Western wildfires, eastern sky

Western wildfire smoke carried by the jet stream creates a muted sun and hazy sky 2,000 miles away in Niagara Falls, New York.

Last week many people noticed a strange, smokey sky over much of the country, not realizing why it was there. The haze was smoke carried across the U.S. by the jet stream from the giant wildfires in California, Oregon and Washington.

The forests and small towns left charred by those fires are already equal in size to the entire state of New Jersey, and they are still burning. In San Francisco at midday the sky was dark red and looked more like twilight.

California is my home state. I still have a lot of family there, and friends. Many of them have had fires close to their homes. They prepare now each summer for the possibility of packing up in an instant and fleeing the flames. The Internet has been full of its usual crazy explanations for the fires, such as they were all ignited by one stupid gender reveal party, or that they were set deliberately by Black Lives Matters protesters. 

None of this is reality of course. Reality is more serious.The fires are more evidence that the impacts of climate change are here and getting much worse. Another sign is the chain of hurricanes that have been hitting the Gulf Coast this year. There have been so many the National Weather Service may run out of names for them.

How we got here is not a mystery, it is well-established science. For more than a century, humanity has been methodically digging-up and burning fossil fuels (coal, oil, and gas) and using them to fuel pretty much everything. The problem is that burning these fuels has now thrown 250 billion tons of carbon into the atmosphere. Once there, it does not dissipate. It keeps building up year after year. Over time that century of greenhouse gasses in the air has become like a warm winter coat wrapped around the Earth, locking in the sun’s heat.

Now every year sets a new record for hottest year ever recorded. All that trapped heat also has real impacts. In the west it dries out the wet forests and they burn, something that not even better forest management can fix. In the ocean, warmer water supercharges hurricanes, giving us ‘storms of the century’ every year. And this is still just the beginning.

The science of climate change is well-established and Americans, by a large majority, believe in that science. But there is still a small minority who insist that it is all a hoax.  Unfortunately, President Trump is one of them. Last week, as he visited California,  President Trump once again said climate change was no cause for concern. “It’ll start getting cooler, you just watch.”

It was just as much a lie as when he told the nation 200,000 deaths ago that COVID-19 would just magically disappear, “like a miracle.” As we have learned at a very high price, pretending that science isn’t real is a very deadly error.

This reminds me of the people who still insisted that smoking was perfectly healthy, long after the science on that was clear as well. They said it was all a bunch of BS from people who just wanted to take away other people’s cigarettes. Then lung cancer, heart disease, and premature death took away their cigarettes. Just as then, the rest of us need to ignore those who deny fact and move on to do the urgent work that needs to be done.

As a father and grandfather, the climate change fact that matters to me most is this one:  It will really be our children and their children who will pay the heavy price if we don’t act soon.

If you think it is heartbreaking now to see their little faces in tiny masks, or to see them stuck at home instead of in school with their friends, wait a decade or two. That’s when they will come of age on a planet where monster storms, killer heat waves, and deadly droughts will become the new normal. No part of the country will be spared. None of us wants that for them, none of us.

In the era of climate change, loving our children isn’t just about taking care of them now, it also has to be about taking of care of the planet they will live on long after we are gone.

The good news is we know what needs to be done – most importantly replacing fossil fuels as quickly as possible with energy such as solar power which will keep the lights on without heating up the planet even more.

But for now, we just need to agree that the harsh previews of 2020, the fires and the hurricanes, are not the future we want for our children and grandchildren. If we can agree on that, then we have a place to begin.

Jim Shultz  is a resident of Lockport, New York, and the founder and executive director of the Democracy Center. Reach him at jimshultz@democracyctr.org. Follow him on Twitter @jimshultz.

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