-emission electric vehicles at scale, sending the auto giants and dozens of scrappy start-ups to follow as fast as they can.

At CNBC, we intend to cover the climate crisis from a business news perspective. We know what the predictions say could happen 20, 50 and 100 years into the future — but what's happening today? How is climate change affecting businesses and individuals right now? Who's proposing and who's funding ambitious new solutions to reduce carbon emissions and suck carbon out of the atmosphere, and what are their chances of success? How are companies preparing for an uncertain future? What can you do to prepare yourself and your family — financially, physically and mentally?

Pledges are less important than action. Rather than focusing on what companies say they intend to do, we'll focus on what they actually are doing, where they are actually spending money and whether that money is doing any good — or is simply a half-hearted attempt to garner some positive press. Greenwashing is rampant, and ripe for exposure. We'll look closely at trends such as ESG investing and carbon offsets to explain how they work — or don't work — and talk to policy experts about alternative financial solutions that could be more effective. We'll treat every start-up's claims with the same kind of cautious "show me" skepticism we've learned to adopt through collective decades of experience covering the tech industry.

There are no magic bullets. The carbon we've already pumped into the atmosphere is not going away anytime soon, and the effects will probably get worse before they get better. The political, cultural and psychological barriers to change are a huge challenge — nobody likes being told to consume less. Nobody likes being told they must suddenly revamp their business at great expense with no guarantee of higher future profits. Investors will continue to seek returns, as they always have.

But as the world wakes up to the reality of climate change, there's more money flowing toward the problem than ever before. Collective human ambition and the desire to improve our condition got us into this mess. They're necessary to get us out.

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