It’s 5:43 am and I can’t sleep.
The fire is mounting another assault.
On August 7th, rumor has it that a (fossil fuel) off-road vehicle malfunction touched off the “Pilot” fire just north of our home. For a nerve-wracking week, the wind held the fire just two miles north of us until the blaze was contained. Over 1700 firefighters managed to save every home as the fire burned between desert houses to our north. Those brave warriors in yellow even took time to help wash the red flame retardant from the houses when all was done.
The victory was cause for celebration.
Then the fire made a counter attack.
On the day the Pilot fire reached 100% containment, the “Blue Cut” fire started 9 miles to its west. Shifting winds blew flames rapidly north through the Cajon pass along Highway 15. The temperature was higher and humidity was less than half of what it was when Pilot started. Despite the firefighters still in the area mopping up the Pilot fire, Blue Cut grew to twice the size of Pilot in only 10 hours.
I watched news-chopper video of fire eating through dry brush at 10 feet per minute or faster. I saw home after home reduced to ash as walls of fire expanded in all directions, the wind blowing firebrands to start new fires up to half a mile ahead in the bone-dry brush. I watched a DC-10 plane drop 12,000 gallons of fire retardant low ahead of a line of flames:
The wind was so strong, smoke barely rose above the ground and the retardant dispersed immediately, becoming invisible in the air as it blew behind the fire instead of falling ahead of it as intended.
From the Los Angeles Times:
“When it came over the hill, it had to have been 100 feet tall,” Bailey said. “I can’t believe how big the flames were. The whole mountain was red.”
Water drops from air tankers, sirens from fire engines, blades rotating on helicopters — all sounded eerily, they said, like war.
“Does anyone else feel like we’re living in hell?” someone asked in a local online forum.
“We’re living with physics,” I answered, “Record-breaking drought causes record-breaking fires, and all of it ties to damage caused by record-breaking CO2 in the atmosphere. This is why I drive an EV and after months of false starts, was finally about to make the call to another solar panel installer today when this fire broke. Ironic.”
My comment tried to convey the irony of what happened to me that day, but mostly I wanted to make people think that maybe we can all do something to reduce the frequency of fires in our state. Such a concept seems to be blasphemy in certain circles, so my heart was racing as I hit Submit and my body was reacting like I was going into battle. You see, this is a conservative forum. At least it feels that way. For all I know, people like me could be the majority, but if they’re like me, they’d rather not start arguments. So we remain invisible. Unfortunately, this is war, and draft-dodging doesn’t cut it. I had to say something.
As I feared, my comment touched off a little “debate.” I got a thumbs up from one person. A second said this wasn’t the place for “politics.” As if physics is politics, a third pointed out. One said this fire was “just a cycle.” Another said “PRAY FOR THEM, NOT THE POLITICAL.“
There are a lot of calls for prayer in the forum. Pray for our firefighters. Pray for the people losing their homes. Somehow, it’s okay to bring religion into any conversation, but not to quietly suggest that maybe we can also buy solar panels? That’s too “political” even when it can cost nothing to install and cost less per month than you now pay for electricity? Oh, and it happens to gradually reduce the odds of these record-breaking fires?
Pray if you want, but most religions teach that we have free will and are custodians of this planet.
Do something with your own two hands, for God helps those who help themselves.
This is War.
Cleantech is our weapon.
Bill McKibben makes the climate-war argument perfectly in an article full of incredible perspective and history:
In the North this summer, a devastating offensive is underway. Enemy forces have seized huge swaths of territory; with each passing week, another 22,000 square miles of Arctic ice disappears. Experts dispatched to the battlefield in July saw little cause for hope, especially since this siege is one of the oldest fronts in the war. “In 30 years, the area has shrunk approximately by half,” said a scientist who examined the onslaught. “There doesn’t seem anything able to stop this.”
… In the past few months alone, our foes have used a firestorm to force the total evacuation of a city of 90,000 in Canada, drought to ravage crops to the point where southern Africans are literally eating their seed corn, and floods to threaten the priceless repository of art in the Louvre. The enemy is even deploying biological weapons to spread psychological terror: The Zika virus, loaded like a bomb into a growing army of mosquitoes, has shrunk the heads of newborn babies across an entire continent; panicked health ministers in seven countries are now urging women not to get pregnant. And as in all conflicts, millions of refugees are fleeing the horrors of war, their numbers swelling daily as they’re forced to abandon their homes to escape famine and desolation and disease.
World War III is well and truly underway. And we are losing.
… We’re used to war as metaphor: the war on poverty, the war on drugs, the war on cancer. Usually this is just a rhetorical device, a way of saying, “We need to focus our attention and marshal our forces to fix something we don’t like.” But this is no metaphor. By most of the ways we measure wars, climate change is the real deal: Carbon and methane are seizing physical territory, sowing havoc and panic, racking up casualties, and even destabilizing governments.
… It’s not that global warming is like a world war. It is a world war. Its first victims, ironically, are those who have done the least to cause the crisis. But it’s a world war aimed at us all. And if we lose, we will be as decimated and helpless as the losers in every conflict—except that this time, there will be no winners, and no end to the planetwide occupation that follows.
The question is not, are we in a world war? The question is, will we fight back? And if we do, can we actually defeat an enemy as powerful and inexorable as the laws of physics?
McKibben continues with a brilliant analogy of how our reaction to climate change matches our reaction to Hitler. Seriously, you should read it. In short, governments first tried to ignore Hitler, then to appease him. Hitler didn’t react rationally to peace talks and just kept expanding, much like the havoc of climate change.
We came home from the Paris climate talks claiming victory, but, McKibben writes:
Even if every nation in the world complies with the Paris Agreement, the world will heat up by as much as 3.5 degrees Celsius by 2100—not the 1.5 to 2 degrees promised in the pact’s preamble. And it may be too late already to meet that stated target: We actually flirted with that 1.5 degree line at the height of the El Niño warming in February, a mere 60 days after the world’s governments solemnly pledged their best efforts to slow global warming.
… Not long after Paris, earth scientists announced that the West Antarctic ice sheet is nowhere near as stable as we had hoped; if we keep pouring greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, it will shed ice much faster than previous research had predicted. At an insurance industry conference in April, a federal official described the new data as “an OMG thing.” “The long-term effect,” The New York Times reported, “would likely be to drown the world’s coastlines, including many of its great cities.”
If Nazis were the ones threatening destruction on such a global scale today, America and its allies would already be mobilizing for a full-scale war.
And that’s the point. Six corporations (Comcast, Disney, Fox, Time Warner, Viacom, and CBS) control 90% of all media in America, and their reporting is heavily influenced by the largest source of wealth in our country: fossil fuel. These media companies distract us with stories of terrorists who destroy buildings while failing to mention climate change that destroys cities.
That city-level destruction is not just some future probability, it’s happening now. Louisiana was just hit with a “thousand year storm” that dumped as much as 6 inches of rain per hour and overflowed their dykes:
30,000 people needed to be rescued and tens of thousands of homes were destroyed. Such “thousand year storms” are becoming “hundred” or “ten” year storms across the country as warming provides more energy for stronger, more frequent weather extremes, both hot and cold.
Back in Southern California, rain is usually welcomed, but we see the same pattern of getting too much at once, leading to flash floods that destroy roads, houses, crops, and so on. You see, the heat of global warming evaporates more water into the atmosphere, so storms anywhere in the world are more likely to dump more rain or snow. When California fires wipe out stabilizing plants, mud slides multiply the destruction of too much rain at once.
Low-water years are nothing new in California, but those years aren’t so bad if temperatures are cooler. Between 1896 and 1994, we had a 50% chance of a dry year coinciding with a hot year. Since then, climate change has driven our temperatures up an average of 4.5F degrees. That means hot and dry now have an 80% chance to coincide every year. From The Washington Post:
Earlier scientific research suggests that the extremely dry and hot period between 2012 and 2014 might be the worst in a millennium, the study said. But even that can’t hold a candle to the droughts expected 35 years from now. Scientists at NASA and at Cornell and Columbia universities said climate models used for a study released two weeks ago show 80 percent chance of an extended drought between 2050 and 2099, lasting more than three decades if world governments fail to act aggressively to mitigate the effects of climate change.
In the hot and dry years that we now see more than ever, we get little to no snow pack in the winter and water tables dwindle in the summer. Our water reserves are running out. From another article:
“A lot of people think that the amount of rain that falls out the sky is the only thing that matters,” said Park Williams, a bio-climatologist at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory who was the study’s lead author. “But warming changes the baseline amount of water that’s available to us, because it sends water back into the sky.”
Lightning strikes on parched earth are igniting wildfires all over the state. There are so many blazes that firefighters from across the world are rushing to help put them out.
In the first press conference for the Blue Cut fire, incident commander Michael Wakoski said he’s never seen fire behavior like this in his 40 years on the job. Two other officials added, “Fires are burning at unprecedented rates,” and “Explosive fire growth is the new normal this year. It hit with an intensity we haven’t seen before on a very wide front.”
Critics point out that one reason for our worsening fires is population sprawl. We can no longer let our land burn in natural cycles without risking homes, and that leads to an overgrowth of plants and trees that fuels hotter fires. That’s all true, but it’s not the only factor. Record-low levels of precipitation and record-high temperatures combine to leave plants with little moisture content. “They look green, but they burn like they’re dead,” said San Bernardino County fire chief, Mark Hartwig.
All this is early in California’s climate-change-lengthened fire season. In the fall, we’ll hit the period of strong, dry “Santa Ana” winds from the north that typically herald our biggest fire storms. “If [Blue Cut] came with Santa Ana, oh my God, this would have been double or triple damage,” said Char Miller, a Pomona College professor who’s an expert in wildfires.
What was the damage of this fire’s assault? It took four days of frantic fighting before assessors were even allowed in to tally the destruction. So far, 105 homes and 213 other structures have been counted as lost.
From Bill McKibben:
The Antarctic research did contain, as the Times reported, one morsel of good news. Yes, following the Paris accord would doom much of the Antarctic—but a “far more stringent effort to limit emissions of greenhouse gases would stand a fairly good chance of saving West Antarctica from collapse.”
What would that “far more stringent effort” require? For years now, climate scientists and leading economists have called for treating climate change with the same resolve we brought to bear on Germany and Japan in the last world war. In July, the Democratic Party issued a platform that called for a World War II–type national mobilization to save civilization from the “catastrophic consequences” of a “global climate emergency.” In fact, Hillary Clinton’s negotiators agreed to plans for an urgent summit “in the first hundred days of the next administration” where the president will convene “the world’s best engineers, climate scientists, policy experts, activists, and indigenous communities to chart a course to solve the climate crisis.”
I fear that Hillary’s “course charting” is just another way to delay. The course is already known. Mark Z. Jacobson at Stanford University has worked for years to create detailed plans that show how all 50 US States can power themselves using 100% renewable energy by 2050 and how to reach 80 to 85% of that goal by 2030. Jacobson has recently created the same sort of plans for 139 other nations.
Denialists have, for years, claimed there aren’t enough raw materials or enough land to do these things, but Jacobson’s research shows that we have the resources and that clean-energy generation would take only a fraction of a percent of our land mass.
But would the Stanford plan be enough to slow global warming? Yes, says Jacobson: If we move quickly enough to meet the goal of 80 percent clean power by 2030, then the world’s carbon dioxide levels would fall below the relative safety of 350 parts per million by the end of the century. The planet would stop heating up, or at least the pace of that heating would slow substantially. That’s as close to winning this war as we could plausibly get. We’d endure lots of damage in the meantime, but not the civilization-scale destruction we currently face.
This plan requires building wind turbines, solar panels, and EVs on an unprecedented scale, and that requires a lot of factories. It’s nothing we haven’t done before—in World War II.
We basically need 6,448 gigawatts of renewable energy generation capacity by 2050, but at our current pace of building, it will take 405 years to get there. That’s a death sentence for the world as we know it. Instead, we need to build six SolarCity-scale factories in each state and something similar for wind turbines. This war effort isn’t wasted money—it creates jobs and pulls our country out of our Great Recession, just as World War II pulled us out of the Great Depression.
A truly global mobilization to defeat climate change wouldn’t wreck our economy or throw coal miners out of work. Quite the contrary: Gearing up to stop global warming would provide a host of social and economic benefits, just as World War II did. It would save lives. (A worldwide switch to renewable energy would cut air pollution deaths by 4 to 7 million a year, according to the Stanford data.)
It would produce an awful lot of jobs. (An estimated net gain of roughly two million in the United States alone.) It would provide safer, better-paying employment to energy workers. (A new study by Michigan Technological University found that we could retrain everyone in the coal fields to work in solar power for as little as $181 million, and the guy installing solar panels on a roof averages about $4,000 more a year than the guy risking his life down in the hole.)
It would rescue the world’s struggling economies. (British economist Nicholas Stern calculates that the economic impacts of unchecked global warming could far exceed those of the world wars or the Great Depression.)
And fighting this war would be socially transformative. (Just as World War II sped up the push for racial and gender equality, a climate campaign should focus its first efforts on the frontline communities most poisoned by the fossil fuel era. It would help ease income inequality with higher employment, revive our hollowed-out rural states with wind farms, and transform our decaying suburbs with real investments in public transit.)
In the early years, we need to build 30 solar factories and 15 wind turbine factories per year to keep up.
In 1941, the world’s largest industrial plant under a single roof went up in six months near Ypsilanti, Michigan; Charles Lindbergh called it the “Grand Canyon of the mechanized world.” Within months, it was churning out a B-24 Liberator bomber every hour. Bombers! Huge, complicated planes, endlessly more intricate than solar panels or turbine blades—containing 1,225,000 parts, 313,237 rivets.
Nearby, in Warren, Michigan, the Army built a tank factory faster than they could build the power plant to run it—so they simply towed a steam locomotive into one end of the building to provide steam heat and electricity. That one factory produced more tanks than the Germans built in the entire course of the war.
The need to build new factories is also reduced by all the factories (somewhere around 50,000 of them) that are already built but were closed as the economy tanked and jobs were shipped overseas.
In another corner of Michigan, a radiator company landed a contract for more than 20 million steel helmets; not far away, a rubber factory retooled to produce millions of helmet liners. The company that used to supply fabrics for Ford’s seat cushions went into parachute production.
… Pontiac made anti-aircraft guns; Oldsmobile churned out cannons; Studebaker built engines for Flying Fortresses; Nash-Kelvinator produced propellers for British de Havillands; Hudson Motors fabricated wings for Helldivers and P-38 fighters; Buick manufactured tank destroyers; Fisher Body built thousands of M4 Sherman tanks; Cadillac turned out more than 10,000 light tanks.
So it’s not impossible. It just requires motivation and urgency.
In World War II, that urgency came from Pearl Harbor. What will it take in this war? How much of California must burn before a majority of people admit it isn’t just bad luck? How many times must Louisiana drown? Or do we have to wait till New York and London are underwater after the ice sheets collapse? The spiral of increasing destruction will continue if we don’t act with war-like resolve.
Are businesses going to do it for us? No.
According to the conventional view of World War II, American business made all this happen simply because it rolled up its sleeves and went to war. As is so often the case, however, the conventional view is mostly wrong.
… In reality, many of America’s captains of industry didn’t want much to do with the war until they were dragooned into it. Henry Ford, who built and managed that Ypsilanti bomber plant, was an America Firster who urged his countrymen to stay out of the war; the Chamber of Commerce (now a leading opponent of climate action) fought to block FDR’s Lend-Lease program to help the imperiled British. “American businessmen oppose American involvement in any foreign war,” the Chamber’s president explained to Congress.
That isn’t to say that corporations are all against action. More non-fossil business leaders are finally admitting that planet-wide destruction is kind of bad for business. Corporate membership in carbon-fighting coalitions like “We Mean Business” have surged in recent years. Citizen troops have also come together with 400,000 marching in New York in 2014 and there’s little doubt the Paris agreement was bolstered by hundreds of citizen rallies around the globe. But we are far, far from winning this war, and we need to keep pushing and pushing.
Fossil corporations have been fighting this war for decades, but they’re on the wrong side:
As investigative journalists have shown over the past year, the oil giant Exxon knew all about global warming for decades—yet spent millions to spread climate-denial propaganda. The only way to overcome that concerted opposition—from the very same industrial forces that opposed America’s entry into World War II—is to adopt a wartime mentality, rewriting the old mindset that stands in the way of victory.
“The first step is we have to win,” says Jonathan Koomey, an energy researcher at Stanford University. “That is, we have to have broad acceptance among the broader political community that we need urgent action, not just nibbling around the edges, which is what the D.C. crowd still thinks.”
Bernie Sanders spoke passionately about climate change, as he has for years, consistently reiterating that it poses a far deeper threat to our country than “radical Islamic terrorists.” The US Department of Defense issued a report in 2015 which outlines the climate-change risks to our country’s security, including the flooding of coastal cities. Despite that, fossil-funded House and Senate representatives keep trying to cut off funding for military programs that have anything to do with fighting climate change. So much for “Support our Troops.”
Hillary Clinton has historically boosted natural gas fracking and her delegates voted down proposals from Sanders delegates for a fracking ban, a carbon tax, and so on. Donald Trump has called climate change a hoax created by China. He later claimed he was joking. Ah, the classic say-something-dumb-then-claim-it-was-a-joke trick. Brilliant! Though, even right after saying it was a joke, he basically repeated it as if he was again serious about the claim. Either way, his proposed energy policy was clearly written by the fossil fuel industry, so I see zero chance of positive action from his camp.
Fortunately, Hillary shows some potential as her staff later said we do need to price carbon, prioritize wind and sun over natural gas, and that any federal policy that worsened global warming should be rejected. McKibben points out a ton of things Hillary could do through executive action, yet I still fear she will continue to “nibble around the edges” while my home burns.
What I do know is that the only thing pushing Hillary towards more serious action is public demonstrations and public opinion. She didn’t expect so much of the country to vote for Bernie’s ideas, including his hard-line stance on fighting climate change. Maybe us guerilla fighters are more numerous than we seem.
I also know that China is taking a war-like mentality when it comes to building weapons of cleantech. If we don’t build those weapons here, we’ll continue buying them from China and losing some of the economic benefits. I say “some” because nothing can take away the local jobs in installation and maintenance that come with cleantech.
I’m not saying that America should dominate global cleantech production, but wouldn’t it be great to make our own stuff again? Every country deserves to have robust, local manufacturing that creates local jobs and avoids aiding the enemy by spewing CO2 to ship things around the planet.
McKibben ends with a small sample of the climate battles we’ve recently lost. As depressing as they are, these casualties of war are the very reason we need to take this fight seriously:
In Japan, 700,000 people were told to evacuate their homes after record rainfall led to severe flooding and landslides. The deluge continued for five days; at its peak, nearly six inches of rain were falling every hour.
In California, thousands of homes were threatened in a wildfire described by the local fire chief as “one of the most devastating I’ve ever seen.” Suburban tracts looked like Dresden after the bombing. Planes and helicopters buzzed overhead, dropping bright plumes of chemical retardants; if the “Flight of the Valkyries” had been playing, it could have been a scene from Apocalypse Now.
And in West Virginia, a “one in a thousand year” storm dropped historic rain across the mountains, triggering record floods that killed dozens. “You can see people in the second-story windows waiting to be evacuated,” one local official reported. A particularly dramatic video—a kind of YouTube Guernica for our moment—showed a large house being consumed by flames as it was swept down a rampaging river until it crashed into a bridge. “Everybody lost everything,” one dazed resident said. “We never thought it would be this bad.” A state trooper was even more succinct. “It looks like a war zone,” he said.
Because it is.
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