The spread of drought and wildfires throughout the West this summer, especially in (but not limited to) California, has been making it increasingly undeniable that global warming is real, but political reporters have been slow to recognize the potential significance, as it ups internal pressures in an already terribly fractured party. As David Roberts wrote in April:
Denialism is increasingly seen, not only among elites but in popular culture, as atavistic and conspiracy-minded. Climate has become one of those issues where the gulf between the insular far right and the rest of American (to say nothing of Western) culture has become so vast that it is serving like a moat, keeping out the very demographic groups the GOP needs in coming years.
So, they want to keep the do-nothing (but subsidize fossil fuels) denialist political program, but somehow drop the denialist rhetoric, even as their base remains in love with it. You can see how that would be a problem, much like a lot of other problems the GOP is wrestling with just now. And the wildfires throughout the West this summer only raise the temperature when they'd like to keep it simmering on the back burner.
With the second GOP presidential debate about to take place in California's Simi Valley—just a week after triple-digit temperatures registered up and down the state—one just has to wonder if maybe, just maybe, something might shake loose in, if only by accident. They can't keep avoiding it forever, can they?
They may think they can, but that might not be possible. Public opinion data tells us that Americans accept global warming as real, but don't see the harm it represents as imminent. But that's precisely the sort of perception that an historically intense summer of wildfires can help change, and the difference it could make comes into sharp focus when public opinion is broken geographically to the local level, as the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication has done with a set of maps based on a large dataset ( >13,000 respondents) collected between 2008 through 2014.
The maps show that a majority of adults in every state, every congressional district and almost 99% of counties believe that global warming is real. This reflects the reality that nationally, 63% think global warming is happening. However, but only 42% think it is already harming people in the U.S. now, or within 10 years, and only a small number of counties or congressional districts show a majority think harm imminent. If this begins to change—which it well might after a summer like this—then the problem for the GOP will grow dramatically worse.
Which is why it's worth a brief review of how bad western wildfires have been this summer. On July 31, California Governor Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency, while 18 major wildfires blazed in 15 counties from Humboldt County, near the Oregon border, to San Diego County, bordering Mexico. As Huffington Post noted, Brown said, "California's severe drought and extreme weather have turned much of the state into a tinderbox." Within a week, Brown went even further, warning that wildfires are California's 'new normal', and saying that they should be a “wake-up call' for the whole state, as Huffington Post reported:
"The fires are changing. The drought over the last several years has made everything drier," Brown said. "People can argue about how much of that is climate change, but we know the annual temps are going up over the last 50 years."
"I think this is really a real wake-up call because of the way this fire performed," Brown continued. "It's a new normal.”
But it wasn't just Jerry Brown, and it wasn't just California. A few weeks later, on August 17, a Portland, Oregon TV station, KPTV, reported on the devastating conditions in the two states north of California:
More than two dozen wildfires were burning in Oregon and Washington Monday, with thousands of firefighters working to get the flames under control....
The largest fire burning in the region Monday was the Soda Fire, which was mainly in southwestern Idaho but also spilled into eastern Oregon.
The fire had burned more than 280,000 acres by Monday morning and was 70 percent contained.
Then, a week later, on August 24, AP and another local broadcaster reported on the largest wildfire in Washington State history:
The Okanogan Complex of wildfires [current details here] has surpassed last year's Carlton Complex blazes and is now the largest in Washington state history.
Fire spokesman Rick Isaacson said Monday the Okanogan Complex was measured overnight at just over 400 square miles, slightly more than the Carlton fires, which also burned in Okanogan County. The fires cover 256,567 acres.
At the same time, they reported on the arrival of international firefighting help, “intended to fill a shortage of mid-level fire managers and include equipment bosses, strike team leaders and division supervisors who will bolster some 32,000 firefighters already in the field.”
Sap a forest of rain—say, for three or four years—toss in seemingly endless sunshine and high temperatures, and you’ve got just the right recipe for some catastrophic wildfires.
Such is the story playing out in the West, where, thanks in part to climate change, drought-fueled infernos are incinerating forests at a record pace from Alaska to California....
As of Aug. 20, more than 41,300 wildfires have scorched more than 7.2 million acres in 2015, mostly in the Pacific Northwest and Alaska. That’s nearly three times the 2.6 million acres that burned nationwide in 2014 and more land area than has burned in any other year over the last decade.
Then just before Labor Day, AP reported that a record $243 million had been spent battling forest fires the previous week.
In short, the entire Western U.S. has seen an exceptional level of wildfire activity, which has repeatedly made the news. And those wildfires are driven by drought. At U.S. Drought Monitor, a map of the Western region shows almost all of California, Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Nevada, Utah and Arizona were under some degree of drought conditions for at least the summer months—California and Nevada have been in 97% drought or more for at least 2 1/2 years.
The worst of summer may have just passed. But it's still pretty hot here in California, leading up to the GOP debate, with triple digit temperatures from north, to south the week after Labor Day, and new fast-burning fires still breaking out. There are also new reports on two fronts to provide further context, and bring more pressure to bear on politicians. On the one hand, a new scientific study published in the leading journal Nature, shows that what's happening in the West this summer is typical of trends that have been under way since 1950, and thus deserves been paid attention to. On the other hand, a new report from Citigroup highlights significant savings to be gained from investing in low-carbon energy, thus encouraging a positive, can-do approach to taking global warming seriously. Together, these two reports represents a sort of pincer movement, making the dominant GOP climate denialist position increasingly difficult to maintain, and making the crafting of fall-back positions even trickier than they already are.
The study in Nature, “Significant anthropogenic-induced changes of climate classes since 1950,” broke the planet into a grid, analyzing each one in terms of the Köppen climate classification system, which is based on the concept that native vegetation is the best expression of climate. The study used only the major climate groupings, five categories ranging from tropical to polar and alpine. It found that “About 5.7% of the global total land area has shifted toward warmer and drier climate types from 1950–2010,” adding that “significant changes include expansion of arid and high-latitude continental climate zones, shrinkage in polar and midlatitude continental climates, poleward shifts in temperate, continental and polar climates, and increasing average elevation of tropical and polar climates.”
While this sort of shift was expected as a consequence of global warming, it was previously unknown if any such shift had already taken place. The fact that it has is yet another powerful piece of evidence that global warming is already reshaping our world, and that the changes in weather we're beginning to notice —drought leading to more wildfires, for example—are grounded in climate changes already taking place. The way the American West is becoming much more vulnerable to wildfires is part of a much larger story of how regions are changing all around the world.
At Think Progress, climate blogger Joe Romm wrote, concerning this study's findings:
In short, humans are causing the world’s arid and semi-arid climate zones to expand into the highly populated mid-latitude continental climates (where, for instance, most Americans live) — and causing the high-latitude climates to expand into the polar zones.
Romm also pointed out that “This expansion of the world’s dry zones is a basic prediction of climate science. The fact it is so broadly observable now means we must take seriously the current projections of widespread global Dust-Bowlification in the coming decades.” What's more, he wrote:
These are stunning changes when you consider the fact that the world has only warmed about 1°F since 1950, and we are on track to warm 5 times that much (or more) this century alone. Multiple climate studies project continued climate inaction will put some one-third of the currently-habited and arable landmass of the planet into a state of near permanent drought post-2050. This new study finds that we are well on our way.
That's a pretty scary prospect. But by now, it's well-recognized that scaring people into action is not a winning strategy in dealing with global warming. “I think it’s a fantasy that the worse things get and the more intense the effects are … that will magically translate into a public and political recognition and engagement and getting on board,” eco-psychologist Renee Lertzman told DeSmog Canada recently. “There’s an abundance of evidence that’s not the case and that humans have enormous capacity to avoid and deny reality and what’s staring us right in the face.”
Instead, she suggests, attention needs to be paid to how people feel—anxiety and ambivalence need to be dealt with, not assumed away or brushed aside. But people also need hope, something to aspire to. Which is where the Citigroup report, Energy Darwinism II comes in. On a global basis, it projects that a low-carbon energy future could save $1.8 trillion by 2040, while business-as-usual could cost $44 trillion in lost GDP due to the impacts of climate change. Although the downside of doing nothing is far larger of the upside of taking action, the hopeful aspect of the report is impossible to miss. It begins thus:
As Thomas Edison presciently pointed out to Henry Ford and Harvey Firestone in 1931, “We are like tenant farmers chopping down the fence around our house for fuel when we should be using nature’s inexhaustible sources of energy - sun, wind and tide. I’d put my money on the sun and solar energy. What a source of power! I hope we don’t have to wait until oil and coal run out before we tackle that.”
The business case for taking action is clearest by adopting a comprehensive view, combining the costs of doing nothing, and the benefits of investing proactively. The report says:
If we derive a risk-adjusted return on the extra capital investment in following a low carbon path, and compare it to the avoided costs of climate change, we see returns at the low point of between 1% and 4%, rising to between 3% and 10% in later years.
Taken all together, what the West's wildfire summer and these two reports all seem to point to is a transition to a “market-friendly transition to clean energy,” which once-upon-a-time could have been sold as a genuine “conservative solution.” But not any more. The fossil fuel industry is far too powerful for that.
Which is where Carly Fiorina really hopes to fly. She gave a full performance of her global warming shtick in a Katie Couric interview earlier this year. As David Roberts noted in his exhaustive take-down, Fiorina was more successful than Bush in setting aside denialist rhetoric without giving an inch:
In fact, Fiorina's comments are a farrago of falsehoods and red herrings, a derp different in character from science-denial derp, but no less derpy.
Roberts tore apart ten specific Fiorina falsehoods, such as lying about the market share of coal, the water usage of solar, and bird deaths due to wind (a fraction that of coal). But the bottom line is what mattered most:
Fiorina's comments reveal the difficulty facing moderate Republicans on this issue. They want to put the science question behind them, but they don't seem to realize that once you acknowledge the science, you're trapped on a slippery slope....
However smooth Fiorina may be, in the end it's not going to make sense to voters to acknowledge the science of climate change and then say you're against every solution to it except handing out subsidies to the coal industry. That is some unstable derp.
This once again, is why all roads lead to Trump—or someone else very much like him. Once Republicans acknowledge the problem—any problem—they're trapped on an almost identical slippery slope. The only way off is to switch from problem-solving into blame-shifting mode. And nobody does that better than Donald Trump.
Let's see if someone can prove me wrong at the Simi Valley debate. They may not realize it, but the heat is on.