There was a time, not so long ago, when one of the challenges faced by environmental activists was making the threat of climate change concrete. How do you convince the public that small changes in the atmosphere can have catastrophic consequences? The threat was real, but it was a threat that needed to be taught, a threat that required explanation, a threat that most people, in their daily lives, couldn’t feel or see.
In California, those days are over. The Camp Fire in Butte County has become the most destructive wildfire in state history, at one point devouring a football field every second and largely erasing the town of Paradise, population 26,000. By Friday, the death toll from the fire had risen to 71, with more than 1,000 people now missing. (California’s second-most-deadly fire, the Griffith Park Fire in 1993, killed 29 people.) Down south, in Ventura and Los Angeles counties, the Woolsey Fire has consumed nearly 100,000 acres, destroyed more than 600 structures, and killed three people. The impact of the fires has spread well beyond the areas devastated by flames, with the sky turning a sickly grey from Sacramento to Los Angeles. In the past week, school closures caused by the fires resulted in the cancellation of classes for 1.1 million students, a number that amounted to 18 percent of the state’s public-school enrollment, a figure that doesn’t include parochial or private schools. Also closed were a number of colleges, including Stanford, UC Berkeley, San Francisco State University, and San Jose State University.
Many people, myself included, have gotten into the habit of checking each morning the EPA’s air-quality site. I live in Oakland, and watched over the past week as the colors on the map went from orange to red to purple—defined as “very unhealthy”—spreading blob-like across the Bay Area. By Thursday, as air-pollution levels soared, many people made plans to get out for a few days. “Need an escape?” asked a headline in SF Gate, noting that Lake Tahoe’s air was pristine. I heard from people who were heading to Tahoe, Monterey, San Luis Obispo, and Reno, finding hotels or staying in vacation homes, desperate for the chance to breathe air that didn’t taste like auto exhaust and to give their kids, cooped up inside all week, a chance to run around. It amounted to an exodus, a fleeing from the purple blob.
Yet not everybody can leave, a fact climate scientists have warned us about: The people who will bear the brunt of climate change will be the poor. The low-wage workers who keep the Bay Area humming aren’t usually afforded the luxury of working from home, or of taking days off, or of having the disposable income needed to drive hundreds of miles away and pay for a motel when the air becomes hazardous. Those that work outdoors, like landscapers and construction workers, are especially vulnerable. Last year, farmworkers harvested wine grapes in Napa and Sonoma Counties even as wildfires raged nearby and turned the sky black. The pattern repeated this past week, in Oxnard, where farmworkers without masks harvested crops beneath the haze caused by the Woolsey Fire.
Then there is the Bay Area’s homeless, who don’t have the option of hunkering down with the windows shut tight. A local group, Mask Oakland, has distributed thousands of masks to people in homeless encampments in Oakland and Berkeley, a volunteer effort that has reached far more people than the county’s own health department. In San Francisco, the Department of Emergency Management posted a list of places to shelter for clean air, including libraries, senior centers, and museums. San Francisco’s main library also announced that it would be extending its hours to 9 pm on Friday and Saturday, with a spokesperson telling the San Francisco Chronicle that the library was “often the only indoor place that many of our residents can spend time, every week of the year.” Such efforts illustrate how disasters are often met with solidarity, but they also point to our shredded safety net. California, and the Bay Area in particular, prides itself on being forward thinking when it comes to climate. But a region with staggering inequality is simply not ready for the coming climate crises, whether in the form of more frequent fires, rising sea levels, or both.
The “new normal” is the phrase endlessly batted about when the topic turns to climate change. It’s meant to convey that we are all confronting a frightening new future where climate disasters become routine. Indeed, with the wildfires of the last two years as a guide, it’s easy to imagine a future in which California has a new season: winter, spring, summer, smoke. But what the term misses is that not everyone’s new normal will be the same, especially in regions like the Bay Area, which are defined as much as anything by stark inequality. When the skies turn toxic, those with the means to do so will depart, turning those vacation homes into shelters from the smoke. Those without the means will stay. We all breathe air, but the air we breathe won’t be the same.