The fires of hell roared through the City of Angels, dispatched by the lords of darkness. Blasted by 80-mile-an-hour winds that turned palm trees into giant torches, the blazes that ravaged Los Angeles and Southern California beginning December 4 were the worst veteran local firefighters could recall. As the conflagration entered a second week, it had already destroyed an estimated 1,000 structures, burned hundreds of thousands of acres of land, and left smoke-choked residents scrambling to buy face masks to keep breathing.
“This is kind of the new normal,” California Governor Jerry Brown told reporters on December 9. Severe drought driven by global warming had left vegetation tinder-dry; more drought and therefore more fires are projected in the years ahead. “We’re experiencing what it’s going to look like on a very regular basis,” Brown added.
The Los Angeles fires were hardly the first preview this year of the new normal in an era of climate consequences. In August, Hurricane Harvey set a record in Houston for the most rain to fall in the shortest amount of time. Barely a week later, Hurricane Irma in the Caribbean set a separate record for the longest lasting powerful hurricane ever recorded. In October, Northern California’s wine country endured its own wildfires, which left behind 43 fatalities and thousands homeless. And because the physical inertia of the climate system ensures that global temperatures will keep rising for at least 30 more years, this is only the beginning. Welcome to the rest of our lives.
In one of those ironies so glaringly obvious that fate seems to be commanding that humans pay attention, damn it, one of the properties scorched by the Los Angeles fires belongs to Rupert Murdoch. As the founder and acting CEO of Fox News, a lavish donor to Republican politicians and a close confidant of climate denier in chief Donald Trump, Murdoch arguably has done more to spread public confusion and political gridlock about global warming than anyone else alive. So when the local NBC News station reported that billowing gray smoke was rising from Murdoch’s $28.8 million mansion and vineyards in the Bel-Air hills, social media exploded with hosannas of gleeful mockery.
One of the merriest jabs resurrected a tweet of Murdoch’s from Feburary 27, 2015—an aerial photo of polar ice the mogul captioned, “Just flying over N Atlantic 300 miles of ice. Global warming!” Plainly relishing the irony, Anthony Oliveira (@meakoopa) tweeted at Murdoch, “your house is on fire.” Countless like-minded tweets joined the fun, many inevitably invoking that magnificent German word Schadenfreude—happiness at another’s misfortune. Even Nation contributor Bill McKibben, as mild-mannered a Christian as walks this earth, couldn’t help himself. “I know that it’s very wrong of me to think what I’m thinking,” he tweeted.
And then irony struck a second time: Murdoch’s mansion ended up not burning down after all, thanks to the heroic efforts of local firefighters—unionized public-sector employees who “graciously ignor[ed] Rupert’s Wall Street Journal editorials reflexively reviling public employees and unions,” tweeted journalist Harold Meyerson. Only a patch of the mogul’s vineyards and his wine cellar were damaged.
Even had Murdoch’s mansion burned to ashes, any feelings of karmic satisfaction would dwindle in light of the incomparably worse misfortunes so many innocents are suffering from these fires and the other extreme-weather events of 2017. In Puerto Rico, for example, it turns out that the death toll from Hurricane Maria may be 16 times larger than originally announced, according to a new study—not 64 fatalities but at least 1,052. In India, Bangladesh, and Nepal, catastrophic flooding driven by torrential monsoon rains displaced an estimated 16 million children—16 million!—over the summer. Meanwhile, the fires in Southern California are far from contained
Most maddening is that even this relentless onslaught of disasters will not prompt Murdoch, Trump, and other lords of climate darkness to reconsider the suicidal course they are imposing on the rest of us. Just last week, Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and his fellow Republicans passed a tax bill that—along with shoveling hundreds of billions of dollars to corporations and the super-rich while depriving an estimated 13 million Americans of affordable health insurance—aims to accelerate the oil, gas, and coal development that fuels the climate crisis.
Senator Lisa Murkowski of Alaska perhaps best exemplifies the self-destructive lunacy underlying the Republican position on climate change. Alaska is already enduring very costly and damaging climate impacts: Rising seas are swallowing coastal villages, and highways are buckling from the melting of permafrost that is no longer permanent. Nevertheless, Murkowski reportedly insisted as the price of her vote that the tax bill rescind the longstanding federal ban on oil-and-gas drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, a jewel of wilderness splendor that Big Oil has long coveted but Democratic and Republican presidents and congresses alike have protected since the Eisenhower years.
A capitalist, it’s said, will sell you Tuesday the noose you will hang him with on Friday. But in the case of climate change, that noose drapes around the neck of not only the capitalist but everyone else on earth. Which is what makes the Republican position on climate change so morally abhorrent. If Murdoch, Trump, McConnell, Murkowski, and the rest want to sentence themselves to a future of hellish misery, by all means let them proceed. But when their pocketing of Big Oil’s dollars and their resulting denial of basic science drags the rest of humanity towards that same doom, then no circle in hell is low enough for them.
It is too often forgotten amid the ceaseless assault of daily Trump outrages, but the climate crisis is a five-alarm emergency; fighting it cannot wait. Every instant we do not reverse course makes the accumulating impacts harsher and harder to escape. Scientists have been warning for decades that increasing greenhouse-gas emissions will unleash precisely the kinds of wildfires, droughts, storms, and sea-level rise humans are now witnessing. We may be even further down that dire path than previously recognized. Last week, Patrick Brown and Ken Caldeira of the Carnegie Institution for Science in Stanford, California, published a study in Nature finding that the most accurate computer climate models happen to project the most alarming consequences—about 15 percent more temperature rise than the average model projects.
Murdoch, Trump, McConnell, and company—and let’s not forget Rex Tillerson, the secretary of state who for decades headed Exxon-Mobil, the world’s single biggest climate culprit—are driving us full-speed toward a cliff of no return. For the sake of our children and all we hold dear, the rest of us must wrestle the steering wheel from them and jam on the brakes. How that is to be done is a larger question, one that people of good will and great heart are tackling in various ways all over the world. But let there be no doubt about the realities we face.
Gradual, incremental progress will not save us. The impacts that are already locked in—at least three feet of sea-level rise by century’s end, and probably significantly more—will tax civilization’s survival capacity to a degree unprecedented in our history. We absolutely must minimize the scope of those impacts to have any chance of managing them, which means Trump and congressional Republicans must be stopped forthwith. In the wake of Trump’s announced withdrawal of the US from the Paris climate accord, such prominent voices as Governor Brown and former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg have bravely insisted that the withdrawal was no big deal—cities, states, and climate activists will keep pushing forward. Those entities will indeed keep pushing forward, and bless them for it. But it is dangerously wishful thinking to suggest that what the government of the biggest economy on earth does is of marginal importance.
The terrible truth is that we are running out of time faster all the time, and this will remain true as long as Trump and his Republican sponsors remain in power. Which is yet another reason why this manifestly unfit president needs to be impeached as soon as possible and Republicans routed in the 2018 elections and beyond. None of this will be easy or without cost. But if we treasure life, these are the fires that must burn next time, starting now.