The fires this time: a climate view from California

It’s impossible to overstate the urgency of the moment

By Rebecca Gordon
Published July 18, 2021 2:59PM (EDT)
A burned residence smolders during the Bear fire, part of the North Lightning Complex fires, in unincorporated Butte County, California on September 09, 2020. (JOSH EDELSON/AFP via Getty Images)
A burned residence smolders during the Bear fire, part of the North Lightning Complex fires, in unincorporated Butte County, California on September 09, 2020. (JOSH EDELSON/AFP via Getty Images)

This piece originally appeared on TomDispatch.

In San Francisco, we're finally starting to put away our masks. With 74% of the city's residents over 12 fully vaccinated, for the first time in more than a year we're enjoying walking, shopping, and eating out, our faces naked. So I was startled when my partner reminded me that we need to buy masks again very soon — N95 masks, that is. The California wildfire season has already begun, earlier than ever, and we'll need to protect our lungs during the months to come from the fine particulates carried in the wildfire smoke that's been engulfing this city in recent years.

I was in Reno last September, so I missed the morning when San Franciscans awoke to apocalyptic orange skies, the air freighted with smoke from burning forests elsewhere in the state. The air then was bad enough even in the high mountain valley of Reno. At that point, we'd already experienced "very unhealthy" purple-zone air quality for days. Still, it was nothing like the photos that could have been from Mars then emerging from the Bay Area. I have a bad feeling that I may get my chance to experience the same phenomenon in 2021 — and, as the fires across California have started so much earlier, probably sooner than September.

The situation is pretty dire: this state — along with our neighbors to the north and southeast — is now living through an epic drought. After a dry winter and spring, the fuel-moisture content in our forests (the amount of water in vegetation, living and dead) is way below average. This April, the month when it is usually at its highest, San Jose State University scientists recorded levels a staggering 40% below average in the Santa Cruz Mountains, well below the lowest level ever before observed. In other words, we have never been this dry.

Under the Heat Dome

When it's hot in most of California, its often cold and foggy in San Francisco. Today is no exception. Despite the raging news about heat records, it's not likely to reach 65 degrees here. So it's a little surreal to consider what friends and family are going through in the Pacific Northwest under the once-in-thousands-of-years heat dome that's settled over the region. A heat dome is an area of high pressure surrounded by upper-atmosphere winds that essentially pin it in place. If you remember your high-school physics, you'll recall that when a gas (for example, the air over the Pacific Northwest) is contained, the ratio between pressure and temperature remains constant. If the temperature goes up, the pressure goes up.

The converse is also true; as the pressure rises, so does the temperature. And that's what's been happening over Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia in normally chilly Canada. Mix in the fact that climate change has driven average temperatures in those areas up by three to four degrees since the industrial revolution, and you have a recipe for the disaster that struck the region recently.

And it has indeed been a disaster. The temperature in the tiny town of Lytton, British Columbia, for instance, hit 121 degrees on June 29th, breaking the Canadian heat record for the third time in as many days. (The previous record had stood since 1937.) That was Tuesday. On Wednesday night, the whole town was engulfed in the flames of multiple fires. The fires, in turn, generated huge pyrocumulus clouds that penetrated as high as the stratosphere (a rare event in itself), producing lightning strikes that ignited new fires in a vicious cycle that, in the end, simply destroyed the kilometer-long town.

Heat records have been broken all over the Pacific Northwest. Portland topped records for three days running, culminating with a 116-degree day on June 28th; Seattle hit a high of 108, which the Washington Post reported "was 34 degrees above the normal high of 74 and higher than the all-time heat record in Washington, D.C., among many other cities much farther to its south."

With the heat comes a rise in "sudden and unexpected" deaths. Hundreds have died in Oregon and Washington and, according to the British Columbia coroner, at least 300 in her state — almost double the average number for that time period.

Class, Race, and Hot Air

It's hardly a new observation that the people who have benefited least from the causes of climate change — the residents of less industrialized countries and poor people of all nations — are already suffering most from its results. Island nations like the Republic of Palau in the western Pacific are a prime example. Palau faces a number of climate-change challenges, according to the United Nations Development Program, including rising sea levels that threaten to inundate some of its lowest-lying islands, which are just 10 meters above sea level. In addition, encroaching seawater is salinating some of its agricultural land, creating seaside strips that can now grow only salt-tolerant root crops. Meanwhile, despite substantial annual rainfall, saltwater inundation threatens the drinking water supply. And worse yet, Palau is vulnerable to ocean storms that, on our heating planet, are growing ever more frequent and severe.

There are also subtle ways the rising temperatures that go with climate change have differential effects, even on people living in the same city. Take air conditioning. One of the reasons people in the Pacific Northwest suffered so horrendously under the heat dome is that few homes in that region are air conditioned. Until recently, people there had been able to weather the minimal number of very hot days each year without installing expensive cooling machinery.

Obviously, people with more discretionary income will have an easier time investing in air conditioning now that temperatures are rising. What's less obvious, perhaps, is that its widespread use makes a city hotter — a burden that falls disproportionately on people who can't afford to install it in the first place. Air conditioning works on a simple principle; it shifts heat from air inside an enclosed space to the outside world, which, in turn, makes that outside air hotter.

A 2014 study of this effect in Phoenix, Arizona, showed that air conditioning raised ambient temperatures by one to two degrees at night — an important finding, because one of the most dangerous aspects of the present heat waves is their lack of night-time cooling. As a result, each day's heat builds on a higher base, while presenting a greater direct-health threat, since the bodies of those not in air conditioning can't recover from the exhaustion of the day's heat at night. In effect, air conditioning not only heats the atmosphere further but shifts the burden of unhealthy heat from those who can afford it to those who can't.

Just as the coronavirus has disproportionately ravaged black and brown communities (as well as poor nations around the world), climate-change-driven heat waves, according to a recent University of North Carolina study reported by the BBC, mean that "black people living in most U.S. cities are subject to double the level of heat stress as their white counterparts." This is the result not just of poverty, but of residential segregation, which leaves urban BIPOC (black, indigenous, and other people of color) communities in a city's worst "heat islands" — the areas containing the most concrete, the most asphalt, and the least vegetation — and which therefore attract and retain the most heat.

"Using satellite temperature data combined with demographic information from the U.S. Census," the researchers "found that the average person of color lives in an area with far higher summer daytime temperatures than non-Hispanic white people." They also discovered that, in all but six of the 175 urban areas they studied in the continental U.S., "people of color endure much greater heat impacts in summer." Furthermore, "for black people this was particularly stark. The researchers say they are exposed to an extra 3.12C  [5.6F] of heating, on average, in urban neighborhoods, compared to an extra 1.47C [2.6F] for white people."

That's a big difference.

Food, Drink, and Fires — the View from California

Now, let me return to my own home state, California, where conditions remain all too dry and, apart from the coast right now, all too hot. Northern California gets most of its drinking water from the snowpack that builds each year in the Sierra Nevada mountains. In spring, those snows gradually melt, filling the rivers that fill our reservoirs. In May 2021, however, the Sierra snowpack was a devastating six percent of normal!

Stop a moment and take that in, while you try to imagine the future of much of the state — and the crucial crops it grows.

For my own hometown, San Francisco, things aren't quite that dire. Water levels in Hetch Hetchy, our main reservoir, located in Yosemite National Park, are down from previous years, but not disastrously so. With voluntary water-use reduction, we're likely to have enough to drink this year at least. Things are a lot less promising, however, in rural California where towns tend to rely on groundwater for domestic use.

Shrinking water supplies don't just affect individual consumers here in this state, they affect everyone in the United States who eats, because 13.5% of all our agricultural products, including meat and dairy, as well as fruits and vegetables, come from California. Growing food requires prodigious amounts of water. In fact, farmland irrigation accounts for roughly 80% of all water used by businesses and homes in the state.

So how are California's agricultural water supplies doing this year? The answer, sadly, is not very well. State regulators have already cut distribution to about a quarter of California's irrigated acreage (about two million acres) by a drastic 95%. That's right. A full quarter of the state's farmlands have access to just 5% of what they would ordinarily receive from rivers and aqueducts. As a result, some farmers are turning to groundwater, a more easily exhausted source, which also replenishes itself far more slowly than rivers and streams. Some are even choosing to sell their water to other farmers, rather than use it to grow crops at all, because that makes more economic sense for them. As smaller farms are likely to be the first to fold, the water crisis will only enhance the dominance of major corporations in food production.

Meanwhile, we'll probably be breaking out our N95 masks soon. Wildfire season has already begun — earlier than ever. On July 1st, the then-still-uncontained Salt firebriefly closed a section of Interstate 5 near Redding in northern California. (I-5 is the main north-south interstate along the West coast.) And that's only one of the more than 4,500 fire incidents already recorded in the state this year. 

Last year, almost 10,000 fires burned more than four million acres here, and everything points to a similar or worse season in 2021. Unlike Donald Trump, who famously blamed California's fires on a failure to properly rake our forests, President Biden is taking the threat seriously. On June 30th, he convened western state leaders to discuss the problem, acknowledging that "we have to act and act fast. We're late in the game here." The president promised a number of measures: guaranteeing sufficient, and sufficiently trained, firefighters; raising their minimum pay to $15 per hour; and making grants to California counties under the Federal Emergency Management Agency's BRIC (Building Resilient Infrastructure and Communities) program.

Such measures will help a little in the short term, but none of it will make a damn bit of difference in the longer run if the Biden administration and a politically divisive Congress don't begin to truly treat climate change as the immediate and desperately long-term emergency it is.

Justice and Generations

In his famous A Theory of Justicethe great liberal philosopher of the twentieth century John Rawls proposed a procedural method for designing reasonable and fair principles and policies in a given society. His idea: that the people determining such basic policies should act as if they had stepped behind a "veil of ignorance" and had lost specific knowledge of their own place in society. They'd be ignorant of their own class status, ethnicity, or even how lucky they'd been when nature was handing out gifts like intelligence, health, and physical strength.  

Once behind such a veil of personal ignorance, Rawls argued, people might make rules that would be as fair as possible, because they wouldn't know whether they themselves were rich or poor, black or white, old or young — or even which generation they belonged to. This last category was almost an afterthought, included, he wrote, "in part because questions of social justice arise between generations as well as within them."

His point about justice between generations not only still seems valid to me, but in light of present-day circumstances radically understated. I don't think Rawls ever envisioned a trans-generational injustice as great as the climate-change one we're allowing to happen, not to say actively inducing, at this very moment.

Human beings have a hard time recognizing looming but invisible dangers. In 1990, I spent a few months in South Africa providing some technical assistance to an anti-apartheid newspaper. When local health workers found out that I had worked (as a bookkeeper) for an agency in the U.S. trying to prevent the transmission of AIDS, they desperately wanted to talk to me. How, they hoped to learn, could they get people living in their townships to act now to prevent a highly transmissible illness that would only produce symptoms years after infection? How, in the face of the all-too-present emergencies of everyday apartheid life, could they get people to focus on a vague but potentially horrendous danger barreling down from the future? I had few good answers and, almost 30 years later, South Africa has the largest HIV-positive population in the world.

Of course, there are human beings who've known about the climate crisis for decades — and not just the scientists who wrote about it as early as the 1950s or the ones who gave an American president an all-too-accurate report on it in 1965. The fossil-fuel companies have, of course, known all along — and have focused their scientific efforts not on finding alternative energy sources, but on creating doubt about the reality of human-caused climate change (just as, once upon a time, tobacco companies sowed doubt about the relationship between smoking and cancer). As early as 1979, the Guardian reports, an internal Exxon study concluded that the use of fossil fuels would certainly "cause dramatic environmental effects" in the decades ahead. "The potential problem is great and urgent," the study concluded.

A problem that was "great and urgent" in 1979 is now a full-blown existential crisis for human survival.

Some friends and I were recently talking about how ominous the future must look to the younger people we know. "They are really the first generation to confront an end to humanity in their own, or perhaps their children's lifetimes," I said.

"But we had The Bomb," a friend reminded me. "We grew up in the shadow of nuclear war." And she was right of course. We children of the 1950s and 1960s grew up knowing that someone could "press the button" at any time, but there was a difference. Horrifying as is the present retooling of our nuclear arsenal (going on right now, under President Biden), nuclear war nonetheless remains a question of "if." Climate change is a matter of "when" and that when, as anyone living in the Northwest of the United States and Canada should know after these last weeks, is all too obviously now.

It's impossible to overstate the urgency of the moment. And yet, as a species, we're acting like the children of indulgent parents who provide multiple "last chances" to behave. Now, nature has run out of patience and we're running out of chances. So much must be done globally, especially to control the giant fossil-fuel companies. We can only hope that real action will emerge from November's international climate conference. And here in the U.S., unless congressional Democrats succeed in ramming through major action to stop climate change before the 2022 midterms, we'll have lost one more last, best chance for survival.

Copyright 2021 Rebecca Gordon


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