In the last two weeks, wildfires fueled by extreme heat and drought have consumed a combined 5 million acres in California, Oregon and Washington, killing at least 33 people and displacing tens of thousands. Residents in cities coast to coast, from San Francisco to Chicago to New York City, found themselves under hazy orange skies this week as smoke from the West Coast blazes stretched for thousands of miles.
Off the Atlantic coast, a record-tying five tropical cyclones swirled simultaneously on Tuesday ― the latest in what federal forecasters say is an “extremely active” hurricane season. One of those systems, Hurricane Sally, made landfall in Alabama early Wednesday as a slow-moving Category 2 storm that is dumping as much as 20 inches of rain on parts of the Florida panhandle and causing widespread flooding.
All this comes before what is typically peak wildfire season in the West and with 2½ months left in the official Atlantic hurricane season.
“Climate and ecological breakdown are impossible to ignore at this point,” Peter Kalmus, a climate scientist and author, told HuffPost. “The reason it’s seemed so bad over the last few weeks is because it’s getting that bad. And the thing that’s really terrifying to me is that it’s going to keep getting worse.”
The simultaneous disasters highlight the many faces of the growing crisis, Kalmus added.
They have also exposed the stark divide between President Donald Trump’s and Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden’s views on climate and science in general.
During a visit Monday to fire-scorched California, Trump once again dismissed the role climate change plays in extreme wildfires. “It will start getting cooler. You just watch,” Trump said, tossing aside decades of climate science.
He painted the infernos as simply the result of the state’s poor “forest management,” even though the federal government controls 57% of California’s 33 million forested acres, compared with just 3% under state management. And many of the recent blazes in California burned shrublands and grasslands, not forest.
“You can knock this down to nothing,” Trump said of the fires, ignoring the complexity of the problem and painting fire as an evil that must be eradicated. In fact, fire is a natural and critical part of many forest ecosystems. Today’s catastrophic blazes are due to a combination of factors, including decades of fire suppression that left America’s forests overgrown; climate change driving up temperatures, fueling drought and drying out vegetation; and increased development in and around wildland areas.
At his own event Monday, Biden blasted Trump for his denial of climate science and his failure to rein in planet-warming greenhouse gases.
“If you give a climate arsonist four more years in the White House, why would anyone be surprised if we have more of America ablaze?” Biden said. “If you give a climate denier four more years in the White House, why would anyone be surprised when more of America is under water? We need a president who respects science.”
In the past, Trump has marveled at the size of major hurricanes ― only to downplay their ferocity when asked about the role climate change plays in strengthening them. Much like Hurricane Laura last month, Hurricane Dorian last year and Hurricane Florence in 2018, Sally gained strength very rapidly, fueled by warm waters in the Gulf of Mexico. It made landfall moving at just 3 miles per hour, delivering what one National Hurricane Center forecaster described as “catastrophic and life-threatening” rain.
A federal study in May concluded that climate change is supercharging cyclones, making them larger and more intense. Research also shows there’s been a marked slowdown in the speed of hurricanes over water and land, leading to an increased risk of torrential rains, flooding and storm surges.
A year brought to its knees by a global pandemic, which has so far killed nearly 200,000 people in the U.S. alone, is also shaping up to be another historically devastating one for climate breakdown and climate-linked disasters. Last decade, the U.S. experienced at least 119 billion-dollar climate and weather disasters, more than double the number during the 2000s, according to a federal report released in January. Costs from those events over the last 10 years exceeded $800 billion.
With the U.S. and other major global polluters failing to take swift action to curb carbon emissions, climate-linked disasters and extreme weather events are expected to mount. Kalmus expects countries will ultimately adapt to climate breakdown not by choice but by necessity.
“There will come a point when we abandon parts of major coastal cities, not just in the United States but around the world,” he said. “I don’t see how that could possibly be avoided at this point. And similarly, I think there will come a time when homes are no longer insured in wildfire-prone areas because of the worsening climate wildfires.”
Five years ago, Kalmus felt there was still time to stave off catastrophic climate impacts. Now he says he fears we’ve run out of time.
“I’ve always been terrified for the future of young people, in particular, but it feels so much more real now. This is the kind of stuff I thought they would be dealing with, and now we’re dealing with it now. So what does that mean they are going to be dealing with in 10 years or 30 years? I can’t even imagine.”