Earlier this week, residents of San Francisco’s Bay Area awoke to a sky that looked demonic thanks to smoke sitting high in the atmosphere and blocking out the sun. It’s just one of many ominous images yielded by the wildfires currently raging on North America’s west coast: a disaster which, at time of writing, had already burned through an astonishing 2.3 million acres, forced school closures and prison evacuations, and left nearly 200,000 without power.
With fires raging far inland and across multiple states, the worst may still lie ahead — shattering all precedent in what has already been a record-breaking season of high temperatures and dry weather conditions. Last month, the temperature in Death Valley hit 129.9 degrees Fahrenheit (54.4 degrees Celsius), which is quite possibly the highest temperature ever recorded. The fires are almost more unsettling when viewed from space, a point of view that underscores their breathtaking scale — and the potential for similar events to spread even more widely in the near future.
Seasonal blazes in California are, of course, not a new phenomenon. But an increasingly warming climate creates the conditions for weather events — like the lightning strikes which initially set off most of the current wildfires — to have more extreme implications than they otherwise would. It’s surely no coincidence that all ten of the state’s harshest fire seasons have occurred since 2003, a historical record which puts climate change very much at the center of the current crisis. A 2018 study published by none other than the environmentally nihilistic Trump administration projected that these trends will continue for decades, with California’s fire season incrementally growing in length.
The bleak and sometimes dystopian images of bloodred skies and buildings set ablaze have triggered an understandable deluge of alarmed reactions from prominent liberal politicians. Such rhetoric, however, should not be confused with concern actually proportionate to the scale of the problem.
California’s governor Gavin Newsom, for example, has announced he has “no time for climate change deniers” despite approving some forty-eight new fracking permits since April (fracking having been strongly linked to an increase in global emissions). Nancy Pelosi, having derisively dismissed the Green New Deal (“The green dream or whatever they call it”), blames climate change for both her home state’s raging wildfires and last month’s hurricane on the Gulf Coast.
Barack Obama, in characteristically elliptical fashion, took to Twitter to declare: “The fires across the West Coast are just the latest examples of the very real ways our changing climate is changing our communities. Protecting our planet is on the ballot. Vote like your life depends on it—because it does.” During Obama’s two terms at the head of the most powerful office in the world, US gas production increased some 35 percent while production of crude oil grew by an astonishing 80 percent — a fact the former president has actually taken to boasting about.
These examples, and many others like them, underscore the need for a new understanding of climate change denial that goes beyond mere acknowledgment of scientific reality. The fact is, while more US politicians than ever now pay lip service to the basic conclusions of environmental science, the leaders of both parties continue to preside over a consensus of complacency determined to dismiss transformative prescriptions like the Green New Deal as utopian or too expensive.
Such descriptions are now even more fatuous and self-imposed than usual. When challenged about the supposed unrealism of his climate policies, Bernie Sanders very much had the right idea in declaring them necessary — regardless of their ambition or cost.
California’s wildfire season is already the worst on record, yielding images that look straight out of dystopian fiction — and, given the trend, there’s every reason to think next year’s will be even harsher.
What the hell are we waiting for?