My Extreme World
And (Un)Welcome to It
Admittedly, I hadn’t been there for 46 years, but old friends of mine still live (or at least lived) in the town of Greenville, California, and now… well, it’s more or less gone, though they survived. The Dixie Fire, one of those devastating West Coast blazes, had already “blackened” 504 square miles of Northern California in what was still essentially the (old) pre-fire season. It would soon become the second-largest wildfire in the state’s history. When it swept through Greenville, much of downtown, along with more than 100 homes, were left in ashes as the 1,000 residents of that Gold Rush-era town fled.
I remember Greenville as a wonderful little place that, all these years later, still brings back fond memories. I’m now on the other coast, but much of that small, historic community is no longer there. This season, California’s wildfires have already devastated three times the territory burned in the same period in 2020’s record fire season. And that makes a point that couldn’t be more salient to our moment and our future. A heating planet is a danger, not in some distant time, but right now — yesterday, today, and tomorrow. Don’t just ask the inhabitants of Greenville, ask those in the village of Monte Lake, British Columbia, the second town in that Canadian province to be gutted by flames in recent months in a region that normally — or perhaps I should just say once upon a time — was used to neither extreme heat and drought, nor the fires that accompany them.
In case you hadn’t noticed, we’re no longer just reading about the climate crisis; we’re living it in a startling fashion. At least for this old guy, that’s now a fact — not just of life but of all our lives — that simply couldn’t be more extreme and I don’t even need the latest harrowing report of the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) to tell me so. Whether you’ve been sweating and swearing under the latest heat dome; fleeing fires somewhere in the West; broiling in a Siberia that’s releasing startling amounts of heat-producing methane into the atmosphere; being swept away by flood waters in Germany; sweltering in an unprecedented heat-and-fire season in Greece (where even the suburbs of Athens were being evacuated); baking in Turkey or on the island of Sardinia in a “disaster without precedent“; neck-deep in water in a Chinese subway car; or, after “extreme rains,” wading through the subway systems of New York City or London, you — all of us — are in a new world and we better damn well get used to it.
Floods, megadrought, the fiercest of forest fires, unprecedented storms — you name it and it seems to be happening not in 2100 or even 2031, but now. A recent study suggests that, in 2020 (not 2040 or 2080), more than a quarter of Americans had suffered in some fashion from the effects of extreme heat, already the greatest weather-based killer of Americans and, given this blazing summer, 2021 is only likely to be worse.
By the way, don’t imagine that it’s just us humans who are suffering. Consider, for instance, the estimated billion or more — yes, one billion! — mussels, barnacles, and other small sea creatures that were estimated to have died off the coast of Vancouver, Canada, during the unprecedented heat wave there earlier in the summer.
A few weeks ago, watching the setting sun, an eerie blaze of orange-red in a hazy sky here on the East Coast was an unsettling experience once I realized what I was actually seeing: a haze of smoke from the megadrought-stricken West’s disastrous early fire season. It had blown thousands of miles east for the second year in a row, managing to turn the air of New York and Philadelphia into danger zones.
In a way, right now it hardly matters where you look on this planet of ours. Take Greenland, where a “massive melting event,” occurring after the temperature there hit double the normal this summer, made enough ice vanish “in a single day last week to cover the whole of Florida in two inches of water.” But there was also that record brush fire torching more than 62 square miles of Hawaii’s Big Island. And while you’re at it, you can skip prime houseboat-vacation season at Lake Powell on the Arizona-Utah border, since that huge reservoir is now three-quarters empty (and, among Western reservoirs, anything but alone!).
It almost doesn’t matter which recent report you cite. When it comes to what the scientists are finding, it’s invariably worse than you (or often even they) had previously imagined. It’s true, for instance, of the Amazon rain forest, one of the great carbon sinks on the planet. Parts of it are now starting to release carbon into the atmosphere, as a study in the journal Nature reported recently, partially thanks to climate change and partially to more direct forms of human intervention.
It’s no less true of the Siberian permafrost in a region where, for the first time above the Arctic Circle, the temperature in one town reached more than 100 degrees Fahrenheit on a summer day in 2020. And yes, when Siberia heats up in such a fashion, methane (a far more powerful heat-trapping gas than CO2) is released into the atmosphere from that region’s melting permafrost wetlands, which had previously sealed it in. And recently, that’s not even the real news. What about the possibility, according to a new study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, that what’s being released now is actually a potential “methane bomb” not from that permafrost itself but from thawing rock formations within it?
In fact, when it comes to the climate crisis, as a recent study in the journal Bioscience found, “some 16 out of 31 tracked planetary vital signs, including greenhouse gas concentrations, ocean heat content, and ice mass, set worrying new records.” Similarly, carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide “have all set new year-to-date records for atmospheric concentrations in both 2020 and 2021.”
Mind you, just in case you hadn’t noticed, the last seven years have been the warmest in recorded history. And speaking of climate-change-style records in this era, last year, 22 natural disasters hit this country, including hurricanes, fires, and floods, each causing more than $1 billion in damage, another instant record with — the safest prediction around — many more to come.
“It Looked Like an Atomic Bomb”
Lest you think that all of this represents an anomaly of some sort, simply a bad year or two on a planet that historically has gone from heat to ice and back again, think twice. A recent report published in Nature Climate Change, for instance, suggests that heat waves that could put the recent ones in the U.S. West and British Columbia to shame are a certainty and especially likely for “highly populated regions in North America, Europe, and China.” (Keep in mind that, a few years ago, there was already a study suggesting that the North China plain with its 400 million inhabitants could essentially become uninhabitable by the end of this century due to heat waves too powerful for human beings to survive!) Or as another recent study suggested, reports the Guardian, “heatwaves that smash previous records… would become two to seven times more likely in the next three decades and three to 21 times more likely from 2051-2080, unless carbon emissions are immediately slashed.”
It turns out that, even to describe the new world we already live in, we may need a new vocabulary. I mean, honestly, until the West Coast broiled and burned from Los Angeles to British Columbia this summer, had you ever heard of, no less used, the phrase “heat dome” before? I hadn’t, I can tell you that.
And by the way, there’s no question that climate change in its ever more evident forms has finally made the mainstream news in a major way. It’s no longer left to 350.org or Greta Thunberg and the Sunrise Movement to highlight what’s happening to us on this planet. It’s taken years, but in 2021 it’s finally become genuine news, even if not always with the truly fierce emphasis it deserves. The New York Times, to give you an example, typically had a recent piece of reportage (not an op-ed) by Shawn Hubler headlined “Is This the End of Summer as We’ve Known It?” (“The season Americans thought we understood — of playtime and ease, of a sun we could trust, air we could breathe and a natural world that was, at worst, indifferent — has become something else, something ominous and immense. This is the summer we saw climate change merge from the abstract to the now, the summer we realized that every summer from now on will be more like this than any quaint memory of past summers.”) And the new IPCC report on how fast things are indeed proceeding was front-page and front-screen news everywhere, as well it should have been, given the research it was summing up.
My point here couldn’t be simpler: in heat and weather terms, our world is not just going to become extreme in 20 years or 50 years or as this century ends. It’s officially extreme right now. And here’s the sad thing: I have no doubt that, no matter what I write in this piece, no matter how up to date I am at this moment, by the time it appears it will already be missing key climate stories and revelations. Within months, it could look like ancient history.
Welcome, then, to our very own not-so-slow-motion apocalypse. A friend of mine recently commented to me that, for most of the first 30 years of his life, he always expected the world to go nuclear. That was, of course, at the height of the Cold War between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. And then, like so many others, he stopped ducking and covering. How could he have known that, in those very years, the world was indeed beginning to get nuked, or rather carbon-dioxided, methaned, greenhouse-gassed, even if in a slow-motion fashion? As it happens, this time there’s going to be no pretense for any of us of truly ducking and covering.
It’s true, of course, that ducking and covering was a fantasy of the Cold War era. After all, no matter where you might have ducked and covered then — even the Air Force’s command center dug into the heart of Cheyenne Mountain in Colorado — you probably wouldn’t have been safe from a full-scale nuclear conflict between the two superpowers of that moment, or at least not from the world it would have left behind, a disaster barely avoided in the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. (Today, we know that, thanks to the possibility of “nuclear winter,” even a regional nuclear conflict — say, between India and Pakistan — could kill billions of us, by starvation if nothing else.)
In that context, I wasn’t surprised when a home owner, facing his house, his possessions, and his car burned to a crisp in Oregon’s devastating Bootleg Fire, described the carnage this way: “It looked like an atomic bomb.”
And, of course, so much worse is yet to come. It doesn’t matter whether you’re talking about a planet on which the Amazon rain forest has already turned into a carbon emitter or one in which the Gulf Stream collapses in a way that’s likely to deprive various parts of the planet of key rainfall necessary to grow crops for billions of people, while raising sea levels disastrously on the East Coast of this country. And that just begins to enumerate the dangers involved, including the bizarre possibility that much of Europe might be plunged into a — hold your hats (and earmuffs) for this one — new ice age!
World War III
If this were indeed the beginning of a world war (instead of a world warm), you know perfectly well that the United States like so many other nations would, in the style of World War II, instantly mobilize resources to fight it (or as a group of leading climate scientists put it recently, we would “go big on climate” now). And yet in this country (as in too many others), so little has indeed been mobilized. Worse yet, here one of the two major parties, only recently in control of the White House, supported the further exploitation of fossil fuels (and so the mass creation of greenhouse gases) big time, as well as further exploration for yet more of them. Many congressional Republicans are still in the equivalent of a state of staggering (not to say, stark raving mad) denial of what’s underway. They are ready to pay nothing and raise no money to shut down the production of greenhouse gases, no less create the genuinely green planet run on alternative energy sources that would actually rein in what’s happening.
And criminal as that may have been, Donald Trump, Mitch McConnell, and crew were just aiding and abetting those that, years ago, I called “the biggest criminal enterprise in history.” I was speaking of the executives of major fossil-fuel companies who, as I said then, were and remain the true “terrarists” (and no, that’s not a misspelling) of history. After all, their goal in hijacking all our lives isn’t simply to destroy buildings like the World Trade Center, but to take down the Earth (Terra) as we’ve known it. And don’t leave out the leaders of countries like China still so disastrously intent on, for instance, producing yet more coal-fired power. Those CEOs and their enablers have been remarkably intent on quite literally committing terracide and, sadly enough, in that — as has been made oh-so-clear in this disastrous summer — they’ve already been remarkably successful.
Companies like ExxonMobil knew long before most of the rest of us the sort of damage and chaos their products would someday cause and couldn’t have given less of a damn as long as the mega-profits continued to flow in. (They would, in fact, invest some of those profits in funding organizations that were promoting climate-change denial.) Worse yet, as revealing comments by a senior Exxon lobbyist recently made clear, they’re still at it, working hard to undermine President Biden’s relatively modest green-energy plans in any way they can.
Thought about a certain way, even those of us who didn’t live in Greenville, California, are already in World War III. Many of us just don’t seem to know it yet. So welcome to my (and your) extreme world, not next month or next year or next decade or next century but right now. It’s a world of disaster worth mobilizing over if, that is, you care about the lives of all of us and particularly of the generations to come.
Copyright 2021 Tom Engelhardt