It is now too late

In a time when confidence in political authority is at a low ebb,[1] and climate crisis denial is widespread not only among the public but in political leadership, drastic action is needed, not just on the fires that now ravage the U.S. west, not just on the climate crisis, but as well for the economic fallout that already accompanies the pandemic, that politicians have also abjectly failed to respond to.[2]

Fig. 1. Photograph taken from the Berkeley Hills by Clara Mokri, September 9, 2020, via New York magazine,[3] fair use. Assuming this picture faces westward, one would expect to see San Francisco and Marin County.

I think I’m going numb. I’ve been telling people that in California, if it hasn’t burned, it will. That’s happening:

Of course, we must move much more quickly [on the climate crisis]. But in planning a path forward, through fire, California cannot wait, or hope, for climate action—for a Green New Deal, electrified everything, and global decarbonization. For one thing, it would take too long — the climate impacts of even extremely aggressive global decarbonization, scientists believe, won’t be even observable for decades. Until then, all else being equal, warming will worsen, and the fires of the American west, presumably, will too. If the fires of 2020 horrify you, as they should, consider that by 2050, when the benefits of fast climate action will only begin to arrive, the area burned annually in the west is expected to have at least doubled, and perhaps quadrupled.[4]

I’m safely across the country, in Pittsburgh. My mother is still out there, weighing whether to move sooner or later.

People ask me if I miss California. I tell them that I have been to the places I love so often, over the over fifty years I lived there, that they are a part of me. I have only to think of them and I am there. In reality, some of them have already gone up in smoke. I have seen apocalyptic orange skies (figure 1) from fires in previous years but never this:

In San Francisco, Wednesday [September 9] at noon, you couldn’t see anything. “No measurable sunlight” was penetrating the canopy of smoke and reaching the ground — the fire equivalent of an eclipse. Rooftop solar stopped working. It was 30-degrees colder than had been predicted on the ground. A friend’s toddler walked out the front door with a flashlight, searching for the sidewalk. With smoke plumes rising to 50,000 feet, you couldn’t even fly above the fires anymore, only through them. The behavior of smoke clouds, the National Weather Service said, “was beyond the scope of our models.”[5]

It turns out that not merely the climate crisis is to blame, but a failure to allow some fires, needed in a fire ecology, to burn. Now, some twenty million acres would need to be subject to “controlled burns,”[6] burns which themselves have sometimes gotten out of control.

The effort needed here will be herculean. But with neoliberals minimizing the risks we face and conservatives outright denying them, it’s hard to imagine action matching the scale of the catastrophe. And consider further that while I have considered here only the risks of fire in the drought-ravaged west, similar calamities are accumulating elsewhere.[7] The feedbacks will intensify and combine. California is merely the barest taste of what is yet to come:

In this way, even beyond the immediate threat of their flames and the eerie contagion of their smoke, the new California fires offer a threefold prophecy about our climate future. First, however much we do to stabilize the world’s climate, it will not stop the burning any time soon. Second, it isn’t that the land itself, or the ecology of the region, can’t survive climate change, but that the conditions of habitability on which we have erected whole sprawling, demanding, often unjust civilizations are being shaken — in some places, already quite profoundly, with comparatively little warming. And third, we not only have the hard work of stabilizing our climate future through rapid decarbonization ahead of us, but also the work of adapting and responding to the new world already made inevitable by warming, particularly for the communities, disadvantaged and marginalized, who always stand most clearly in the path of climate impacts like wildfire.[8]

In this, it is not just a backlog in controlled burning that seems unimaginable,[9] but a backlog in environmentalist recognition that it was never enough to recognize that the environment needed to be taken care of: people needed to be taken care of, too. Even with the immediacy of the pandemic, we fail at this;[10] politicians fiddle while California burns. How can we even remotely hope that they will respond to the economic calamity that accompanies the climate crisis?

I have said that the status quo is incapable of responding to our crisis.[11] It is hard even to imagine that the elite care enough to want to respond,[12] as they refuse Medicare For All in a pandemic and a Green New Deal in a climate crisis.

Perhaps in some distant future, archaeologists will arrive from some other planet. They will wonder what happened to a civilization that had seemingly progressed so far. The answer is here.

  1. [1]David Benfell, “The pandemic and a crisis of illegitimate authority,” Not Housebroken, May 12, 2020, https://disunitedstates.org/2020/05/12/the-pandemic-and-a-crisis-of-illegitimate-authority/
  2. [2]Marianne Levine, “Schumer rips ’emaciated’ Republican coronavirus relief plan,” Politico, September 3, 2020, https://www.politico.com/news/2020/09/03/coronavirus-relief-plan-chuck-schumer-407974; Heather Long, “This recession is already deep. If Congress fails to act, a lot of damage could be permanent,” Washington Post, July 30, 2020, https://www.washingtonpost.com/business/2020/07/30/economists-favor-big-stimulus/; Anna Palmer and Jake Sherman, “Will they ever get a deal?” Politico, August 3, 2020, https://www.politico.com/newsletters/playbook/2020/08/03/will-they-ever-get-a-deal-489957; Eli Rosenberg, Erica Werner, and Jeff Stein, “30 million unemployed lose extra jobless benefits, as talks between Congress and the White House are at an impasse,” Washington Post, July 31, 2020, https://www.washingtonpost.com/us-policy/2020/07/31/congress-bailout-unemployment-insurance/; Christopher Rugaber, “Gone for good? Evidence signals many jobs aren’t coming back,” Associated Press, August 5, 2020, copy in possession of author; Kyle Swenson, “Ten bucks left, no place to go: How the pandemic and a broken unemployment system are upending people’s lives,” Washington Post, August 1, 2020, https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/coronavirus-unemployment-delays-dc/2020/08/01/50016264-c522-11ea-8ffe-372be8d82298_story.html
  3. [3]David Wallace-Wells, “California Can’t Afford to Wait for Climate Action,” New York, September 11, 2020, https://nymag.com/intelligencer/2020/09/california-cant-afford-to-wait-for-climate-action.html
  4. [4]David Wallace-Wells, “California Can’t Afford to Wait for Climate Action,” New York, September 11, 2020, https://nymag.com/intelligencer/2020/09/california-cant-afford-to-wait-for-climate-action.html
  5. [5]David Wallace-Wells, “California Can’t Afford to Wait for Climate Action,” New York, September 11, 2020, https://nymag.com/intelligencer/2020/09/california-cant-afford-to-wait-for-climate-action.html
  6. [6]David Wallace-Wells, “California Can’t Afford to Wait for Climate Action,” New York, September 11, 2020, https://nymag.com/intelligencer/2020/09/california-cant-afford-to-wait-for-climate-action.html
  7. [7]Fred Pearce, With Speed and Violence (Boston: Beacon, 2007).
  8. [8]David Wallace-Wells, “California Can’t Afford to Wait for Climate Action,” New York, September 11, 2020, https://nymag.com/intelligencer/2020/09/california-cant-afford-to-wait-for-climate-action.html
  9. [9]David Wallace-Wells, “California Can’t Afford to Wait for Climate Action,” New York, September 11, 2020, https://nymag.com/intelligencer/2020/09/california-cant-afford-to-wait-for-climate-action.html
  10. [10]Marianne Levine, “Schumer rips ’emaciated’ Republican coronavirus relief plan,” Politico, September 3, 2020, https://www.politico.com/news/2020/09/03/coronavirus-relief-plan-chuck-schumer-407974; Heather Long, “This recession is already deep. If Congress fails to act, a lot of damage could be permanent,” Washington Post, July 30, 2020, https://www.washingtonpost.com/business/2020/07/30/economists-favor-big-stimulus/; Anna Palmer and Jake Sherman, “Will they ever get a deal?” Politico, August 3, 2020, https://www.politico.com/newsletters/playbook/2020/08/03/will-they-ever-get-a-deal-489957; Eli Rosenberg, Erica Werner, and Jeff Stein, “30 million unemployed lose extra jobless benefits, as talks between Congress and the White House are at an impasse,” Washington Post, July 31, 2020, https://www.washingtonpost.com/us-policy/2020/07/31/congress-bailout-unemployment-insurance/; Christopher Rugaber, “Gone for good? Evidence signals many jobs aren’t coming back,” Associated Press, August 5, 2020, copy in possession of author; Kyle Swenson, “Ten bucks left, no place to go: How the pandemic and a broken unemployment system are upending people’s lives,” Washington Post, August 1, 2020, https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/coronavirus-unemployment-delays-dc/2020/08/01/50016264-c522-11ea-8ffe-372be8d82298_story.html
  11. [11]David Benfell, “Off with their heads,” Not Housebroken, August 19, 2020, https://disunitedstates.org/2020/08/17/off-with-their-heads/
  12. [12]David Benfell, “The mysterious expectation that elites give a damn,” Not Housebroken, August 1, 2020, https://disunitedstates.org/2020/08/01/the-mysterious-expectation-that-elites-give-a-damn/

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