Thistlethwaite: Got climate change?
Yes, we do. See that smoke in the west? Can you smell it? That’s from the Grizzly Creek fire, now the largest in White River history.
The scientific consensus is that “Climate change increases the risk of wildfires.”
We have significant and destructive climate change and we should start calling it climate catastrophe — because it is.
The catastrophic effects of the repeated failures to act to reduce carbon emissions and other triggers of global warming are visible right outside my window here in the Vail Valley as I look west. The sky, normally so brightly blue, is becoming more and more gray as the valley warms.
It is worse in other parts of the country. Terrifying images of 10,000 lightning strikes in California igniting fires seem like depictions of Armageddon.
Currently, 92 large fires have burned nearly 1.2 million acres in 14 states and that is climbing by the day. About 25,000 wildland firefighters and support personnel are assigned to wildfires across the country. God bless and protect each and every one of them as they risk their lives despite being underpaid and under-resourced due to COVID-19 strains.
These two catastrophes are related in more than budget constraints. I think the abysmal U.S. response to COVID-19 is very similar to what happened over the last four decades to prevent this country from acting with intelligence and dispatch to prevent the worst of climate catastrophe. In both cases, a scientific approach was deliberately undermined and debunked, politicized for political and economic gain.
That’s what has happened with COVID-19 and why we have had such an appalling record on preventing and limiting the spread of this virus. Former directors of the Centers for Disease Control have stated, “No president has ever politicized its science the way Trump has.”
This is a replay of the “climate change is a hoax” nonsense we have been dealing with since the late 1970s. It is clear from the time when looming climate catastrophe could be scientifically identified, energy companies and the politicians they funded did what they could to discredit that analysis. Yet, they clearly knew what was happening and they decided it was not in their interest to act. “The big fossil fuel firms knew the realities of human-caused climate change but chose to ignore them and to lobby for the right to damage the environment,” as Nathaniel Rich writes in “Losing Earth: A Recent History.”
You might not have cared that much when polar bears on shrinking sea ice were the poster children of climate catastrophe, but I can tell you that right here, right now, neighbors who come here part-time are packing their cars in the parking garage and going back to their primary residences. “Too smokey here,” one person said to me in a socially distanced conversation. This bodes ill for the economy of our valley. I hate to think of the economic costs of I-70 being closed for so long.
It will get much, much worse.
The environmental destruction being caused by these fires only hastens the catastrophic future we face. Even if humanity were able to hold the line at 2 degrees Celsius of warming, and we are likely to miss that target, as David Wallace-Wells writes in “The Uninhabitable Earth,” “the ice sheets will begin their collapse, global G.D.P. per capita will be cut by 13 percent, 400 million more people will suffer from water scarcity, major cities in the equatorial band of the planet will become unlivable, and even in the northern latitudes heat waves will kill thousands each summer.”
This catastrophe is coming to a valley near you, right now.
You and I have basically one line of defense left. Vote for political candidates at the local, state and national level who will act decisively to reign in carbon emissions and other contributors to climate catastrophe.
November 2020 would be a good time for that vote.
Rev. Dr. Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite is President Emerita and Professor Emerita of Chicago Theological Seminary. She and her husband now make their home in the Vail Valley.