Playing with Fire: A Compelling Reminder that Climate Change comes with Consequences

Woolsey Fire, Southern California: 96,949 acres burned; 1,500 structures destroyed; 3 people dead.

Camp Fire, Northern California: 153,336 acres burned; 84 people dead; 600 missing.

In November 2018, two massive wildfires ravaged thousands of acres along California’s wildland-urban divide. Spreading rapidly across the parched, brittle terrain, Northern California’s Camp Fire raged at a speed of eighty football fields per minute in its early stages, consuming nearly 14,000 homes and leaving piles of rubble in its wake.

Two hundred miles away, the Bay Area resembled a scene from a dystopian nightmare. Against the spectral, smoky haze, people roamed the streets in masks to protect themselves against rising levels of particulate matter. In San Francisco, air quality teetered between “very unhealthy” and “hazardous,” with an Air Quality Index (AQI) of 271. Simply breathing San Francisco’s air was tantamount to smoking roughly 10 cigarettes a day. Schools closed. Hills were hidden behind thick veils of haze.

Meanwhile, the burn scar from Southern California’s Woolsey Fire is visible from space.

The wreckage of these fires serves as a poignant reminder that the world we live in is fragile, even breakable — that decisions have consequences and that a government in denial of climate change cannot continue to move forward with ‘business as usual.’

On November 10, 2018 — two days after the start of the Woolsey and Camp Fires — President Trump tweeted, “There is no reason for these massive, deadly and costly fires in California except that forest management is so poor. Billions of dollars are given each year, with so many lives lost, all because of gross mismanagement of the forests. Remedy now, or no more Fed payments!”

Trump’s tweet is a callous response to a statewide (and even national) crisis. It is also a specious claim. Though he references a valid and ongoing debate between environmentalists and the logging industry over forest management, President Trump cannot deny the larger forces at play: historic patterns of drought, rising temperatures, and shorter, warmer winters.

Trump’s remark on the “gross mismanagement of the forests” hails back to a debate between environmentalists and the timber industry over whether logging could reduce the likelihood of wildfires by removing trees that would otherwise add fuel to the fire. Yet trees are far from the root of the problem. Ecologist Chad Hanson uses the analogy of a campfire to explain: “You don’t put a big log on the fire and put a match to it and expect it to burn — it’s not going to happen. Fires are driven by kindle” — things like bushes and twigs that are not cleared away in the logging process.

Moreover, Trump’s implies that California is at fault for its forest management practices — a claim that is far from true. This year, the state designated $256 million for reducing wildfire risk. But the irony, notes The New York Times’ Kendra Pierre-Louis, is that “the majority of California’s forests are federally held… Of the state’s 33 million acres of forest, federal agencies…own and manage 57 percent,” while state and local agencies own and manage a mere 3 percent.

"The wreckage of these fires serves as a poignant reminder that the world we live in is fragile, even breakable — that decisions have consequences and that a government in denial of climate change cannot continue to move forward with ‘business as usual.’"

Although states are considered the laboratories of democracy, and California has proven it can be a pioneer in climate policy despite the federal government’s stance, nowhere is it clearer that we are in dire need of federal action to adapt to and mitigate the effects of climate change. Camp Fire — as the most destructive fire in California state history — demands the attention of the federal government as a climate change emergency.

Year after year, California fires outstrip previous records for the titles of “largest” and “most destructive.” The Mendocino Complex Fire of July 2018 burned 459,123 acres — besting the second largest fire from December 2017 by 177,230 acres. Meanwhile, the second most destructive fire in the state history killed 22 people in October 2017, compared to a death toll of 84 in the Camp Fire. This is evidence of a frightening trend — one that is observed by the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions: “Large wildfires in the United States burn more than twice the area they did in 1970, and the average wildfire season is 78 days longer.”

But wildfires are only a small piece of the puzzle. On November 23, 2018, the Fourth National Climate Assessment was released. Its high-level summary documents “more intense and frequent extreme weather and climate-related events, as well as changes in average climate conditions,” which “are expected to damage infrastructure, ecosystems, and social systems that provide essential benefits to communities.” That means communities across the United States will also be impacted by stronger, more frequent droughts, floods and hurricanes.

In the face of concerning and intensifying trends in extreme weather events across the nation and the world, the federal government can turn a blind eye no longer. And yet, this is the sad reality. Aside from the callous and misinformed nature of Trump’s tweet, what was perhaps most notable and alarming is that Trump altogether elides the issue of climate change (not for the first time, and certainly not for the last). This omission was not surprising, nor was the reaction from CalFire and scores of celebrities, who decried Trump’s tweet as “heartless” and “partisan.”

Trump’s tweet vividly illustrates an increasingly predictable trend in the climate change narrative, one that has been so frequently documented, it is something of the obvious: Climate change is a polarizing issue. It is one that drives a wedge between blocs that already have trouble seeing eye to eye.

What seems to be lost in all this rhetoric is the element of human suffering. Liberal politicians speak in hypotheticals about rising sea levels, scientists speak in removed terms about elevated carbon dioxide levels, and climate denialists invoke the well-worn trope that “climate change is a hoax invented by the Chinese.” Meanwhile, there are people standing atop piles of rubble they used to call home. There are people whose lives have been torn apart by the devastation of hurricanes, and there are people mourning loved ones in the wake of these disasters. An issue that should be uniting people in a time of deep personal and national tragedy is only tearing citizens, states, and the federal government farther apart.

This article does not presume to answer the question of how to go about mending the wounds that produced such profound disagreement over a common-sense issue that affects the future of all Americans. Nor does it offer a pragmatic or substantive approach on how to restore the United States to its leadership position in climate action (if it ever truly occupied one to begin with.) Rather, it is a simple, impassioned, and moral argument that political rhetoric must transcend definitional squabbles over climate change to acknowledge that human suffering is at its core. Perhaps the new Democratic majority in the House of Representatives will soon make progress in this area (though it will do nothing to make climate change less divisive), for it is imperative that the federal government assume greater responsibility in combating climate change: first in calling it by name; second, by implementing a strong mix of market-based and regulatory measures; and third, in re-examining which industries it subsidizes.

To borrow from the words of Elizabeth Kolbert, author of The Sixth Extinction, “humanity is busy sawing off the limb on which it perches… Right now, in the very moment we call the present, we are deciding, without quite meaning to, which evolutionary pathways will remain open and which will be forever closed.” But when the federal government decides — quite intentionally — on strategies of inaction and denial, it is directly responsible for leading us further down our wayward path. Seeing that our current President is out of touch and unsympathetic to the issue of climate change — even as he visits Paradise to witness the destruction first hand — it is incumbent upon our new Congress to take up the issue of climate change swiftly and energetically.

With the California fires now under control, this incident will soon be forgotten — the people whose homes were lost in the fires will be far from the public conscience three months from now. But the national attention it received may be some cause for optimism: perhaps these fires can be the spark that awakens the nation from its stupor.

Photo: Fire Crew Member Fighting Poomacha Wildfire in California

About the Author

Emily Skahill '21 is a Senior Staff Writer for the US Section of the Brown Political Review. Emily can be reached at emily_skahill@brown.edu

SUGGESTED ARTICLES