In early autumn, California’s notorious Santa Ana winds kick up, often fanning fires. Those fires have done tremendous damage over the years, but they are at least a known quantity, their patterns somewhat predictable. For the past four years, however, California’s fires have come earlier, have touched areas of the state not normally affected by conflagrations, and have spread farther and faster than ever before.
Two months before fire season usually begins, as I’m writing this, the state’s second- and third-largest fires of all time are burning simultaneously. By the time this is published, on Tuesday, given the likelihood of more dry lightning storms throughout Northern California, those fires will probably have grown into the largest and second-largest of all time. Around the state, several hundred fires are burning simultaneously. Already, more than a million acres—1,500 square miles—have gone up in smoke. The entire northern half of California is under a Red Flag warning, with fire-safety personnel urging all residents of the region to be ready to evacuate at a moment’s notice.
On a smaller scale, fire apocalypse is playing out across the American West. A dense, toxic haze now hangs over the land, from the Pacific to the middle of the country.
Thousands of miles to the east of California’s conflagration, the Gulf Coast has been hit by a tropical storm and is preparing for a hurricane—storms not spaced out by weeks but arriving at almost the same time.
Meanwhile, scientists charting Greenland’s ice melt released a study last week showing a staggering loss of ice cover in the summer of 2019—more than double the annual average in the years since 2003, which in themselves have been higher than historical averages.
The Signal this week, as it was last week, is climate change. Not in some abstract, still-uncertain future, but now. Trump hasn’t just fiddled while modern-day Rome burns; he has, in his criminally negligent environmental policy, lit one match after another and thrown them, with wanton glee, onto the pyre.
And don’t think this week’s catastrophic events will trigger a rethink. If you’re waiting for Trump or any of the marquee speakers at this week’s GOP convention to acknowledge this reality, you’re almost certainly in for a long wait. Instead, you’ll get rhetorical platters laden with Noise: conspiracy theories masquerading as fact; accusations that environmentalists are part of an extremist agenda intended to deprive red-blooded Americans of cars, meat, and overseas travel; a paranoid style masquerading as a politics of action.
In his warm-up performances this week, Trump denounced the Food and Drug Administration for being part of an alleged “deep state” conspiracy to delay the development of vaccines against the coronavirus and expanded his war on the franchise from vote-by-mail to the use of drop-off boxes by states, attacks he repeated in his Charlotte rally on day one of the GOP convention. And he’s embraced the followers of QAnon.
Just as California’s million-acre conflagration is likely merely a taste of things to come when the true fire season gets under way, so Trump’s recent actions are likely just a teaser for a series of truly vile, made-for-TV moments in the days and weeks ahead.
Trump is in an increasingly precarious electoral position. The Democratic convention successfully sold Biden’s brand; the ex-VP emerged from the convention seen as likable by more voters than he was going in. Trump, by contrast, is disliked by most voters, is presiding over a pandemic response most voters think has been a failure, and is president at a time of double-digit unemployment. That’s hardly a winning combination.
Faced with these realities, Trump’s only chance is to burn the political house down around him and hope that he ends up the last man standing in the smoking wreckage. Stay focused. However much fire and smoke he conjures, it’s crucial not to get lost in the miasma between now and November.