Year in and year out, America continues to burn. As of July 20 of this year, nearly 5.5 million acres of land had succumbed to fires around the US; 3 million of those have burned in what are termed “active fires,” meaning the fires are ongoing and the damage will escalate. In the first half of the year, the number of acres burned was more than double the rolling average for the winter and spring calculated over the past ten years.
Most of the damage has, as usual, been in the American West, including in Alaska.
In that state, traditionally defined by images of brutal cold and copious amounts of snow, firefighters are grappling with 58 large fires, and the amount of acreage burned this year is already over 3 million, and looks likely to break the 2004 record of more than 6 million acres of forest lost to flames. In a typical year, by contrast, the state loses about 1 million acres. While the scale of the Alaskan landscape, and the lack of population density means these fires haven’t resulted in huge loss of life or of residential property, the damage done to ecosystems and to the climate is huge, with the conflagrations releasing billions of tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.
The fires aren’t, of course, limited to Alaska. Colorado has been grappling with a series of brutal wildfires since late December of last year. Arizona, which lost nearly 1.5 million acres to fires in the two-year period of 2020 and 2021, looks set to have another catastrophic fire year.
The one relatively bright spot, to date, has been California. After seven years of devastating fires, from 2015 onward, the fire season so far this year has been relatively tame. Twenty-five thousand acres have burned to date, compared to over 200,000 acres at this time last year.
Taken as a whole, though, the fire outlook across the American West is bleak, part of a global pattern of escalating droughts, the drying out of the land in periods of abnormal heat, and the consequent outbreak of devastating fires.
In Europe this past week, temperatures soared well north of 100 degrees Fahrenheit across much of the continent. The result was calamitous: Huge fires broke out in Portugal, Spain, France, and Greece, and thousands of people have died of heat-related illnesses. In the UK, as the heat rose on Tuesday, so many fires broke out in homes and on heaths in London and the surrounding area that the metropolitan fire department had its busiest single day since World War II.
Large swaths of the US, including climate-change-denying Texas, saw temperatures approach 120 degrees. In India, the food production system is under threat because of a delayed start to this year’s monsoon season. Australia has been battered by record flooding this month. And Greenland’s ice sheet has been shedding an astonishing 6 billion tons per day during a particularly warm spell that has seen temperatures on the vast ice-bound landmass rise to 60 degrees Fahrenheit.
By any stretch of the imagination, what is happening now is a climate emergency. Yet politics in DC is so disastrously broken that the tantrums and ego of one senator, Joe Manchin, can effectively put the kibosh on meaningful climate change legislation.
Joe Biden came into office pledging to halve US emissions over the course of the next decade, committed to pushing through legislation that would free up hundreds of billions of dollars to tackle the climate crisis and accelerate America’s transition to clean energy. Yet, over the past 18 months, Manchin has stymied every effort to enact these goals. As a result, Biden’s climate agenda has become a very public disappearing act, just at the moment when US leadership is most needed on the issue. In 2021, far from decreasing, US greenhouse-gas emissions actually rose more than 6 percent. Globally, emissions also increased in 2021 and look set to continue to grow this year as well.
Over the past two weeks, progressives in the House and Senate, as well as an array of climate activists, have urged Biden to declare a climate emergency, and to enact as much of his agenda as possible without buy-in from a dysfunctional, sclerotic Congress. Instead, Biden has opted for rhetoric over substance. He has given a series of speeches saying that it is indeed an emergency, yet he has failed to use his presidential powers to officially declare a state of emergency. As a result, his actions have been paltry, in much the same way as they have been vastly inadequate to protect abortion rights or voting rights.
This week, Biden unveiled a plan to channel $2.3 billion to climate change mitigation work, primarily in disadvantaged communities. That sounds bold, until you realize that it is less than half a percent of what he had hoped to free up for climate change interventions via the Manchin-and-Sinema-torpedoed Build Back Better Act. It’s also less than the US military spends in a single day. It’s one-fiftieth of what Americans spend on their pets each year. It’s one-eighth of what Americans spend on cosmetic plastic surgery annually.
Over the coming weeks, we have been told, the administration will unveil other executive actions on the climate. I hope I’m wrong and that one of these days, a slew of ambitious, bold, and even risky presidential findings and orders will meet the urgency of the moment. But I’m not holding my breath. It’s hard to put out a five-alarm fire with a stream of piss, but that’s all we’re being offered by too many of those who pull the levers of power in Washington, D.C.