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The California fires show how unprepared we are for climate change

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Climate disasters require a new kind of preparedness

Kincade Fire Photo by Jane Tyska/MediaNews Group/The Mercury News via Getty Images

For days now, a cloud of acrid smoke has settled over the Bay Area, blown down from the Kincade Fire in the north. More than 200,000 people have been evacuated from that fire alone, while the lingering effects of a long drought and high winds have turned the region into a tinderbox. On Sunday, a sudden fire in Vallejo stopped traffic on a bridge across the northeast side of the bay, forcing workers to abandon toll booths as the bridge was swallowed with smoke. It’s a scary moment, made scarier by the slow grind of the climate crisis in the background, getting a little bit worse each year.

Fires are a fact of life in California, but the state’s fire season has grown wilder and more destructive as the planet warms, and these fires give us a taste of what climate change will mean in human terms. Longer droughts and more unpredictable winds turn what would once have been manageable fires into region-wide catastrophes. We’re only one year removed from the largest fire in California history, and few think that record will hold much longer. The slow-moving nature of the climate crisis means that, under even the best scenarios, these fires will keep growing for the next 40 years. The longer we keep going this way, the more powerful they’ll get.

If a foreign country had caused something like this, we would be mobilizing for war. If the threat had appeared suddenly, you might expect emergency declarations from Congress and wall-to-wall press coverage. But the response to the fires has been strangely muted. There’s been no address from the president and no particular attention from lawmakers. After last year’s Camp Fire, Congress was unable to pass a disaster relief bill until the following June, and Congress’ looming appropriations fight suggests it will be no easier this time around. California’s governor has called for a state of emergency and FEMA has pledged funding, but there’s a creeping sense that our institutions just aren’t up to a challenge of this magnitude. As the fires grow, that’s a profoundly frightening thought.

Some of those institutions — particularly power companies and local governments — are already taking the blame. Pacific Gas & Electric (or PG&E) was officially found responsible for starting last year’s Camp Fire, and this year, they’ve responded with widespread and often haphazard blackouts, which have left people without the tools they need to combat the smoke (air purifiers, for a start) and left more than 30,000 residents unable to operate vital medical equipment. (This is either terrible grid management or a concession to tight budgets and growing liability concerns, depending on your perspective.) At the same time, many are blaming the scale of the fire on poor land management, as suburbs sprawl out into previously unbuilt land and expand the population’s exposure to wildfire.

None of these are insurmountable challenges, although they force us to make trade-offs we would rather not make. It would mean denser development or fewer houses in general, along with a less reliable and more expensive power grid. But if the world understood the threat posed by climate change, these choices would not be hard ones. It is a small price to pay to address those issues — far smaller than the billions of dollars lost in recent wildfires. The regions threatened by these fires are some of the wealthiest in the world — and yet, for some reason, we cannot organize ourselves to take action against the obvious threat.

That kind of adaptation challenge extends far beyond California. Whatever the next 40 years bring, you can count on more destructive hurricane seasons and higher sea levels across the Eastern Seaboard — but many coastal communities have yet to grapple with what that will truly mean. We are still building homes in flood plains and low-lying areas, and propping up their value with federal flood insurance. Entire regions are at risk of Katrina-level storms in the coming decade, and while communities can react and prepare for individual storms, few seem ready to grapple with the big picture.

The biggest challenge of all is still decarbonization. We have a chance to avoid the worst consequences of climate change, and we aren’t taking it. US emissions have declined only slightly in the last ten years, and global emissions continue to rise. Stabilizing the climate will require a mobilization on a scale rarely seen in human history. In report after report, the scientific community has warned of the severe reductions to greenhouse gas emissions we must make, and the dire consequences if we don’t. We have yet to even begin the work of meeting that challenge.

There are some encouraging signs on the horizon. The idea of a Green New Deal, vague as it is, could create an opening for the kind of action that’s needed. As a younger generation enters the political sphere, climate change has become a more tangible issue than ever before, although a troubling number of leaders still seem to be in denial. But the greatest challenge is how we respond to climate-fueled disasters like the ongoing California fires. As long as we react this way — with mute dread, languishing in the pacifying assumption that nothing can be done — we are setting the stage for a very bleak future.