The entire Northwest US is ablaze. Multiple fires in California, Oregon, and Washington state have burned more than 1.5 million acres, torn through entire towns, leveled more than 5000 homes and buildings, caused at least eight deaths, and forced half a million people to evacuate to safety. It’s a national emergency, or would be if the President cared about all the American people. Climate change is the proximate cause to blame for this unprecedented devastation. Higher temperatures and less snow and rainfall have left the fuel, the brush and trees, dry as tinder. All it takes to have a conflagration is a spark or a lightening strike and the wind.
Yet the climate didn’t change all by its lonesome. It had help. We collectively let it happen. Unknowingly, we caused it. We drove gas-guzzling SUVs, we heated our homes and offices with oil furnaces, coal plants generated the electricity that enabled our comfortable, air-conditioned life styles, the food we ate came from industrialized farms, we jetted around the world on a whim, with nary a thought to the effect that all the carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping emissions that resulted from combustion of fossil fuels was having, causing the global temperature to rise, and the climate to change.
Other than the executives of the big coal, oil, and natural gas companies, we didn’t know the harm we were causing, but thankfully a few scientists did. They tried repeatedly to alert government officials in Washington, DC to the danger. They had little success. A nation-wide, even global problem needed governmental programs and policies. A succession of presidents failed to heed the warnings of the scientists, so some of the responsibility for the current crisis ravaging the North West must be attributed to them and their advisors.
Therefore, it is entirely appropriate to ascribe some blame to oil and gas execs who knew since the ’70s that their products warmed the Earth, yet spent billions over the decades denigrating the science, misinforming the public, and lobbying Congress to forestall any meaningful regulation. They did it to protect their profits. All the Presidents from 1988, when a scientist named Jim Hansen testified before Congress, until Obama, chose not to act because the political costs were high and the looming catastrophe not yet quite here. So the ‘not on my watch’ mentality led to ‘kick the can down the road’ inaction.
However, like the pandemic, climate change starts slowly, almost imperceptibly, but then grows seemingly exponentially. Trump’s denial of climate change and his antipathy to the environment has made things worse, sped the disruption and devastation it is causing. Yet just as Trump is to blame for the death of almost 200,000 Americans by knowing the danger of the pandemic yet choosing to minimize it, to not marshal the full forces of the government to combat and control it, so too his predecessors over the last three lost decades must share the blame for their collective failure to acknowledge and accept the judgement of climate scientists that climate change was and is a major, even existential, threat to the American people. Their motives were perhaps less venal than Trump’s, abetted as they were by the corrupt power of the fossil fuel industry over Congress and public opinion, and by that of the industry’s financial enablers on Wall Street, but the ultimate responsibility was theirs, and their failure to act decisively to curb carbon emissions has led us to where we are today, with California, Oregon, and Washington ablaze, and half a million people displaced.
The Democratic Presidential nominee Joe Biden has proposed a plan to spend $2 trillion over the next four years to accelerate America’s transition to clean energy. To implement it he needs to win the Presidency in November and the Democrats have to take control of the Senate. Implementation of the plan won’t stop the wildfires, the heatwaves, the droughts and floods, the hurricanes and derechos, but it will put America on a path to a healthier, less extreme, and more stable climate. If the plan isn’t implemented, our climate will only get more hostile and more destructive. For many the climate will shade from uncomfortable to inhospitable and then to uninhabitable; from life threatening to life ending. This election may be America’s last chance to save itself, its future generations, and by example and the extension of America’s soft power, the people of the entire world.