The sun peeked over the rim of the trees here in my little corner of New Hampshire last week like a dusky gold coin, no shine, no glare, easy enough to look straight at. My daughter in the back seat rolled down her window and said, “Daddy, it smells like the beach!” when the air hit her face. The sky stayed eggshell white all day long though the forecast had called for straight blue, and my lungs — always a martyr to the allergens of the season — felt slightly heavier than usual.
It smelled like the beach to my daughter because “the beach” for her is campfires on the sand and the smell of woodsmoke in her clothes when the night is done. It smelled like the beach because the apocalyptic climate fires 3,000 miles to the West had found the slipstream of the Eastern winds and gone for a ride around the world.
The Creek Fire in California, the largest single wildfire in the state’s history, continues to burn today. It has devoured nearly 300,000 acres in and around Madera and Fresno counties. At present, it is only 36 percent contained. The Bobcat Fire near Los Angeles, the third-largest ever recorded in that region, was 38 percent contained on Wednesday. There are 50 other fires burning from Washington State to southern California, and at least 26 lives have been lost to the conflagration.
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“Oregon, Washington and other areas of the West will get a welcome break from dry weather Thursday and Friday, with some rain in the forecast,” reports CNN. “But for the wildfire-weary, another bout of dry weather returns this weekend and could last weeks. Along with already dry fuel on the ground, the forecast will mean more hazardous fire conditions in a season that has already broken records.”
I lack the adequate vocabulary to describe my sorrow and horror at what has unfolded in Oregon, Colorado and California. For myself, and for so many, the places charred to ash by these climate-fueled conflagrations are holy in a way beyond any church, mosque or temple. I looked at that dull gold coin in the sky and wept within myself. That, at least, was familiar after so many months of sorrow.
“What strikes me is that the future we were really worried about and that us climate scientists talked about for decades, we’re living through that now,” Susan Prichard, a University of Washington research scientist, told NBC News.
Looking at that soot-stained sun, I was reminded that, in the beginning and the end, we all share a collective fate. President Kennedy said in his 1963 “Peace speech” that, “We all inhabit this small planet, we all breathe the same air, we all cherish our children’s future, and we are all mortal.”
Today, we all breathe the same smoke, and in the face of climate disaster, are perhaps more mortal than ever before. The current president of the United States and his allies still refuse to acknowledge the common doom awaiting us all, because there is profit in that ignorance, and there are always people who will listen to ignorance if it lets them avoid the frightening truth.
An exchange between climate scientists captured by MIT Technology Review is telling:
After years of watching the administration unravel climate policies, subvert the rule of law, stack courts, politicize a pandemic, undermine the election process, and hint about third and fourth terms, the people I asked are terrified of what the president may do if he remains in office for another four years or more.
Ken Caldeira, a climate scientist at the Carnegie Institution, said: “Well, first of all, there’s the question of ‘Will the US become a dictatorial, totalitarian regime?’” Danny Cullenward, a lecturer at Stanford’s law school, replied: “There’s no climate policy angle to that story. The United States is then a failed state.”
Indeed, today’s heated academic debates among climate experts over the most effective mix of US policies and technologies could soon seem quaint, and beside the point. New policies are effectively off the table. Old ones are very likely doomed. And climate change itself will only continue to accelerate as the time left to avoid extremely dangerous levels of warming ticks away.
The frightening truth towers before us like a fast-rushing wall of drought-fed flames, like a monster hurricane born of the super-heated waters of the BP-sullied Gulf of Mexico, like failed crops stretching as far as the eye can see, like a still pool of murky floodwater where a town square used to be.
The frightening truth is no longer a theoretical model that will play out on some socially distanced tomorrow. Fire, flood, drought and storm have combined simultaneously today in ways many climate scientists had anticipated, but not so soon, and certainly not with a democracy-destroying rogue president at the helm of the country.
And yet here we are, inhabiting this small planet and breathing the same air as those who whistle past our collective graveyard with crumpled bills stuffed in their pockets. My daughter does not deserve this future, nor do her peers, and many of them have begun to push back hard.
“Consider the meteoric rise of groups like the Sunrise Movement,” reports Brian Khan for Gizmodo, “and the fact that we’re even talking about if they could influence a presidential election. Sunrise and nearly the entire youth climate movement ecosystem didn’t really exist during the 2016 presidential election and was nascent at best during the 2018 midterms. But in the two years since, it has exploded into a force with real political power.”
None too soon, and hopefully not too late. Keep breathing.