As wildfires raging through the West force millions of residents to confront the consequences of a warming planet, the presidential race became intensely focused on climate change — an issue that has been overshadowed through much of the campaign.
The realities of communities ablaze, mass evacuations and curtains of thick smoke settling over large, densely populated swaths of the Pacific coast pushed the rival candidates to detour from the battleground states and lay out starkly contrasting visions for reversing the cycle of worsening natural disaster.
Landing in California, where state officials say his unyielding efforts to undermine global action on climate have intensified the crisis, President Trump continued to express skepticism about climate science.
In a briefing with state and federal officials, Gov. Gavin Newsom told Trump: “We feel very strongly the hots are getting hotter, the dries are getting drier. Something has happened to the plumbing of the world, and we come from a perspective, humbly, that we assert that the science is in, and the observed evidence is self-evident that climate change is real. Please respect the difference of opinion out here with respect to the fundamental issue of climate change,” he said.
More than 3 million acres have burned in California alone, with three of the five largest fires in state history still burning all at once, along with huge swaths of Oregon and Washington. Still, much of the West is only now entering what is typically the most active part of the region’s fire season.
To scientists, the fingerprints of global warming on these wildfires — and so many other disasters, from the fires that scorched Australia to the hurricanes that have slammed the US — are clear. And as devastating as they have been, far worse disasters could be on the horizon.
How bad it gets depends on what we as humans do to reduce heat-trapping gas emissions, said Michael Mann, the director of Penn State University’s Earth System Science Center. “By some measure, it’s clear that ‘dangerous climate change’ has already arrived,” Mann said in response to emailed questions from CNN. “It’s a matter of how bad we’re willing to let it get.”
How climate change influences wildfires
Though the scale of destruction is hard to fathom, climate scientists say we should not be surprised. “It’s shocking to see the impacts, but not scientifically surprising,” Daniel Swain, a climate scientist at UCLA and the National Center for Atmospheric Research told CNN on Tuesday. “This is in line with essentially every prediction for what could happen this year and the trends we’re seeing over years and decades.”
Scientists have warned for years that fire seasons like this could come to pass, and that the more we humans heat up the planet, the more we are increasing the odds in favor of the hot, dry conditions conducive to fires.
So far, the planet has warmed by a global average of roughly 1.2 degrees Celsius since the 1880s, with human activity responsible for the bulk of that increase.
This warming is clear in long-term temperature graphs for the state of California, such as this one below from the nonprofit environmental monitoring organization Berkeley Earth, which shows that August temperatures in the state have climbed steadily over the last 150 years.
According to the National Climate Assessment, a major “state-of-science” review of climate change and its projected impacts on the US, additional warming of about 1.4 degrees Celsius (2.5 degrees Fahrenheit) can be expected over the next few decades regardless of future emissions.
By the second half of the century, the uncertainty range for the amount of warming grows tremendously, as so much will depend on potential cut backs in carbon emissions in the near future.
Democratic nominee Joe Biden denounced Trump as a “climate arsonist” and laid out how different policies would be under a Biden administration.
“It shouldn’t be so bad that millions of Americans live in the shadow of an orange sky and are left asking, ‘Is doomsday here?’” said Biden, delivering remarks in a meadow outside the natural history museum near his home in Wilmington, Del.
Biden pilloried the president for his response to the fires — which has included blaming the state for doing a poor job of raking leaves in forests and threatening to withhold desperately needed federal aid — and he took aim at Trump’s broader effort to scrap federal action to curb climate change.