• Davin Hutchins

COVID, nature and climate fires: Tracking real-time crises and conversations around them

When the COVID-19 pandemic broke out in March 2020, Greenpeace found itself in a state of shock and a bit of suspended animation like the rest of the world. Suddenly, we were trying to achieve our aims on climate and biodiversity while sheltering in place.

For decades, we had campaigned against the incessant pillaging by corporations, timber loggers, cattle ranchers, palm and soy farmers of precious ecosystems like rainforests, northern forests, and savannahs. We knew that the more man cuts into nature and interacts with wild animals, the more likely a global pandemic would occur. Nature would one day respond with a vengeance. And unless we protect nature, this pandemic won't be our last.

A few weeks into the crisis, I pitched to my boss that I wanted to set up real-time media monitoring dashboards using a tool called Talkwalker to see how the COVID pandemic was shaping people's attitudes toward nature itself as well as some of our team's core battlegrounds, namely seasonal climate fires.

The way Talkwalker works is you enter a series of boolean searches that mines vast caches of snapshot data taken from social media posts, newspapers, news agencies, press releases, and the like. You can then manipulate that data into timelines, maps, word clouds, sentiment graphs, and other visualizations to tell a story.

My aim was to configure these searches into widgets on private web pages for our global campaigners worldwide to access. The hope was that by getting teams to monitor conversations, we'd be able to anticipate when things get to a crisis level and adjust campaigns accordingly.

COVID and Nature

First and foremost, since COVID-19 was an unprecedented even in my lifetime, I wanted to know if people's attitudes toward nature had begun to shift. In my social media feeds, there seemed to be a lot of chatter that the pandemic was related to nature destruction and was a dress rehearsal for later climate crises - earth firing off a warning shot essentially. The link to nature is undeniable. The outbreak was traced to a wet market for consuming wildlife in Wuhan, China.

A typical syntax for a search goes something like this: nature AND (planet OR earth OR outdoors OR climate OR ecosystem OR biodiversity OR animals OR habitat). I then put in a time frame, reduced the sample size and narrowed to with very high engagement to save data costs. (Clearly, there is too much data in the world about coronavirus.)

The data showed that discussions in the press and social media about nature, outdoors, climate, etc. exploded after the pandemic went global compared to periods before. People made the link to COVID-19. But more encouraging, the conversation plateaued not decreased, as if there is a new enduring consciousness about nature. This awareness is something humanity can harness to take on future climate challenges in the near term.

I then ran a query to pull in two-word phrases surrounding my nature terms. "Climate change" was consistently the term most associated with COVID, suggesting many people were making the connection between climate change and pandemics.

Also, a few weeks into the crisis, I noticed in my own neighborhood, there seemed to be a lot more people slowing down, walking their dogs, and playing with children outdoors. People were getting reconnected with "local nature" in new ways. Hashtags around popular outdoor activities were way up compared to the period before coronavirus. Surprisingly, "gardening" won out over activities like "hiking" and "camping" probably because more people were thinking of ways to grow their own food - likely the result of the initial shock of grocery stores with bare shelves.

Finally, there seemed to be with my family, friends, and colleagues a heightened sense of collegiality, community and an urge to take care of one another. I ran another search to see if this positivity was a global trend by juxtaposing terms like "love, justice, democracy" with "hate, race, and bigotry." I was encouraged to see that conversations around positive values after COVID slightly outpaced the negative.

Monitoring and tracing fires and conversations around them

The other big challenge that we had to face with coronavirus was that every crisis now constituted a "dual crisis." We have long been accustomed to dealing with typhoons, floods, climate displacement due to extreme weather events. Not only are these events overlapping year-round, becoming more intense and lasting longer, but they now had to be addressed knowing millions feared contracting a respiratory disease. How do you flee fires or evade hurricanes while social distancing?

In 2019, we witnessed two major fire catastrophes in short succession. In Brazil, beef and soy conglomerates received the green light from President Jair Bolsonaro to mercilessly slash and burn the Amazon. Roughly 80,000 fires ignited, either deliberately set or sparked by extreme heat. More than 2 million acres were burned. A few months later, bushfires erupted across Australia, burning more than 46 million acres – roughly the same area as Syria – killing millions of wild animals. It was beyond traumatic.

As we headed into 2020, we knew fires would likely get worse than 2019 and the pandemic would create new fears. The smoke and haze from fires in populated areas would create new health risks for those infected with the coronavirus. Indigenous communities who live in the forest would be particularly vulnerable. We had to make a link between nature, public health, the coronavirus and fires.

My dashboard project generated some interest across our offices as I created regional versions for each office in their own language to monitor conversations. Also, my Russian colleagues in Greenpeace's Global Mapping Hub were working on a set of real-time tools to better prepare offices for fire outbreaks using satellite data and imagery.

The Russian team created a particularly useful tool called the Global Fire Calendar that calculated the probability of fire outbreaks. Their methodology was to collect the number of hotspots detected by MODIS satellite imagery from 2001 to the present in 19 countries and then calculate the mean hotspots per month to provide a color-coded risk variable.

On my side, I configured Talkwalker to see if people were indeed talking fires earlier and making the connection with respiratory risk. Indeed, they were. The conversation around fires, wildfires and bushfires began increasing as soon as the COVID outbreak began in March at much higher levels than the peak Amazon, California and Australia fires of 2019. People were anticipating what was coming and making the association with human health. The conversation was heightened but at the same time, it was often hard for fires to break through as concerns about the pandemic drowned out the now regular climate disasters.

When the 2020 fire season truly got underway, ravaging fires erupted in July and August in Russia, DRC, Brazil and the United States simultaneously. The fires became very personal for me as the Creek Fire erupted in the Sierra National Forest near Yosemite, where my parents live. Creek Fire became the largest fire in California's history and scorched more than 300,000 acres (still burning as I write this post).

In the midst of the fire outbreak, my parents were evacuated from their home. I actually used satellite imagery from the FIRMS Map, which shows hotspots from VIIRS and MODIS satellites with photos, and coupled that with another tool from our Russian team, the Global Fires Dashboard.

The Global Fires Dashboard used the same hotspot data as FIRMS but with different data layers such as landcover, temperature and wind flows. The wind flow layer was extremely useful. I zoomed in on the Creek Fire because I could anticipate wind shifts and share screen shots directly with my family. The fire came within five miles of their home but luckily winds shifted from west to south and saved it.

As our team drafted the strategic guidance for offices to campaign on these fires in 2020, we realized that our historic approach of bearing witness or mobilizing volunteer firefighters was not going to work any more. We aren't dealing with worsening "acts of nature." These are the direct results of human behavior.

Rising temperatures from greenhouse gasses dry out forests and make fires more likely. Fires are getting longer and more intense each year. Major fire outbreaks also release “black carbon,” particulate matter that further warms the earth along with other greenhouse gasses. Fires are both a cause and a symptom of the climate crisis. It’s a vicious cycle.

It's important that Greenpeace and other organizations impress upon their supporters that fires are a global problem that require a global solution. Campaigning against fires through better fire extinction, volunteer firefighters and better forest management alone is obsolete and besides the point. While these measures are necessary, the only way to permanently reduce fires is a radical change in our transport, energy and food systems.

We must end our use of fossil fuels once and for all. We must end uncontrolled land-use expansion for food commodities and meat and dairy. Governments and citizens must work together for a green and just transition to a clean, sustainable society powered by renewable energy like solar, wind, battery storage and electric mobility.

In the end, this combined project produced about two dozen dashboards from satellite and media data to allow campaigners to get a better handle on the scale of the multiple crises we were facing, how to adjust our storytelling and how to mobilize people to demand a permanent solution to the climate crisis.