Up in Flames or Fired Up?

The climate news, to say the least, has not been good this autumn. In particular, the fires sweeping across California have captured the headlines. Driven by the Santa Ana winds, they have taken on near biblical proportions. The largest of these conflagrations, the Kincade fire in Sonoma, has consumed almost 77,000 acres as of this Halloween evening and it is still only 45 percent contained. Pacific Gas & Electric has shut off power to millions of people in an effort to prevent new blazes, which continue to flare up around the state.

The Kincade fire in northern California.

Although an eight-year drought ended in March, the seasonal rains have been late this fall and the fierce winds, which usually arrive after the rains begin, have dried out the land, turning California into a tinder box. Under these conditions, the slightest spark can ignite a raging wild fire at a moment’s notice.

Not surprisingly, the changing climate has been a significant factor. As one climate scientist notes, “everything that’s occurring today is about 3 degrees Fahrenheit warmer than it would have been if the same Santa Ana wind event were happening 100 years ago.” The combination of a multi-year drought and historically hotter summers is bad enough, but throw in 60-70 mile per hour winds and you have an obvious recipe for a horror show worse than any Halloween trickster could possibly conjure up.

To put it bluntly, the California fires demonstrate how unprepared we are for the climate emergency we have set in motion as a result of our profligate consumption of fossil fuels. As Russell Brandom writes, “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.” It’s this gradual unfolding of the climate catastrophe that is the crux of the problem. Our institutions, especially our political system, are designed to respond to sudden threats, not ones that take generations to emerge.

If you are a member of the young generation whose future is most at stake, however, then your perspective shifts dramatically. What you see is the disaster, not the gathering accumulation of forces that has led to its outbreak. Many of us who are older have become numb to the growing crisis and have, to one degree or another, become resigned to the situation or are unwilling to make the tradeoffs required to meet the challenge.

It is for this very reason that the Sunrise Movement is fired up and demanding to be heard, in Ithaca and across the country. The young members of this movement have made clear that if the current political leaders do not rise to the challenge, then they will be held accountable. It is a development worth keeping in mind as the Ithaca Common Council considers the budget for the city’s Green New Deal.

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