I am writing this as the fires of northern California have enveloped the Bay Area in a thick shroud of smoke and haze. Millions of residents are experiencing unhealthy air as tens of thousands of residents await word on whether their homes and businesses have been destroyed. The body count from this disaster will surely rise in the coming days and weeks, for these fires ripped through the forests and vineyards and neighborhoods so fast that only the awake and able were able to escape their path. It is going to be a grim reckoning.
And many more are still reeling from the triple-threat-punch of Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria: while they didn’t cause as much loss of life of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, their impact will be just as profound where they made landfall. Harvey poured an immense amount of rain throughout the Gulf Coast of Texas and Louisiana, and it hit the wealthy neighborhoods of western Houston as surely as the Ninth Ward was drowned by Katrina. Irma forced the evacuation of most of Florida and then penetrated inland to knock down trees and power while causing tropical storm damage in states unaccustomed to such a drenching. And Maria, which raked across Puerto Rico with devastating winds that stripped the hillsides of trees and knocked out power for 3.5 million U.S. citizens, has left the island U.S. Territory in a state of deep crisis as the President has threatened to just walk away.
None of these individual incidents can be attributed to climate change. But every one of them is consistent with the basic physics of climate change and all of our scientific predictions of the future as long as we continue to pump greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. So welcome to the future, because the future is now: hotter and drier while also being wetter and windier; wilder and more erratic while also being less predictable. Our future will be filled with more wildfires and deaths and the terror they bring along with stronger, more intense hurricanes that will pack more punch with their wind and dump more water when they linger. We better get used to it: abnormal is the new normal.
Climate change’s fingerprints are still not clear on the disasters of 2017. But Barry Bonds and Mark McGuire’s home runs were never individually attributable to steroid use, either. Instead, climate change is a bit like putting the existing climate and weather system on steroids: we are increasing the likelihood of both hurricane and fire intensity, frequency, and duration by adding more energy to the atmosphere and oceans. That’s basic physics.
Warmer oceans increase the likelihood of more intense hurricanes while also increasing the amount of moisture evaporating from those oceans into the warmer air above them. That warmer ocean water also expands, which causes sea level rise that increases the damage of a hurricane when it comes ashore. Hotter and drier conditions in the west have given us lower relative humidity and more intense winds as the pressure differential between inland areas and the coast create the conditions for Diablo and Santa Ana winds. The fact that this was a very wet winter only makes matters worse, because the intense burst of vegetation that grew this year after many years of drought became brittle fuel for the slightest spark after a summer and early fall of record-breaking temperatures.
This is the future we are leaving our children and grandchildren: one where they will be unable to go to bed on a hot autumn night without an underlying fear that the wind and crackle of a raging fire will sweep through their neighborhoods before they can waken their parents in time for them to dash to safety. They will watch the images on their laptops and phones of their devastated neighborhoods, wondering if their homes will still be there when they return. They will mourn the lost lives, homes, and dreams of their dear friends.
And they will ask us a simple question: why didn’t we do something to stop it when all of the scientific evidence—and our own eyes and ears and noses—told us this would happen? Even more importantly, they should ask: what did you do when you knew these truths?