Why are we letting the world burn has suddenly become a very pressing question.
Climate change has always been about rising temperatures, but even in the recent past, climate scientists have always talked about temperatures rising very slowly, maybe half a degree or so over 100 years. Talk of temperature rise has always been very abstract, very scientific, very cool so to speak. But that has suddenly changed over the last two or three weeks.
An unprecidented heat wave in the Pacific Northwest
Suddenly the Pacific Northwest and Canada, places that have always been known as cool refuges from summer heat, are seeing old heat records being broken by five or seven and even nine degrees. The new face of climate change is extreme heat, the extreme drying of land and forests and massive wildfires. The question has now become, Why are we letting the world burn?
According to the New York Times, “The town of Lytton, British Columbia, broke the Canadian temperature record three days in a row, ending with a reading of 121 degrees on June 29. The next day, most of the town was destroyed by a wildfire, in which two residents were killed.” Lytton has never been anywhere near this hot before. Lytton used to be the place Americans went when it was too hot in California.
Below is a dramatic video of Lytton burning.
Two weeks ago temperatures across most of Oregon and Washington spiked 20 to 30 degrees Celsius above normal.
Millions of people in the Pacific Northwest from Portland to Vancouver suffered extreme heat that was well above 110 degrees in many places. Portland hit a high of 116 degrees. Salem hit an unbelievable high of 117 degrees. Seattle broke its previous record of 103 and had a new record high of 107 degrees. Quillayute, WA also broke its record of 99 degrees and hit 110 degrees. The temperature at Columbia Gorge Reginal Airport was 118. Canada broke its all time national temperature record with temperatures at Lytton of 118 and then 121 degrees.
People and animals in Pacific NW are dying in much larger numbers than normal. Bill McKibben in the New Yorker said that “Almost five hundred people died in British Columbia in the course of five days, compared with an average of one hundred sixty-five in normal times, and more than a billion sea creatures may have perished in the coastal waters.
Dr Christopher Harley, a marine biologist at the University of British Columbia who studies the effects of climate change on coastal marine ecosystems said the result of this heat wave was was an incredible disaster to the animals living in the coastal ocean.
Dead mussels and clams coated rocks in the Pacific Northwest, their shells gaping open as if they’d been boiled. Sea stars were baked to death. Sockeye salmon swam sluggishly in an overheated Washington river, prompting wildlife officials to truck them to cooler areas.
The combination of extraordinary heat and drought that hit the Western United States and Canada over the past two weeks has killed hundreds of millions of marine animals and continues to threaten untold species in freshwater, according to a preliminary estimate and interviews with scientists.
“It just feels like one of those postapocalyptic movies,” said Dr Harley.
Several scientific teams have already said that extreme heat like this would have been impossible without climate change.
All of this is very new. Temperatures have never before done anything like this ever before. We have never had heat waves as extreme as this. And especially not in a place like the Pacific Northwest which is renowned for its cool temperatures in hot summers. Frankly, a lot of scientists are scared.
“This is by far the largest jump in the record I have ever seen,” Friederike Otto, the associate director of the Environmental Change Institute at the University of Oxford, told the Guardian. “We should definitely not expect heatwaves to behave as they have in the past . . . in terms of what we need to prepare for.”
A Dutch college of Dr Otto said that “We are now much less certain about heatwaves than we were two weeks ago. We are very worried about the possibility of this happening everywhere but we just don’t know yet.”
One thing that is especially scary to scientists is that heat like this may be part of some kind of feedback loop that drives temperatures higher very rapidly.
Bill McKibben says that,
I was in the desert Southwest for much of the past two weeks, travelling across a wide swath of land that also saw record temperatures, and I can testify about one of the mechanisms that may be driving them.
The ground is desiccated: in more normal times, the evaporation of soil moisture uses some of the sun’s energy, but now there is nothing left to evaporate, so the land just bakes. To feel that dryness, to shuffle through the sand of the desert in midafternoon while the sun hammers down, is to understand the new world we’re building—and not over centuries, or even decades.
The damage seems to be increasing season by season: as the drought deepens in the West, even the occasional rains barely make a dent; the reservoirs of the Colorado River behind the Hoover and Glen Canyon Dams are at record lows, exposing old side canyons and even resurrecting rapids that drowned when the reservoirs were originally filled.
Why do we continue to let the world burn?
And there are other worries. Water levels are way down in all of the big western reservoirs like Lake Powell and Lake Mead. One thing that this means that there is less water to run through the dam’s turbines and this means less electricity is being sent to big cities like Phoenix and Las Vagas and Los Angeles. But in these cities temperatures are rising. Las Vegas just hit a new high of 117 degrees last week. This means a lot of air conditioning is now needed, much more than used to be needed. But taking dam turbines off-line means lots less electricity to run coolers is available and this means catastrophic black outs of large electrical systems and this means even more rapidly rising death rates. Overheated people die very easily.
Bill McKibben wonders if our government, even with Joe Biden in charge, is paying enough attention to the seriousness of our climate situation.
People say that deserts aren’t meant for cities, but there are 2.6 million people living in greater Las Vegas, and 4.7 million in greater Phoenix. If we’re suddenly facing existential risks to this much of the country, you’d expect leaders in Washington to be all over the problem, if for no better reason than political calculus—the region has red states, blue states, and purple states. Yet Senator Ron Johnson, Republican of Wisconsin, chose the occasion to tell a crowd, “I don’t know about you guys, but I think climate change is . . . bullshit.”
All of this is pretty scary if you ask me. I used to think that if the climate got really hot in the US maybe we could just move to Canada. But you know what? It isn’t cooler anyplace any more. There are no more cool places to run to.
I suppose we could always move to Arctic Canada up where there are icebergs in the sea and polar bears and lots of snow. But how practical is that? People still have to have jobs. And people want nice houses and and shopping malls and restaurants and theatres and there are none of these in arctic Canada or far-north Alaska.
And even Northern Canada is not all that cool anymore. And in the timbered parts of Canada and Alaska the millions of acres of forest burn all summer long and both places are suffocating in the thick smoke. I’m afraid we have run out of places to hide.
There is only one solution. We are going to have to fix global warming and a lot of other associated problems like the death of the oceans and the billions of tons of plastics that now litter all of the earth. We can no longer ignore it or run away from it.
And we are going to have to do this very, very soon if we hope to survive. We are very rapidly running out of time.
Ezra Klein makes this point very clearly in an editorial he wrote just this morning in the New York Times. The title of his article is “It Seems Odd That We Would Just Let the World Burn.”
Klein says that,
I spent the weekend reading a book I wasn’t entirely comfortable being seen with in public. Andreas Malm’s “How to Blow Up a Pipeline” is only slightly inaptly named. You won’t find, anywhere inside, instructions on sabotaging energy infrastructure. A truer title would be “Why to Blow Up a Pipeline.” On this, Malm’s case is straightforward: Because nothing else has worked.
Decades of climate activism have gotten millions of people into the streets but they haven’t turned the tide on emissions, or even investments. Citing a 2019 study in the journal Nature, Malm observes that, measuring by capacity, 49 percent of the fossil-fuel-burning energy infrastructure now in operation was installed after 2004. Add in the expected emissions from projects in some stage of the planning process and we are most of the way toward warming the world by 2 degrees Celsius — a prospect scientists consider terrifying and most world governments have repeatedly pledged to avoid. Some hoped that the pandemic would alter the world’s course, but it hasn’t. Oil consumption is hurtling back to precrisis levels, and demand for coal, the dirtiest of the fuels, is rising.
“Here is what this movement of millions should do, for a start,” Malm writes. “Announce and enforce the prohibition. Damage and destroy new CO2-emitting devices. Put them out of commission, pick them apart, demolish them, burn them, blow them up. Let the capitalists who keep on investing in the fire know that their properties will be trashed.”
The question at the heart of Malm’s book is why this isn’t happening already. “Were we governed by reason, we would be on the barricades today, dragging the drivers of Range Rovers and Nissan Patrols out of their seats, occupying and shutting down the coal-burning power stations, bursting in upon the Blairs’ retreat from reality in Barbados and demanding a reversal of economic life as dramatic as the one we bore when we went to war with Hitler,” he says.
Yes, why are we not doing exactly this. Or perhaps something a little more practical like nonviolent strategic pacifism which is what Malm is actually recommending. He really does know that violence is usually nonproductive.
But it’s still a very good question. We are we doing nothing while the world is burning down around us? Why are we letting the world burn?