Since days a cloud of corrosive smoke has settled over the Bay Area, blown down by the Kincade Fire in the north. More than 200,000 people have been evacuated from that fire alone, while the persistent effects of a long drought and strong wind have turned the region into a tinder box. On Sunday, a sudden fire in Vallejo stopped the traffic on a bridge across the northeast side of the bay, forcing workers to leave toll booths while the bridge was swallowed by smoke. It is a scary moment, frightened by the slow grind of the climate crisis in the background, which gets a little worse every year.
Fires are a fact of life in California, but the the firing season of the state has become wilder and more destructive as the planet gets warmer, and these fires give us a taste of what climate change will mean in human terms. Longer drought and more unpredictable wind change what were once manageable fires in region-wide catastrophes. We are only a year away from the biggest fire in California's history and few think that record will last much longer. The slow nature of the climate crisis means that even under the best scenarios, these fires will continue to grow over the next 40 years. The longer we continue in this way, the more powerful they become.
If a foreign country had caused such a thing, we would mobilize for war. If the threat had suddenly appeared, you could expect emergency declarations from Congress and press coverage. But the reaction to the fires is strangely muffled. There has been no speech from the president and no special attention from legislators. After last year's campfire, Congress has not been able to adopt emergency aid programs to date the following Juneand the impending struggle of Congress suggests that it will not be easier this time. The California governor has called for a state of emergency and FEMA has promised funding, but there is a creeping sense that our institutions are simply unable to take on a challenge of this magnitude. While the fires are growing, that is a very frightening thought.
Some of those institutions – in particular energy companies and local governments – are already taking the blame. Pacific Gas & Electric (or PG&E) was found to be officially responsible for starting the campfire last year, and this year they responded with widespread and often haphazard blackouts, which means that people no longer have the tools to fight smoke (starting with air cleaners) and more than 30,000 residents are unable to operate essential medical equipment. (This is a terrible network management or a concession of tight budgets and growing liability problems, depending on your perspective.) At the same time, many blame the fire for poor land management, as suburbs spread to previously undeveloped land. and increase the population's exposure to natural fire.
These are not insurmountable challenges, although they force us to make decisions that we would rather not make. It would mean closer development or fewer houses in general, together with a less reliable and more expensive electricity grid. But if the world understood the threat of climate change, these choices would not be difficult. Tackling those problems is a small price – much smaller than the billions of dollars lost in recent forest fires. The regions that are threatened by these fires are among the richest in the world – and for some reason, however, we cannot organize ourselves to take action against the obvious threat.
That kind of adjustment challenge extends far beyond California. Whatever the next 40 years bring, you can count on it more destructive hurricane seasons and higher sea level on the east coast – but many coastal communities still have to struggle with what that will really mean. We are still building houses in flood areas and low-lying areas and supporting their value with federal flood insurance. Entire regions are at risk for Katrina-level storms in the coming decade, and while communities can respond and prepare for individual storms, few seem to be ready to tackle the big picture.
The biggest challenge of all is still low carbon. We have the opportunity to avoid the worst effects of climate change, and we are not taking it. Have American emissions fell only slightly in the past ten years and global emissions continue to rise. Climate stabilization requires mobilization on a scale rarely seen in human history. In report after report, the scientific community has warned about the serious reductions in greenhouse gas emissions that we have to make, and the terrible consequences if we don't. We still have to start work to meet that challenge.
There are some encouraging signs on the horizon. The idea of a Green New Deal, however vague it may be, could create an opening for the kind of action that is needed. While a younger generation is entering the political sphere, climate change has become a more tangible issue than ever before, although a worrying number of leaders still seem to be in denial. But the biggest challenge is how we respond to climate disasters such as the ongoing fires in California. As long as we respond in this way – with stupid fear, languishing in the pacifying assumption that nothing can be done – we set the stage for a very bleak future.