Bill McKibben Fears Parts Of California Are Now Uninhabitable

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What is happening in California is unthinkable. Two enormous forest fires — one near Los Angeles and another north of San Francisco — have been whipped into a frenzied inferno by winds blowing up to 80 miles per hour. Millions of people have been without electricity for more than 4 days because Pacific Gas & Electric, the dominant utility company in the northern part of the state, fears downed power lines may spark even more fires.

Climate activist Bill McKibben, writing in The Guardian this week, quotes from a recent San Francisco Chronicle article that says “intensified fears that parts of California had become almost too dangerous to inhabit.”

California has always occupied a special place in American folklore. It was the final objective of the nation’s Manifest Destiny narrative and the terminus of Route 66 — “It winds from Chicago to LA. More than 2,000 miles all the way,” Nat King Cole crooned. Famed journalist Horace Greeley advised “Go west, young man.” For people of a certain age, we all were “California dreamin’ on such a winter’s day.” It was the Beach Boys “packin’ the Bonnie with the boards inside and headin’ out singin’ our song.” It became known as the Golden State and today it is the fifth largest economy in the entire world.

California invented cool, epitomized by glamorous Hollywood with its mansions and movie studios. As McKibben says, Sunset magazine celebrated the California lifestyle “as breezy and informal as any on earth: the redwood deck, the cedar-shake roof, the suburban idyll among the eucalyptus and the pine. That is to say, precisely the kinds of homes that today are small piles of ash with only the kidney-shaped pool intact.”

His reference to trees is especially pertinent as he strives to awaken his readers to the reality of climate change. In the last decade, California has suffered from droughts so intense that more than a hundred million trees have died. Scientists who counted all those trees warned years ago that those lifeless trunks and branches could “produce wildfires on a scale and of an intensity that California has never seen.”  And that is exactly what has come to pass. This week, authorities in California issued their first ever “red flag” forest fire warning for large portions of the state due to high winds and low humidity.

Today, forest fire season in California is months longer than it used to be, extending the period of risk to homes and businesses substantially. When the rains do come, they are so intense the landscape denuded of trees by the fires turns into an unstable quagmire that often leads to life threatening mudslides.

Around the world, hurricanes are coming to Ireland and Israel — places that have never experienced such storms in recorded history. Scientists warned this week that sea level rise is happening three times faster than previously predicted and that just 30 years from now, many of the world’s major coastal cities will be underwater.

Last weekend, a couple from Chicago went to California wine country for their wedding. With fires burning just a few miles away, they decided to wear face masks to protect them from the smoke in the air as they posed for their wedding photos. McKibben did not fail to notice the irony in that photo, which has since gone viral on social media. “And so Californians — always shirtsleeved and cool — spend some of the year in face masks and much of it with a feeling of trepidation. As with so many things, they are going first where the rest of us will follow.”

California, leader of American culture for so many years, is trying to tell us something. Is anyone listening? Certainly not our so-called leaders in Washington, DC.

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Steve Hanley

Steve writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his home in Florida or anywhere else The Force may lead him. He is proud to be "woke" and doesn't really give a damn why the glass broke. He believes passionately in what Socrates said 3000 years ago: "The secret to change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old but on building the new."

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