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The New (Ab)Normal

In Colorado at the end of October, the largest fire in the state’s history is still burning on over 200,000 acres (more than 300 square miles). The Cameron Peak Fire started on August 13, so it has been burning now for over two months and is still only 55 percent contained. Joining the Cameron Peak Fire this week is the aptly named East Troublesome Fire, which grew from about 19,000 acres on Wednesday evening to over 170,000 acres on Friday (now the second largest fire in Colorado history), even jumping over the Continental Divide.

Both of these fires are now closing in, from opposite sides, on Rocky Mountain National Park and the town of Estes Park, which has been evacuated. Other towns including Granby and Grand Lake have also been evacuated, while larger cities such as Fort Collins (population 170,000) are threatened.

This is not to mention the other fires in Colorado:

  • The Calwood and Lefthand Canyon Fires, both also started within the last week, which have forced evacuations in towns including Jamestown and Ward, destroyed at least 20 homes, and threatened the cities of Boulder and Lyons
  • The Williams Fork Fire, about 10 miles southwest of Fraser
  • The Middle Fork Fire, about 10 miles north of Steamboat
  • The Ice Fire, outside of Silverton

Then there are the fires that burned in other areas of the state earlier this summer, like the Grizzly Creek Fire that shut down Interstate 70 near Glenwood Springs for over a week, or the Pine Gulch Fire near Grand Junction, which briefly held the title of Colorado’s largest fire. Of course, outside of Colorado there have been massive fires in states including California, Oregon, Washington, and Wyoming. In Northern California multiple fires joined together to burn over 1 million continuous acres—an area larger than the state of Rhode Island—creating a new category called a “gigafire.”

Some people might notice a trend here. Hotter, drier conditions are leading to entirely predictable consequences that experts have been warning us about for decades, like terrifying, catastrophic forest fires burning throughout the entire western half of the country.

Meanwhile, the East Coast and Gulf Coast have now faced so many hurricanes this season that we are up to “Epsilon” in the Greek alphabet, because we ran out of names in our regular alphabet last month. In the middle of the country, heat waves, floods, and storms have been so frequent and destructive that it’s getting difficult to keep track of how many crops have been lost, towns destroyed, and lives changed forever.

Welcome to the new abnormal. I regret to inform you that as bad as 2020 has been so far, the situation is only going to get worse for quite some time. This is what the world looks like in the 21st century as the climate crisis advances: continuous escalation of catastrophe. There is no “reset” to a new static state. Even if emissions went to zero right now, the lingering effects of so recklessly altering the composition of our atmosphere will continue for centuries. If we do not take immediate, global action to address this crisis through dramatically reducing emissions, the impacts on human society could be existential.

Here is what we are facing:

1) Mass migration and climate displacement: Around the world, many millions or even billions of people will need to move to avoid the most dangerous impacts of sea level rise, heat waves, drought, floods, fires, and storms. Within the United States alone, analysis from Pro Publica shows that up to half the population will experience climate-related impacts to their way of life. According to the organization:

“Across the United States, some 162 million people—nearly 1 in 2—will most likely experience a decline in the quality of their environment, namely more heat and less water. For 93 million of them, the changes could be particularly severe.”

This is not a crisis that only affects people in faraway places and the distant future. This is happening now, and it will impact everyone. Even people who aren’t personally forced to relocate will probably notice some effect when millions of other people start moving around the country.

2) Health threats: When facing disasters like fires, floods, and storms, media coverage tends to focus on the absolutely tragic number of people who are killed or severely injured in such events. Yet this is barely scratching the surface of the health impacts that these crises cause. Far larger than the number of people killed directly are those whose lives are threatened more indirectly and over the long term, from effects such as air pollution that kills millions every year even in the absence of forest fire smoke.

Hazardous air quality from forest fire smoke is particularly dangerous, releasing massive amounts of fine particulate matter, known as PM2.5. Recent research has shown that exposure to these ultrafine particles can make people more likely to die from respiratory issues such as COVID-19. The combination of a pandemic with an especially bad fire season provides a vivid illustration of what the military means when they say that the climate crisis is a “threat multiplier.” And we probably don’t need to explain how disasters affecting access to clean water and food can also impact human health.

3) Financial crises: with so many assets burning or flooding, and so many people suffering or dying, the economic impacts are starting to be quite noticeable. In particular, acquiring insurance for properties at especially high risk of fire or flood is becoming more expensive, or in some cases is already impossible to obtain. The number and severity of extreme weather events is rising every year, costing more and more to federal programs such as disaster response services and flood insurance. RMI Managing Director Paul Bodnar points this dynamic out in a recent New York Times article called “Your Climate Disaster Tax Bill is Growing.”

In an interesting affirmation of this reality, the Trump administration’s very own Commodity Futures Trading Commission recently released a report warning that “a world wracked by frequent and devastating shocks from climate change cannot sustain the fundamental conditions supporting our financial system.” Countless other rigorous assessments agree that it is more difficult to make money when the world is literally on fire.

4) Rebuilding: as the physical and financial order crumbles around us, we will be faced with the task of somehow rebuilding from multiple converging catastrophes. How will we do this? We know that we must build back better, creating communities that are more resilient and less vulnerable to the increasingly severe impacts of climate change. This will mean moving people away from the wildland-urban interface, reducing sprawl and building denser, mix-used urban communities. Luckily, such neighborhoods also happen to be great for lowering emissions from reduced vehicle traffic and present an opportunity to create more efficient buildings.

5) Updating the Electric Grid: As the Public Safety Power Shutoffs and localized blackouts in California demonstrate, it is difficult to sustain a system relying almost entirely on large, centralized generation, long-distance transmission, and overhead distribution lines under the constant threat of fire. So along with more efficient communities, we will also need to redesign our power system to be more resilient and less vulnerable to disruption from fires and storms.

Hardening the existing grid will help. However, this further underscores the benefits of moving to a system with a higher portion of localized resources. And to address more immediate concerns we need to build more flexible microgrids using renewable energy and battery storage to keep critical facilities like hospitals and fire stations powered even if transmission or distribution is interrupted.

The impacts of the climate crisis are happening more quickly than even many climate scientists had predicted. As such, these are only the beginning of the threats that we face and a small portion of moves that we must take. We must act immediately to reduce emissions 50 percent by 2030 and hit net zero by 2050 at the latest, for even a chance of limiting global heating to 1.5 degrees Celsius. Hitting these targets is technically and economically feasible—we simply have to do it.

At just over 1 degree warmer already, we can clearly see that the impacts of each fraction of a degree are severe. Every life lost, every home destroyed, every forest burned, and every glacier and reef wiped from the face of the Earth forever show us that the cost of inaction is literally death. On the only planet we have, the only living planet we know of in the universe, we must take action to protect life.

Until climate change impacts you personally, it is difficult to fully understand the emotional devastation of watching your home and your life directly threatened. I have grown up in Colorado, so I am used to the fires to some extent, but not like this: huge mushroom clouds of smoke billowing up into the atmosphere, creepy dark orange afternoon light, huddling inside to escape from the toxic air. Every time I smell the smoke and see the flames getting bigger and closer, the level of panic escalates. Packing the car is terrifying. And now that I have two young children, my panic is really about protecting them from threats that they don’t even yet understand. But they will, very soon.