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5 Signs the Historic Drought Is Getting Much Worse

Climate
5 Signs the Historic Drought Is Getting Much Worse

The drought is bad. Really bad. While the water catastrophe is usually associated with California, many other water-pinched states are also reeling from this historic drought. Here are five ways the devastating drought has affected lives, rural towns and even fish populations the American West.

Severe drought has caused lethal conditions for fish. About 50 dead sockeye salmon, infected with gill rot disease associated with warm water, were found this week in the Deschutes River.  
Photo credit: U.S. Environmental Protection Agency

1. It's reached Portland. While fairing better than its neighbors, the entire state of Oregon is feeling some degree of drought, including normally wet Portland. The city is experiencing a moderate drought for the first time due to its "abnormally hot and dry conditions" this summer, OPB reported. “Washington had their warmest and third driest June ever, and Oregon was warmest and seventh driest,” Brian Fuchs, a climatologist with the National Drought Monitor, told OPB. “A lot has happened in June, on top of a warm and fairly snow-free winter.”

2. The West Nile virus is spreading. California, now in its fourth year of drought, is seeing numbers of the mosquito-borne disease. There were 801 reported human cases of West Nile virus in the state last year, with 31 people who succumbed to the disease, the Los Angeles Times reported. And according to the San Jose Mercury News, 152 dead birds and 348 mosquito samples across the state have also tested positive for the virus already this year.

Scientists suspect that rising temperatures and drought have exacerbated conditions in the parched state, since the dwindling number of watering holes have brought mosquitoes and birds into closer contact. "The lack of water can cause some sources of water to stagnate, thus making the water sources more attractive for mosquitoes to lay eggs," Gil Chavez, deputy director of the California Department of Public Health, told the Mercury News.

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3. The poor are relying on water bottles and drinking toxic water. As wells and groundwater dry up due to the ongoing drought and nearby agricultural and mining operations, some families in California’s rural San Joaquin and Coachella valleys have (for years) been subsisting on bottled water and consuming potentially hazardous levels of arsenic-laden water, The Washington Post reported. While county officials and local nonprofit groups such as Coachella’s Pueblo Unido are finding ways to generate potable water for their communities, the efforts are expensive and only temporary.

4. Seattle isn't getting any rain. The typically rain-soaked city hasn't seen more than a tenth of an inch of rain in 42 days, according to local news affiliate KIRO 7. (Fingers crossed that El Nino brings much-needed reprieve to the West).

Making matters worse, local firefighters have warned that the lack of rain caused by drought is only causing homes to light up faster. "Just like the brush that's around the area [referring to a mobile home that burned down at Empire View Mobile Home Park], homes are also starting to dry up,” Dave Nelson, public information officer for Skyway Fire Department told the news station.

5. River fish are dying from heat and disease. Record low snowpacks and record high temperatures have caused low-flowing, extra-warm rivers this summer, leading to salmon and trout deaths. As the Associated Press reported, a Wild Fish Conservancy survey of 54 rivers in Oregon, California and Washington revealed that three-quarters were warmer than 70 degrees Fahrenheit, a temperature that could be fatal for salmon and trout. In fact, "scores" of dead salmon were found in the Willamette River in June, and about 50 dead sockeye salmon, infected with gill rot disease associated with warm water, were found this week in the Deschutes River, the news agency reported.

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The world-famous wildlife broadcaster and his royal sidekick appear to have played an active role in the prize's inception, and media coverage has focused largely on them as the faces of the campaign.

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With more and more global attention on the climate crisis, celebrity endorsement of environmental causes has become more common. But why do environmental causes recruit famous faces for their campaigns? And what difference can it make?

'Count Me In'

"We need celebrities to reach those people who we cannot reach ourselves," says Sarah Marchildon from the United Nations Climate Change secretariat (UNFCCC) in Bonn, Germany.

Marchildon is a proponent of the use of celebrities to raise awareness of environmental causes. In addition to promoting a selection of climate ambassadors who represent the UN on sustainability issues, Marchildon's team has produced videos with well-known narrators from the entertainment world: among them, Morgan Freeman and Mark Ruffalo.

"We choose celebrities who have a lifestyle where they are already talking about these issues," Marchildon explains.

"Sometimes they reach out to us themselves, as David Attenborough did recently. And then they can promote the videos on their own social channels which reach more people than we do — for example, if they have 20 million followers and we have 750,000."

Environmental groups focused on their own domestic markets are also taking this approach. One Germany-based organization that uses celebrities in campaigns is the German Zero NGO. Set up in 2019, it advocates for a climate-neutral Germany by 2035.

German Zero produced a video in March 2020 introducing the campaign with "66 celebrities" that supported the campaign, among them Deutschland 83 actor Jonas Nay and former professional footballer Andre Schürrle. They solicit support as well as financial contributions from viewers.

"Count me in," they say, pointing toward the camera. "You too?"

"We are incredibly grateful for the VIPs in our videos," says German Zero spokeswoman Eva-Maria McCormack.

Assessing Success Is Complex

But quantifying the effectiveness of celebrity endorsement of campaigns is not a straightforward process.

"In order to measure effectiveness, first of all you need to define what is meant by success," says Alegria Olmedo, a researcher at the Zoology Department at the University of Oxford.

Olmedo is the author of a study looking at a range of campaigns concerning pangolin consumption, fronted by local and Western celebrities, in Vietnam and China. But she says her biggest stumbling block was knowing how to measure a campaign's success.

"You need a clear theory of change," explains Olmedo. "Have the celebrities actually helped in achieving the campaign's goals? And how do you quantify these goals? Maybe it is increased donations or higher engagement with a cause."

A popular campaign in China in recent years saw famous chefs Zhao Danian and Shu Yi pledge to abstain from cooking endangered wildlife. While the pledge achieved widespread recognition, both Olmedo and Marchildon say it's difficult to know whether it made any difference to people's actions.

"In life we see a thousand messages every day, and it is very hard to pinpoint whether one campaign has actually made a difference in people's behavior," she explains.

Awareness Is Not Enough

Many campaigns that feature celebrities focus on raising awareness rather than on concrete action — which, for researcher Olmedo, raises a further problem in identifying effectiveness.

"Reach should never be a success outcome," she says. "Many campaigns say they reached a certain number of people on social media. But there has been a lot of research that shows that simply giving people information does not mean they are actually going to remember it or act upon it."

But anecdotal evidence from campaigns may suggest reach can make an active difference.

"Our VIP video is by far the most watched on our social media channels," McCormack from German Zero says. "People respond to it very directly. A lot of volunteers of all ages heard about us through that video."

However, some marketing studies have shown that celebrity endorsement of a cause or product can distract from the issue itself, as people only remember the person, not the content of what they were saying.

Choosing the Right Celebrity

Celebrity choice is also very important. Campaigns that use famous faces are often aiming to appeal to members of the public who do not necessarily follow green issues.

For certain campaigns with clear target audiences, choosing a climate scientist or well-known environmentalist rather than a celebrity could be more appealing — Attenborough is a classic example. For others, images and videos involving cute animals may be more likely to get a message heard than attaching a famous face.

"We choose celebrities who have a lifestyle where they are already talking about these issues," says Marchildon from the UN. "You need figures with credibility."

McCormack cites the example of Katharine Hayhoe, an environmental scientist who is also an evangelical Christian. In the southern United States, Hayhoe has become a celebrity in her own right, appealing to an audience that might not normally be interested in the messages of climate scientists.

But as soon as you get a celebrity involved, campaigns also put themselves at risk of the whims of that celebrity. Prince William and younger members of the royal family have come under fire in recent years for alleged hypocrisy for their backing of environmental campaigns while simultaneously using private jets to fly around the world.

But Does It Really Work?

While environmental campaigns hope that endorsement from well-known figures can boost a campaign, there is little research to back this up.

"The biggest finding [from my study] was that we were unable to produce any evidence that shows that celebrity endorsement of environmental causes makes any difference," says Olmedo.

This will come as a blow to many campaigns that have invested time and effort into relationships with celebrity ambassadors. But for many, the personal message that many celebrities offer in videos like that produced by German Zero and campaigns like the Earthshot Prize are what counts.

The research may not prove this conclusively — but if the public believes a person they respect deeply personally cares about an important issue, they are perhaps more likely to care too.

"I personally believe in the power this can have," says Marchildon. "And if having a celebrity involved can get a single 16-year-old future leader thinking about environmentalist issues — that is enough."

Reposted with permission from DW.

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