Thermometer on road

Here is a question posed by Vox reporter David Roberts: “Recent research shows that ‘extremely hot summers’ are 200 times more likely than they were 50 years ago. Did you know that?” And then, “Do you feel it?”

Even if your answer to the first question is yes, which for many is unlikely, the answer to the second is almost certainly no. This example illustrates the “sliding baseline” syndrome.

Coined as it applies specifically to fisheries, this simple, powerful term turns out to be highly relevant to grasping and dealing with climate change. As journalist John Sutter (see below) puts it, it’s “a phenomenon of lowered expectations, in which each generation … regards a progressively poorer natural world as normal.” We get used to everything – and in so doing, we lose touch with what the world used to be.

Begin with Roberts’ excellent Vox piece, “The Scariest Thing about Global Warming (and Covid-19).” This must-read comprehensive article, which includes links to numerous other key sources, makes it clear both how quickly we forget and how high the stakes are in our individual and cultural forgettings.

Then set aside 15 minutes to watch John Sutter’s talk (TEDxSMU) about his project “Baseline 2020: Climate change beyond a human lifetime” – an effort to use visual storytelling to combat this forgetting. Part of his plan – to document the climate changes in five places over 30 years, consulting elders with long memories – is sampled in this talk, and also on the project’s website as a trailer.

For a short piece making the same point about the importance of the memories of elders, but on the other side of the globe, see David Shiffman’s article in Hakai Magazine: “Only 1950s Kids Will Recognize this Endangered Fish.”

But it’s not always easy to find people who clearly remember the past. Here is a good story by Robert Krulwich (Radio Lab) about scientist Lauren McClenachan’s telling find in an archive of Key West tourists’ photos involving their fishing catches.

Though the sliding baseline syndrome can seem simple, its emotional and practical ramifications aren’t, as two more articles illustrate. Writer Mark McConnell’s “Pictures of the World on Fire Won’t Shock Us for Much Longer” (Guardian) focuses on the apocalyptic photos of Australia’s recent conflagrations – photos along the lines of those being seen now from the fires in the western U.S. And, in an ironic twist, this piece by Diana Leonard and Andrew Freedman (Washington Post) moves from describing California’s current intense fires to note that “The unprecedented fires this year illustrate the difficulty of adapting as climate goal posts shift.”


This series is curated and written by retired Colorado State University English professor and close climate change watcher SueEllen Campbell of Colorado. To flag works you think warrant attention, send an e-mail to her any time. Let us hear from you.

Topics: Communicating Climate, Health