In case you haven’t noticed, several new words and phrases have become more common in newspapers and on the evening news lately. They are used so often, in fact, that they are replacing “war torn nation” and “’tis the season” as the tritest phrases in the news business.
This would be trivial except for one thing: The words reveal something very important about our times and about our upcoming elections. Here are some of them:
- Not in my lifetime
- Everything lost
- New normal
These are part of the emerging lexicon of climate change. We don’t have to rely on computer models and climatologists anymore to know whether global warming is real. Millions of Americans, as well as billions of people worldwide, are experiencing it first-hand. The people who still deny that climate change is real — including the President of the United States, his Cabinet and more than half of the members of Congress — are looking more and more ridiculous, like the proverbial ostriches with their asses in the air and heads in the sand. These days they are not just anti-science, they are anti-reality.
As I write this, the American West is on fire again, with 64 blazes underway in Colorado, New Mexico, California and nearly every other Western state.
“We shouldn’t be seeing this type of fire behavior this early in the year,” fire chief Chris Anthony told the New York Times from Colorado. “It really speaks to the fact that in California and in the West in general, fires are burning, and they are behaving differently from what we’ve seen them do in the past.”
Colorado grocery store owner Felix Romero told a reporter, “We’ve never seen any fires like this. Ever.” At 71-years-old, Romero has been around long enough to know when something unprecedented in modern times is happening.
There seems to be no respite. Near the California coast last December – unusually late in the year for fires — nearly 200,000 people were ordered to evacuate because of blazes fed by hot, dry winds. “Across the region, people wiped stinging smoke from their eyes and huddled inside to avoid the scrim of acrid air,” the New York Times reported. “They stood in their front yards and prayed. They sifted through their charred homes, fled to evacuation shelters and said that even in this wildfire-prone state, they had never confronted late-season blazes as fast and ferocious as these.”
These are not anomalies. Last year, wildfires destroyed more than 10,000 structures around the nation, the most ever. This year so far, the toll is more than 2,000 structures with many months still to go in the fire season.
There is a long-term pattern here. Wildfires in the United States have increased in frequency and duration since the mid-1980s. They are happening four times more often, burning more than six times and acreage and lasting nearly five times as long.
Research led by the U.S. Forest Service shows that fire seasons are more than a month longer than 35 years ago in parts of the American West. And these fires are a new kind of hell on earth, so intense that they destroy the ability of some forest lands to rejuvenate. Wildlife habit is gone. So are the trees that helped mitigate climate change by absorbing carbon dioxide. When rain follows, soil erosion chokes rivers and streams. Mudslides become a new danger for communities. The men and women on the fire-lines say that this is the new normal.
Why is this happening? Forest management practices that have left more fuel on the ground are part of the problem. But major factors are the heat and dry conditions attributed to climate change.
Meanwhile, hot weather is causing other in the rest of the country. May was the hottest month ever recorded in the lower 48 states, hotter even than at the height of the Dust Bowl. In the past couple of weeks, triple-digit temperatures challenged records in the Southwest, Midwest and Northeast. The heat buckled highways, caused a bridge to fail in Chicago, and caused heat stroke for a baseball player during a Chicago Cubs game. As the Fourth of July approached, more than 113 million Americans nationwide were under heat warnings or advisories. This is part of a pattern, too. The five warmest years on record have occurred since 2010 in the U.S.
It should be obvious now that it is an act of deliberate, unconscionable negligence for the White House and Congress to continue pretending that climate change is a hoax. Although the government has been warned for decades that weather like this was coming and that it will get much worse, it’s unlikely that most of the elected people in Washington are stupid. It has to be that they have sold their souls and the well-being of their constituents to special interests, particularly the companies that produce oil, natural gas and coal whose pollution is primarily responsible for global warming.
Members of Congress cannot be let off the hook for believing that climate change is too big a problem for them to fix. It is possible, even easy, for Congress and the Trump Administration to do something about it. Because we have waited to so long, we cannot stop the kinds of weather we are experiencing today and we cannot keep it from becoming worse for the next generation or so. But we still can keep weather disasters from becoming much worse and spinning completely out of control.
The single most important thing that Congress can do is to put a price on carbon. And if our free-market conservatives really wanted energy markets to work like they should and if Republicans really preferred market solutions over regulations, the second thing is to eliminate the tens of billions of taxpayer dollars spent each year to subsidize fossil fuels. Doing so could be the beginning of a radical new principle in Congress: It should stop subsidizing the things that hurt us, and begin supporting the things that make us all safer, stronger and healthier.
Each American citizen of voting age can do something simple about climate change, too. In this November’s elections, we should replace all the House and Senate members who keep fiddling while the nation burns.