In early November, gale-force winds whipped a brush fire into an inferno that nearly consumed the town of Paradise, California, and killed at least 86 people.
By the second morning, I could smell the fire from one foot outside my door in Berkeley, some 130 miles from the flames. Within a week, my eyes and throat stung even when I was indoors.
Air quality maps warned that the soot-filled air blanketing the Bay Area had reached “very unhealthy” levels. For days, nearly everyone wore masks as they walked their dogs, rode the train, and carried out errands. Most of those thin-paper respirators were of dubious value. Stores quickly ran out of the good ones—the “N-95s” that block 95% of fine particles—and sold out of air purifiers, too.
People traded tips about where they could be found, and rushed to stores rumored to have a new supply. Others packed up and drove hours away in search of a safe place to wait it out. By the time my masks arrived by mail, I was in Ohio, having decided to move up my Thanksgiving travel to escape the smoke.
Climate change doesn’t ignite wildfires, but it’s intensifying the hot, dry summer conditions that have helped fuel some of California’s deadliest and most destructive fires in recent years.
I’ve long understood that the dangers of global warming are real and rising. I’ve seen its power firsthand in the form of receding glaciers, dried lake beds, and Sierra tree stands taken down by bark beetles.
This is the first time, though, that I smelled and tasted it in my home.
Obviously, a sore throat and a flight change are trivial compared with the lives and homes lost in the Camp Fire. But after I spent a week living under a haze of smoke, it did resonate on a deeper level that we’re really going to let this happen.
Thousands if not millions of people are going to starve, drown, burn to death, or live out lives of misery because we’ve failed to pull together in the face of the ultimate tragedy of the commons. Many more will find themselves scrambling for basic survival goods and fretting over the prospect of more fires, more ferocious hurricanes, and summer days of blistering heat.
There’s no solving climate change any longer. There’s only living with it and doing everything in our power to limit the damage.
And seeing an entire community near one of the world’s richest regions all but wiped out, while retailers failed to meet critical public needs in the aftermath, left me with a dimmer view of our ability to grapple with the far greater challenges to come.
Some observers believe that once the world endures enough climate catastrophes, we’ll finally come to our collective senses and make some last-minute push to address the problem. But for many, that will be too late.
Carbon dioxide takes years to reach its full warming effect and persists for millennia. We may well have already emitted enough to sail past a dangerous 1.5 ˚C of warming. And at the rate we’re going, it could take hundreds of years to shift to a global energy system that doesn’t pump out far more climate pollution—every ton of which only makes the problem worse.
President Barack Obama’s top science advisor, John Holdren, once said that our options for dealing with climate change are cutting emissions, adapting (building, say, higher seawalls or city cooling centers), and suffering.
Since we’re utterly failing in the first category, far more of the job will inevitably come down to the latter two. By choosing not to deal with the root cause, we’ve opted to deal with the problem in the most expensive, shortsighted, destructive, and cruel way possible.
We could have overhauled the energy system. Instead we’ll have to overhaul almost every aspect of life: expanding emergency response, building more hospitals, fortifying our shorelines, upgrading our building materials, reengineering the way we grow and distribute food, and much more.
And even if we pay the high price to do all that, we’ll still have worse outcomes than if we had tackled the core problem in the first place. We’ve decided to forever diminish our quality of life, sense of security, and collective odds of living out happy and healthy lives. And we’ve done it not just for ourselves, but for our children and foreseeable future generations.
Uneven and unfair
The devastation from climate change will manifest in different ways in different places, in highly uneven and unfair ways: severe drought and famine across much of Africa and Australia, shrinking water supplies for the billions who rely on the glaciers of the Tibetan Plateau, and the threat of forced displacement for at least tens of millions exposed to rising sea levels in South Asia.
In California, higher temperatures, declining snowpack, and shifting precipitation patterns mean more people already live under the threat of droughts and fires.
I’ve smelled or spotted four major blazes in the last two years. This July, a close friend and her pregnant sister sped down Interstate 580, through the Altamont Pass, as flames raged on both sides. Another friend raced into Paradise to evacuate her father on the morning that the Camp Fire tore through the town. Still another sifted ashes in the remnants of homes a few days later, looking for bone fragments and other human remains as part of a local search and rescue team.
Global warming has already doubled the area scorched by forest fires during the last three decades across the American West, according to an earlier study in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. By midcentury, that footprint could swell again by a multiple of two to six, according to the recent US National Climate Assessment (see “Cutting emissions could prevent tens of thousands of heat deaths annually”).
None of this is a defense for throwing up our hands—it’s an argument for redoubling our efforts. Even if we’re not going to “solve” climate change, we’re going to have to work feverishly to manage it, like a chronic disease. We need to learn to live with the symptoms while finding ways to keep them from getting worse.
Every additional gigaton of greenhouse gas we put into the atmosphere from this point forward only increases the economic costs, ecosystem devastation, and human suffering.
So the question is: What’s it going to take to finally bring about the public policies, accelerated innovation, and collective will needed to force rapid change?
One hopes that as climate change becomes increasingly undeniable, and its effects come to feel like real and immediate threats to our well-being, people will demand that our leaders and industries take aggressive action.
Research has found that experiencing higher temperatures and extreme weather events is correlated with greater belief in or concern about climate change. And younger people, who are staring at a much grimmer future, are considerably more likely to believe that climate change is real and action is required—even among millennial Republicans in the US.
But as I watched the death count rise from simultaneous infernos across California last month, it struck me that another possibility was just as plausible: the destruction of climate change will overwhelm society in ways that make us less likely to undertake the sacrifices necessary for a safer future.
We’re likely to face a shrinking economy, skyrocketing emergency response costs, and a staggering price tag for adaptions measures like seawalls—all while we still need to race to zero emissions as quickly as possible.
People may dig deep for certain adaptions that promise to improve their security immediately—but the perceived return on investments into cutting emissions could shrink as extreme weather becomes more common and costly. That’s because, again, carbon dioxide works on a time delay, and the problem only stops getting worse—doesn’t disappear—once we’ve reached zero emissions (unless we figure out how to suck massive amounts of it from the atmosphere as well).
As more of our money, time, and energy gets sucked up by the immediate demands of overlapping tragedies, I fear people may become less willing to invest increasingly limited resources in the long-term common good.
Put another way, one paradoxical impact of climate change is that it could make many even more reluctant to take it on.
Worse to come
When I started writing seriously about climate change a little more than five years ago, the dangers largely seemed distant and abstract. Without realizing it, most of this time I’ve carried along an assumption that we will somehow, eventually, confront the problem in a meaningful way. We don’t have a choice. So sooner or later, we’ll do the right thing.
But after two years closely reporting and writing on clean energy technologies here, it has slowly dawned on me that, well, maybe not. While we absolutely could accomplish much of the necessary transformation with existing or emerging technologies, the sheer scale of the overhaul required and the depth of the entrenched interests may add up to insurmountable levels of inertia.
So the Camp Fire and its aftermath didn’t singlehandedly push me from optimism to pessimism. The more I’ve come to understand the true parameters of the problem, the more I’ve tilted toward the dire side of the spectrum.
But the surreal scene of high-paid workers walking through the murky yellow air of downtown San Francisco, masks inadvertently color-coordinated with their earbuds in the capital of techno-utopianism, certainly widened my frame of the possible—and felt like a taste of things to come.