Let’s avoid ‘trigger fixation’

Michael Lawrence and Thomas Homer-Dixon

The Version of Record of this op-ed was published in the The Globe and Mail, with the headline, "When it comes to wildfires or COVID-19, focusing on simple explanations might make things worse".

In a June press conference, Ontario Premier Doug Ford dismissed any connection between the province’s raging wildfires and Earth’s warming climate. Noting that “wildfires happen every single year,” he blamed them on lightning strikes and irresponsible campers. “I have heard approximately 50 per cent of the fires are started by lightning strikes, the other 50 per cent are people starting campfires and not putting out the campfires properly,” Mr. Ford said. Republican politicians in the United States have made nearly identical comments.

Mr. Ford’s comments are simplistic but not entirely wrong. Wildfires do occur every year and are often triggered by lighting and campfires. Yet such remarks are also dangerous. By focusing on the fires’ immediate, visible causes, they distract attention from more persistent and deep-rooted factors we must address to really reduce wildfire incidence.

At the Cascade Institute, we say that statements like Mr. Ford’s are evidence of his “trigger fixation.” We’ve been studying why so many things are going wrong simultaneously in today’s world – a situation that experts are increasingly calling a “global polycrisis” of pandemic, war, economic insecurity, mass migration, democratic decline and, of course, wildfires. To make sense of this snarled mess, we’ve learned to distinguish between the trigger events that are the proximate cause of a crisis and the pre-existing stresses in social and natural systems that create the conditions for crisis.

In such times, people tend to focus on trigger events. Richard Fisher, the author of The Long View, notes that “crisis tends to trap you in the present” by drawing attention to things that just happened or are happening right now. Highlighting triggers also often serves ideological ends. As a conservative politician, Mr. Ford would much rather talk about careless campers than the climate stress that’s contributing to the wildfire surge.

But a trigger event can’t start a crisis by itself; some underlying stress or stresses must also be operating. And our leaders should pay far more attention to these stresses, because they’re ultimately far more important. Triggers are almost always short-lived events that happen in a specific locality – lightning is a prime example – and their occurrence at a specific time and place is rarely predictable. Stresses, on the other hand, are long-term processes such as climate heating that usually unfold slowly across large regions or even the whole planet; their trajectories are generally measurable with hard data, which means their magnitude can often be predicted – with some certainty – well into the future.

Stresses also play a more fundamental causal role. As they worsen – as drought caused by climate change dries out a forest, for instance – they raise the probability that any one of innumerable possible triggers will spark a crisis. The UN Environmental Programme makes exactly this point in assessing the factors raising wildfire risk: “Lightning strikes and human carelessness have always – and will always – spark uncontrolled blazes, but anthropogenic climate change, land-use change, and poor land and forest management mean wildfires are more often encountering the fuel and weather conditions conducive to becoming destructive.”

Trigger fixation skews the way we perceive and discuss almost all the crises plaguing today’s turbulent world. Debate still rages, for example, about whether the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes COVID-19 originated in a Wuhan wet market or a laboratory. People discuss far less the stresses that are increasing the global frequency and severity of outbreaks of zoonotic disease – that is, disease that occurs when pathogens jump from animals to humans.

The Cascade Institute has identified three kinds of stresses: vulnerabilities, pressures and contradictions. Humanity’s rapid population growth has worsened our vulnerability to zoonotic disease. Our species now constitutes the second largest biomass of genetically identical organic material on the planet (after cows). Tightly connected by travel and trade, we’re like a planet-scale petri dish primed for worldwide transmission of new pathogens. Climate heating is playing a role, too, but in this case as a pressure. It’s pushing many animal species out of their normal habitats around the world, expanding the zone of contact between wild animals and humans and, in turn, raising the likelihood that pathogens will jump the animal-human barrier.

These and other stresses are conjoining to sharply raise the probability of future pandemics. Yet instead of paying attention to them – and developing plans to address them – we fixate too often on the local causes of specific outbreaks.

That’s partly because all of us, especially our leaders, prefer simple explanations that identify someone to blame for a crisis, whether it’s Chinese lab workers for COVID or irresponsible campers for wildfires. Simple explanations help us avoid the hard work of cutting carbon emissions, raising global vaccination rates, revitalizing health care, or standing up to powerful interests obstructing necessary action. We’re also susceptible to what psychologists call “availability bias” – our tendency to explain events using evidence that comes easily to mind – which encourages us to focus on recent and visible causes of harmful incidents.

But in a world beset by polycrisis, simple explanations justify short-term, limited and often profoundly divisive responses that rarely help much – and may even make things worse. Fortunately, this truth seems increasingly recognized in some quarters. Public Safety Canada recently released the country’s “first strategic, national-level risk assessment” to reduce our vulnerabilities to earthquakes, wildfires and floods. The federal Ministry of Environment and Climate Change has also just published “a whole-of-society blueprint for adaptation action” to improve infrastructure, restore biodiversity, reconfigure the economy and remediate systemic inequities. And Britain has issued a long-term work force plan to repair its National Health Service, a process that could yield valuable lessons for Canada.

Trigger fixation leads to poor solutions to critical problems. So when our leaders highlight triggers rather than systemic stresses, we should make sure they feel the heat.