Welcome to the future.
That’s the thing I’ve been thinking to myself as the frenetic news cycle over the past year has veered from political chaos to natural disaster and back again in a vertigo-inducing downward spiral. Increasing social division domestically as the rich pillage the rest of us, the intensified threat of international conflict, the brazen plundering of the commons, and utter disdain for the natural world amidst a myriad of sexual harassment scandals and horrifying mass shootings are punctuated by catastrophic natural disasters from the epic fires to supercharged hurricanes and yet more fearsome firestorms.
Reality is exceeding the capacity of our dystopian imaginations.
Now the Southern California fires are bringing it all very close to home as we turn on the news and see the city of Hollywood disasters ablaze in spectacular fashion. As a young man, growing up in Los Angeles, I must have driven the stretch of freeway by the Getty Museum thousands of times so it was surreal to see, as Eric Hothaus put it in Rolling Stone “the 405 freeway, one of L.A.’s busiest . . . transformed into a dystopian hellscape during the morning commute.”
But of course, despite the temptation to see a flurry of terrifying fires and other natural disasters as an aberration, they are not. Indeed, they are the new normal.
Just as the bewildering shocks brought to us by the disaster capitalists currently running our collective ship into the raging storm are the product of a calculated political and economic strategy, the storms and infernos now afflicting us are, in large part, the end result of conscious choices made by those in power to either deny or minimalize the dire threats to our natural world that are also of our own making.
As Hothaus observes, it’s not as if no one saw this coming:
There’s a whole series of links between climate change and this week’s fires. Ten years ago, scientists warned of possible lengthening of the Santa Ana fire season, and the data bear that out. Fire season is more than a month longer now, and 13 of the state’s top 20 fires in history have happened since 2000. This year’s “rainy” season has also been suspiciously absent so far, with Los Angeles rainfall 94 percent below normal since October. Right now, the atmosphere over the West Coast is the driest in recorded history. There’s no rain in the forecast for at least the next two weeks – the current fires could last until Christmas. Combine that with more people wanting to live in harm’s way – more than a million more people live in Southern California compared to 2000 – and it’s no wonder wildfire seasons are becoming increasingly catastrophic.
Thus once these current blazes are finally out, and we reflexively rebuild the teeming sprawl, there will surely be more and bigger fires to come. As the New York Times reported last week:
Severe wildfire seasons like the one that has devastated California this fall may occur more frequently because of climate change, scientists say.
“This is looking like the type of year that might occur more often in the future,” said A. Park Williams, a climate scientist at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory in Palisades, N.Y.
The reason is an expected impact of climate change in California: increasing year-to-year variability in temperature and precipitation that will create greater contrast between drought years and wet years. And that can lead to much greater fire risk.
While climate change is not the only cause of fires, which have always been with us, it has done a lot to increase the frequency and intensity of the fires we get. So these disasters are not entirely natural but rather products of our intervention in nature. Inside Climate News explains how this is so:
Higher temperatures pull moisture out of soil and vegetation, leaving parched landscapes that can go up in flames with the slightest spark from a downed utility wire, backfiring car or embers from a campfire.
California’s average temperature has risen about 2 degrees Fahrenheit during the second half of the 20th century. Altogether this has led to more “fuel aridity”—drier tree canopies, grasses and brush that can burn.
“There’s a clear climate signal in these fires because of the drought conditions connected to climate change,” said Daniel Swain, a climate scientist at UCLA.
And, as the Los Angeles Times reported just last week before the fires started, climate scientists see an alarming new threat to California:
California could be hit with significantly more dangerous and more frequent droughts in the near future as changes in weather patterns triggered by global warming block rainfall from reaching the state, according to new research led by scientists at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.
Using complex new modeling, the scientists have found that rapidly melting Arctic sea ice now threatens to diminish precipitation over California by as much as 15% within 20 to 30 years. Such a change would have profound economic impacts in a state where the most recent drought drained several billion dollars out of the economy, severely stressed infrastructure and highlighted how even the state most proactively confronting global warming is not prepared for its fallout.
Of course, California’s problems with firestorms and the storm belt’s recurring nightmare hurricanes are only a small part of a much larger crisis. A few weeks ago, predictably buried under the constant avalanche of Trump-related garbage, a group of 15,000 scientists issued a dire warning to humanity on the 25th anniversary of an earlier letter which also sought to raise the alarm about our race down the suicide path.
[S]erves as a “second notice,” the authors say: “Soon it will be too late to shift course away from our failing trajectory.”
Global climate change sits atop the new letter’s list of planetary threats. Global average temperatures have risen by more than half a degree Celsius since 1992, and annual carbon dioxide emissions have increased by 62 percent.
But it’s far from the only problem people face. Access to fresh water has declined, as has the amount of forestland and the number of wild-caught fish (a marker of the health of global fisheries). The number of ocean dead zones has increased. The human population grew by a whopping 2 billion, while the populations of all other mammals, reptiles, amphibians and fish have declined by nearly 30 percent.
With the plundering class in the driver’s seat for at least 3 more years nationally, it is the question of time that makes this warning so sobering. Anyone with a clear grasp of reality should recognize that we have and are doing incredible damage to the planet, but it seems hard for even the most thoughtful among us to really come to terms with how short a window we actually have to try to prevent the worst outcomes from becoming reality.
In a thoroughgoing interview with Bill Moyers, Bill McKibben addresses this question head-on:
The question of time is the question that haunts me. I remain optimistic enough to think that in general human beings will figure out the right thing to do eventually, and Americans will somehow get back on course. Of course, there’ll be a lot of damage done in the meantime. But with climate change in particular — the gravest of the problems we face — time is the one thing we don’t have. It’s the only problem we’ve ever had that came with a time limit. And if we don’t solve it soon, we don’t solve it. Our governments so far have not proven capable of dealing with this question. They simply haven’t been able to shake off the self-interest and massive power of the fossil-fuel industry. It’s going to take a lot of work and a lot of effort to get us onto renewable energy quickly and everywhere. It’s doable technically; the question is whether it’s doable politically or not. There I don’t know.
The difficulty is that it’s not just a matter of defeating Trump along with his legion of world-killing climate deniers and getting back to a national, indeed a global, policy that recognizes the existence of the problem. What is really needed is leadership at all levels that is prepared to move beyond an incremental approach toward something truly transformational. Climate change, McKibben argues, is simply not like other political problems in that it doesn’t conform to practical political reality:
Winning slowly is another way of losing. Look, we’re screwing up our health care system again right now. That’s going to cause grave trouble for people over the next five, 10 years. There are going to be lots of people who die, lots of people who are sick, lots of people who go bankrupt. It’s going to be horrible. But 10 years from now it will not be harder to solve the problem because you ignored it for those 10 years. It won’t have changed into some completely other problem. With climate change, that’s not true. As each year passes, we move past certain physical tipping points that make it impossible to recover large parts of the world that we have known.
So rather than normalizing the gradual death of life, we need to think beyond the constraints of the present or our children and all the living things left in their world will have hell to pay for our lack of vision and courage. The terrible choices that we slowly came to take for granted started the fire. What strange beast or new and better world will be born out of the ashes?