Forest fires, droughts, heat waves, power outages and now a pandemic — California is the canary in the climate mine
Even by Bond villain standards, evil industrialist and archetypical bad guy Max Zorin’s plan in the 1985 James Bond movie A View to a Kill was whack.
Zorin’s idea was to destroy California’s Silicon Valley by triggering a massive earthquake in the San Andreas fault at high tide. The resulting flood would wreck the computer industry and allow Zorin to corner the market on microchips — in theory.
Also, if California were to collapse into the sea, it would boost the real estate market inland. It’s classic Bond-villain thinking: snap up cheap land while the price is low, then flip it once coastal California falls into the sea. Cowabunga, dude!
Okay, that sounds nuts — and it is — but it may pale in significance compared to what’s actually happening right now in the US state the late radio comedian Fred Allen once described as a fine place to live, if you happen to be an orange.
Trouble is, it’s fast becoming a place not even an orange would like.
A friend was nearly burned out of her home in one of the many fires that have levelled entire sections of the state in recent months, this after a series of years-long droughts and unprecedented heat waves. The average temperature in the region has warmed by 2C° (36°F) since the pre-industrial period, which might not sound like much but is twice the global average.
More worryingly, the climate in Southern California — SoCal to the locals — was stable for nine centuries. Warm days and cool nights, perfect for oranges.
Recent fires have destroyed entire stands of coastal redwoods, one of the tallest trees on the planet, some of which had stood for more than a thousand years. Tree planting isn’t likely to provide much of a barrier against deforestation if they don’t have time to grow in the first place. When did tree planting become an act of faith all of a sudden?
Never mind me, never mind my friends, or my friends’ friends. The burden of all this is going to fall on our children and their children, which is one reason why it’s so heartening — and sad — to see Greta Thunberg, 18 just last month, and Davis, Calif. native Alexandria Villasenõr, 15, lead the new wave of climate protests, not just in Sweden and the US but across the entire planet.
Sir David Attenborough will turn 95 in May, just 10 days before Villasenõr turns 16.
California is full of homesick people, they say, but that only partly explains the exodus of the past 12 months. If it’s true that the best way to live in California is to be from somewhere else, then it’s also true that many of those same people are thinking of going home again. Villasenõr now goes to school in the Bronx and lives in New York much of the year. During a family visit home to Davis, Calif. this past summer, her childhood asthma flared up again as firestorms and smoke from the surrounding fires threatened to descend on the city of 70,000, just west of the state capital of Sacramento.
Last summer, in mid August, possibly the highest temperature ever recorded on planet Earth since meteorologists started keeping records was set in California — 54°C, or 130°F, according to US NOAA’s (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) Weather Prediction Center.
No matter which way you cut it, that’s hot.
Heat waves and forest fires may seem remote right now to those of us who live in the Northern Hemisphere, but climate change doesn’t manifest itself as global warming but rather climate volatility — colder winters, hotter summers, more violent storms.
Hurricanes, tornados, firestorms and ice storms are fast becoming the new normal. These storms — snow, wind and fire — are already bigger, last longer and are more dangerous to human life. There were 297 wildfires reported in California last January, nearly triple the five-year average, according to USA Today.
Rising sea levels, the result of polar ice melt, at both poles, may yet flood coastal areas planet-wide, making them unliveable in some cases.
It’s a vicious circle, seemingly unending. Unseasonably hot temperatures last summer caused people from Arizona to California to turn up their air-conditioning, which in turn drew on more power, which in turn created more demand for fossil fuels. Geoscientists now estimate summer heat waves are five times more likely to occur across the western United States than they were just a few years ago.
Yes, but what can I do about it, you rightly ask. The crisis seems so daunting, the solutions so far away.
Believing the 18-year-old and the 15-year-old might be a start, rather than believing what the Wall Street Journal and Daily Telegraph publish on their op-ed pages, or what Fox News chooses to report and what not to report.
Use less plastic. Recyle bottles. Eat less meat; eat more vegetables and fruit. Turn the lights out at night. Use energy-efficient lightbulbs. Try to drive less. Fly less. Take it easy on the central heating in winter and the air-con in summer. Wear more hand-me-down, used clothes. Take a break from the fashionista rat race.
The kids are right. There’s no use in arguing anymore, and it’s too late for debate. This isn’t about politics but science. The science is in on climate change, and it ain’t pretty.
It’s time to give California back to the oranges.