Welcome to California, home of the never-ending fires, rising temperatures and disappearing coasts
Why California’s war on climate change may not be enough to save a world on fire
Ash had rained from the sky for about a day when Beverly Strand’s phone lit up with a text. It was an automated public safety alert telling her to leave town. Then her neighbor called.
“She told me to look out my back window,” said Strand, who lives near the west side of Redding. “I did, and on the ridge to the north I saw the flames.”
The Carr fire, sparked by a minor automobile malfunction a few miles to the west, was advancing rapidly. Strand, who has lived in Redding for all her 60 years and never seen a wildfire prompt an evacuation before, collected her camera equipment, ushered her pets into her car and drove east.
Her home, ultimately, would be spared. However, the Carr fire would go on to kill at least eight people, destroy more than 1,000 homes and become the sixth most destructive wildfire in the state’s history. The fire is the latest in a scourge of infernos that have recently ravaged the West—calamitous events made worse by the rapid warming of the planet, most scientists agree.
Humanity has had its chance to avert calamity. It appears that window is rapidly closing.
A study recently published in the journal PLoS Medicine warned that heatwave deaths in California could increase by five-fold in the next 60 years if people around the globe continue extracting and burning fossil fuels like there’s no tomorrow—or no 22nd century, anyway.
California has been pursuing steep cuts in statewide greenhouse gas emissions that would bring carbon dioxide output to 40 percent of 1990 levels by 2030. Alone, however, the state’s actions will not avert the disasters. In fact, the annual pace of global emissions increased last year over the prior 10-year average.
Now, virtually every realistic climate scientist agrees we are already committed, with no way of going back, to an increase in global temperatures ranging from significant to disastrous—even if we halted all emissions today. For scientists, this basically means they don’t know what will happen with certainty except that temperatures and sea level will rise considerably. Most predictions are educated guesses, but one common theme is that catastrophe looms.
Park Williams, a bioclimatologist at Columbia University, compared the Earth’s climate to a resting monster—“a climate beast that we don’t really understand.”
“We’re all really afraid that if we kick this thing, it may lurch and respond in a very wild way that we can’t predict,” he said.
California in flames
California’s recent past shows what happens when temperatures inch up: The state’s driest drought in 500 years ended with one of its wettest winters. Then the landscape blew into flames.
Measured by number of structures lost, six of California’s 20 most destructive wildfires occurred within the past year. Measured by acreage, the two largest fires have burnt in the past eight months, with the bigger—the Mendocino Complex fire—still going strong. Future fire models show that acreage burned each year could increase some 75 percent by 2085.
“This is part of a trend, a new normal, that we’ve got to deal with,” Gov. Jerry Brown said at an August 4 press conference in Redding.
Brown’s comments come with a caveat. Though widely applauded as a climate policy hero, the state’s multi-term governor has also eased restrictions on California’s oil industry and facilitated its growth. The group Consumer Watchdog has reported that Brown and initiatives he supports have received $10 million in donations from oil lobbyists. Last week, several protesters were arrested outside his office.
“I’m no longer willing to remain comfortable while politicians gain accolades for promoting renewable fuels when they’re simultaneously permitting fossil fuel extraction,” said Morgan Curtis, 26, an Oakland activist with the “Brown’s Last Chance” coalition who spent a night in jail for demonstrating without a permit outside the governor’s office on August 7. “Young people have the most at risk because of climate change—our futures are ahead of us.”
Underlying the extreme fire phenomena, California keeps getting hotter. Last year may have been Earth’s third warmest recorded year (2015 and 2016, warmed by El
El Niño, were hotter), but it delivered to California its all-time hottest summer. The temperature hit 100 or more a record 72 times in Redding in 2017.
This year, though the globe has been cooled by last year’s La Niña conditions, is another scorcher for the state. In Fresno, the thermometer has stayed near 100 every day since July 6, and Redding was in the midst of a streak of triple digit days when the Carr fire broke out.
Such heat spells will only get worse.
“We’re going to get heatwaves that will last for days and days and days and days at extraordinary temperatures,” said Richard Grotjahn, a UC Davis professor of climate dynamics.
Grotjahn coauthored a study recently published in the Journal of Geophysical Research: Atmospheres warning that climate change could nudge summertime heatwave highs in California up by at least 7 degrees Fahrenheit—that’s assuming aggressive global reductions in CO2 emissions, which are not currently happening—and by as much as 12 degrees if emissions continue to increase.
“Temperatures that are several degrees above what we have now will become the norm—that’s a pretty sizeable increase,” Grotjahn said. “If the normal high is 93, well, imagine if the normal high was 98, and on top of that you have these big swings—it’s a pretty scary thought.”
Williams, the bioclimatologist, said reducing greenhouse gas emissions can still help soften the impacts from increasing temperatures many years from now. As for stopping global warming, though, it’s too late for that.
“We’re already signed up for a very different climate a few decades from now,” he said.
Underwater and uninhabitable
The planet is now about 1 degree Celsius warmer than in pre-industrial times, and it is all but certain the planet will be another degree warmer by 2100. In the worst possible scenario, the planet’s emissions of CO2 and methane might continue unabated, causing—according to climate models—another 4 degrees Celsius or more of warming. That’s 7.2 degrees Fahrenheit warmer than today’s average.
This is not trivial. About 20,000 years ago the planet was 4 or 5 degrees Celsius cooler than it is now.
“And at the time, Manhattan was buried under hundreds of meters of ice,” said Jason Smerdon, a climate researcher at Columbia University and coauthor of the forthcoming book, Climate Change: The Science of Global Warming and Our Energy Future. “So, 4 degrees Celsius warmer would be like one Ice Age warmer.”
Such would be the outcome of what scientists know as the RCP8.5 scenario, often referred to as the business-as-usual scenario. In climate science, though, business as usual means anything but. That’s because, if humankind continues burning fossil fuels at current rates, the sleeping climate beast wakes and, late in the century, unleashes all manner of suffering.
Business as usual would, by 2100, transform much of Eurasia into desert and cause the ocean to rise several feet. Climate Central warns that the rising ocean could force 760 million coastal residents to evacuate or perish. Human deaths are expected to increase by a quarter million every year because of climate change-related ailments, including heat stress, malnutrition and malaria, according to the World Health Organization.
The Pacific Institute, a water and climate think tank in Oakland, has estimated that half a million people in the Bay Area could be affected directly by flooding as the sea rises. Heather Cooley, director of the institute’s water program, said that forecast uses a 1.4-meter increase, or 4.5 feet, without a specific time span.
“We often talk about climate change as though it stops at 2100, and it won’t—these changes will continue,” Cooley said.
Other mass population shifts will occur as average high temperatures creep past what humans can physically tolerate. Parts of the Middle East are expected to become uninhabitable over the next several decades. The U.S. Global Change Research Program, a national initiative to study the changing climate, has forecast that, by the end of the century, the American Southwest could be 9.5 degrees Fahrenheit warmer, on average, than it is today. In California, these changes will make the state unsuitable for most trout and salmon, stress crops to the point of unprofitability, turn forests into scrubland and, probably, kill many people outside the confines of air-conditioned buildings.
The RCP2.6 scenario, by which warming increases just another degree or less by 2100, offers much brighter prospects for the Earth and its inhabitants. It is, however, mainly used as a reference point.
“That would be like every government agrees climate change is an extreme emergency and does everything possible to cut back on emissions, and I don’t see that happening,” Grotjahn said.
Even the middle ground scenario—RCP4.5—where the Earth’s temperature would increase by as much as 5.5 degrees Fahrenheit, “is probably optimistic at this point,” he said.
Under any warming scenario, less snow will fall in the mountains, and the U.S. Global Change Research Program estimated that California’s mountain snowpack—its most important reservoir—could, by 2100, hold less than half the water equivalent to what it did 100 years prior. That’s on top of a projected doubling of the state’s human population—a recipe for water conflicts far more serious than the nonstop squabbles seen today as environmentalists and farmers argue over how best to divvy resources.
“We’ll need to change our reservoir operating systems,” Cooley said. “Right now, we plan for summer snowmelt by making room in the reservoirs.”
When precipitation falls as rain rather than snow, it means more frequent, more severe floods and drier summers. In the grimmest of outlooks, the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta will transform into a swamp-like ecosystem where invasive species, like black bass and catfish, thrive but salmon cannot, warned UC Davis fisheries professor Peter Moyle. Native fish will suffer, but farmers—often at odds with fishery conservation—will not necessarily win big. Growers of many crops, especially nuts and stone fruits that require chilling hours, will be forced to move or somehow adapt.
“There are a lot of crops California won’t be able to grow anymore,” Cooley said.
It’ll be worse than you’ve heard
It’s possible the impacts of global warming will be even worse than scientists are predicting. That’s because of what’s known as “positive feedback cycles,” a phenomenon whereby the very effects of warming begin to drive it.
For example, warming is melting the reflective sea ice that once would have bounced solar radiation back into space. As this deflective layer evaporates, the ice that’s left melts even faster, perpetuating the vicious cycle. Another feedback loop only recently identified is that of soil carbon entering the atmosphere at faster and faster rates as the air warms, enhancing the greenhouse effect.
In theory, such feedback cycles can cause warming to accelerate in unpredictable ways. This, Williams said, is of great concern to climate scientists wise enough to know they can’t predict the future. He said paleo evidence of climate change in the past shows that atmospheric chemistry changes have sparked extreme shifts that reset the planet’s climate into a wildly different state.
For instance, Earth, he said, has apparently frozen over, all the way to the equator, several times in the distant past. While extreme freezing is not an immediate threat to Earth, Williams said the moral is that climate change, once put into motion, can assume a life of its own.
“We are now giving atmospheric chemistry a kick of the kind of magnitude it takes to initiate these really big and unpredictable feedbacks where the climate state could start spinning out of control and eventually come to rest in a new state entirely,” he said.
Perhaps nowhere does Earth’s climate seem more unstable and volatile than in the deep Arctic. Here, permafrost that has been frozen for ages is now rapidly thawing (and releasing huge amounts of methane, a powerful greenhouse gas—yet another positive feedback loop). In the coastal town of Svalbard, journalist Mark Sabbatini had to abandon his apartment two years ago when the softening Earth caused his building to cave in.
Sabbatini has spent the past decade in Svalbard watching global warming happen. He said observing what happens in the Arctic is very important for the rest of the planet.
“Climate change is happening two times as fast here, so we’re getting a preview of what’s to going to happen everywhere else,” Sabbatini said.
Jerry Brown’s gift to Big Oil
Across the northern hemisphere, heatwaves are cooking the Earth.
The African continent just logged a record high of 124 degrees Fahrenheit, and Japan saw an all-time high reading of 106 Fahrenheit. Triple digits have been the rule for much of inland California since early July. While some climate models predict that parts of coastal California could get cooler as inland warming enhances sea breezes, in the Central Valley the summers will just get hotter and drier.
Amid the melting glaciers, the record heatwaves, the superstorms, the wildfires and the record heat, President Donald Trump’s denial of climate change and his refusal to participate in international efforts to slow warming have embarrassed the nation.
Though less well publicized, Jerry Brown’s actions contradict his official stance as a leader on climate change policy. According to data from FracTracker, Brown has issued more than 5,000 permits to drill new offshore oil wells in California state waters, while Trump has issued permits for about 1,400 in federal waters a few miles farther offshore.
Curtis, the demonstrator arrested last week in Sacramento, said she went to jail for a night, along with five others, “to help illuminate the discrepancy between the governor’s walk and his talk.”
While Brown ignites the anger of protesters, it continues getting hotter so fast that even Republicans in Congress are stepping across party lines and joining in calls to cut CO2 emissions.
“They’re hearing from their constituents, and they know they can’t ignore this anymore,” said Steve Valk, director of communications with the Citizens’ Climate Lobby. “Congress listens to the will of the people, because we have elections.”
In July, 39 of the 43 GOP members of the Climate Solutions Caucus voted for an anti-carbon tax, sponsored, no less, by another Republican, Steve Scalise of Louisiana. Earlier this year, after the Pentagon removed climate change references from national security documents, 40 members of the House, including eight Republicans, signed a letter of criticism addressed to Defense Secretary Jim Mattis. In July, Rep. Carlos Curbelo, a Republican from Florida, introduced a bill that would place a fee on carbon and use the revenue to fund infrastructure projects.
“In Florida, they have to think about this,” Valk said.
But some Republicans who acknowledge warming trends still question humanity’s role in the process. At a May 16 hearing of the House of Representatives Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, Chairman Lamar Smith, a Texas Republican, called “alarmist findings” that climate change will cause great damage and mortality in the future “the ultimate fake news.” He dismissed calls for emissions reductions, since they tend to harm fossil fuel-based industries that fork over huge political bribes to lawmakers and leaders (California’s governor included), and said we can count on “inevitable advances in building construction and design” to handle future climate challenges.
“It’s funny how the goal posts keep moving,” Valk said. “You start out denying there’s a problem. Then, you agree there’s a problem but say that we’ll just adapt to it.”
Smerdon, at Columbia University, feels the adaptation arguments are a way of kicking the can down the road.
“It’s a new way of arguing for business as usual,” he said.
Which, of course, is the sugar-coated term for what happens when the climate beast wakes up.