The fires in the American West are not the “New Normal”
Because “normal” doesn’t exist anymore
Bomb Time — The hyper accelerated rate of warming and climate change that will compress 1,000 years of normal inter-glacial warming into the next 50 years of human time as the thermal pulse from our “climate bomb” hits the planet.
California and the American West are still burning and, if anything, the situation has gotten even more dire. The pictures of orange skies over the Bay Area are positively apocalyptic. In Oregon, over 500,000 had to be evacuated because the fires threatened Portland and Salem. Think of that, wildfires have seriously come close to burning down two American cities. Not small towns tucked inside of a National Forest, but cities, cities with downtown's and suburbs.
Portland is a place that travel guides are written about. A place that has a TV series satirizing it’s perceived extremely liberal ideology. Portland is not a place that Americans would think of as being at risk of burning down. To see this happening is disconcerting. It threatens our worldview and creates uncertainty about the future, the feeling that things are starting to unravel. The feeling that maybe the “Climate Apocalypse” that has been talked about for so long is finally upon us.
You can see how society is struggling to deal with the situation in the press. The more conservative, but mainstream, portion of the press is talking about the “unprecedented” number of fires and the “unprecedented” area burned. “Unprecedented” is apparently becoming the Moderate Right’s code word for Climate Change’s effects on the world. The way that they can talk about climate change without actually using those words.
As pathetic as that is, this is still progress for the Moderate Right. They are finally admitting that something is happening to the world and stretching their worldview to accommodate and explain it. Polling shows that the majority of younger Republicans, the ones who have not invested a lifetime in climate change denial, actually accept the reality of it.
On the other hand, the Far Right, the hard-core climate deniers are instead spewing QAnon conspiracy theories about “Antifa” terrorists deliberately starting the fires as acts of “domestic terrorism”. Which makes sense, if you understand that there is no way in their worldview to admit or accept the reality of climate change. If climate change is a “hoax”, to give the secret “New World Order” its opening to seize control of the world. Then, it totally makes sense that they would have agents out setting fires to scare people into believing that climate change is real.
For those on the Far Right, there is nothing that will convince them to change their worldview. They cannot accept that they are wrong, and as reality increasingly diverges from their beliefs, they are growing more and more disconnected from it. Fortunately, their numbers, although still ridiculously large, are declining as reality becomes harder and harder to deny.
To the rest of the world’s press, this small foreshadowing of what living in a climate charged fire regime really means, seems to be an epiphany moment. There are articles in the NYT, the Washington Post, and other papers that all are directly saying these fires are fueled by climate change.
No equivocation or hedging. No statements like, “many scientists think” or “studies show”. No pussyfooting around, trying not to lose advertising money from businesses that do not want to alienate the Republicans. The mainstream press has had a “Come to Jesus” moment and is now ready to start saying, that climate change is causing massive disasters in the world. Some articles are even saying that this is the “New Normal”. Sadly, they are mistaken
Normal implies stability. When you say something is “normal” you’re saying that it is the usual state of affairs. The way that things are. When you say that there is a “new normal”, you are saying that things have transitioned from one stable state into a new stable state. The new state might be better or worse than the old state, but it is stable. That’s why it’s the “new normal”.
People crave stability. We need it. You cannot grow food, you cannot raise children, you cannot make meaningful plans for the future if you don’t have stability in your life. Without stability we have no way to shape and manage what will happen in the future. You can be on top of the world one day and the next a wildfire reduces everything to ashes. The idea of life without stability terrifies us. We need the illusion of control to be able to function on both the personal and societal levels. So, we use phases like “new normal” to make what’s happening seem more manageable.
One of the hardest lessons to internalize about living in bomb time is that there is no normal. There will never be “normal” again for the rest of our lives. That is the fundamental truth of hyper accelerated climate change. Understanding that, internalizing that, and working with that reality is going to be the difference between those who survive to make it to 2100 and those who fall by the wayside.
That’s going to be the main theme of my columns. I am a Climate Realist, not a Climate Activist, not a Climate Warrior, and definitely not a believer that things are going to be OK because humanity will “come together to save the planet”. Looking at the world today and filtering it through my 60 odd years of experience, I think that the “normal” of the 20th century is coming to an end. There are 10, maybe 20, years of relative stability left before things start to really come apart. After that surviving, thriving, and having a decent life is going to get much more difficult.
I still think there is a chance for global civilization and continuity to be preserved but I also think that there is a growing likelihood of widespread collapse and rapid depopulation. I wrote a long article about this back in February (It’s Raining in Antarctica and the Arctic is on Fire) and if you are finding Living in Bomb Time interesting you might want to check it out. It’s a “big picture” holistic look at where we are today and why things are going to get bad as the thermal blast from our climate bomb washes over the planet. It’s a roadmap of the things I intend to discuss going forward. Hopefully, some of you will be interested enough that we can start discussing how to survive and surf the waves of change in a world that will never be “normal” again.
Right now though, let me tell you about a climate change victim. My wife and I have a friend in her mid-60’s who lives in Norfolk Virginia. About 8 years ago she inherited a house and a big enough sum to gracefully retire there when her company “downsized” her. She managed a decent “crash landing” and she knows she was really lucky.
However, the house is right on the water (it even has a dock). So, when she inherited it, I told her that the Norfolk area is sinking, sea level is rising, storms are intensifying, and she should sell while she could still get a good price for it. She disagreed and told me that the house had been built in the 60’s, her father bought it for his retirement in the 80’s, and he had lived out the last 20 years of his life there. The house had been there for over 50 years and she was sure she would be “just fine” there.
If the stability of the 20th century climate continued, she probably would have been fine. But we don’t live in that world anymore, the old “normal” is gone. After 50 years without a problem, in the last 8 years, two “unprecedented” storm\tide surges have flooded her basement. The water table on her property has also risen due to sea level rise and the last 4 years she has to run a sump pump 24\7 or the basement floods and becomes a mold factory. As you might expect, she is not the only one with problems in her neighborhood.
Seventy five percent of the houses on her street are now for sale. The value of her home has crashed almost 60% as people have realized that these homes have no future, and everyone is trying to sell. She is trapped there now, because selling the house (if she could even find a buyer) wouldn’t generate enough income for her to live out her life without being in deep poverty. Faced with this she has decided that if she is lucky, she will die before the house gets washed away or becomes uninhabitable. And, if she isn’t lucky, she will die with the house when the water takes it. She is a climate change victim and I have no doubt that if a bad enough storm hits Norfolk she will die in that house.
When I talk to people in their 50’s and 60’s, a lot of them have this same fatalism. The ones that aren’t in denial know that the world is changing. They know that the future is starting to look apocalyptic. More and more often, I get the impression that many of the people in this age range just want things to hold together long enough for them to “check out” before it all comes apart. Worst case, like the people who refuse to evacuate in the face of wildfire, they are ready to “go down with the house” rather than be wiped out and become a climate refugee.
Sadly, in the next two decades many of them are going to have to do just that, and millions more will become destitute as changing conditions destroy the value of trillions of dollars’ worth of real estate in the US. Between fires, floods, hurricanes, deluge storms, killer heat waves, crumbling infrastructure, impoverishment, and a medical system that’s going to constantly be on the verge of collapse the next two decades are going to be hard on those who are currently over 50. When social systems start to get stressed the elderly are always the biggest part of the first wave of dying.
If you think that’s an overly pessimistic assessment consider that when hospitals started filling up with Covid-19 cases, across the world they started sending the elderly home to die so that they could have space and resources for younger patients (When Covid-19 Hit, Many Elderly Were Left to Die). Climate change isn’t going to be any different. As a percentage of the population I think that there are going to be fewer people over 65 in 2040 than there are now.
So, if you’re not planning on “checking out” during that time you are going to need to be wealthy, or smart, or prepared, or lucky. Crucially, you need to figure out, right now, if you are in a situation that could become a trap like the one my friend is in. If you are, you will have to decide how serious you are about changing that situation. Because as bad as things are now, this is just the warmup. If you don’t act soon, it will be too late.
One of the best documentaries on climate change I have seen came out in 2010. It was called “Earth 2100”. If you haven’t seen it here’s a link to it on YouTube:
Hosted by ABC journalist Bob Woodruff, the two-hour special explored what “a worst-case” future might look like as climate change plays out over the 21st century.
The show documents the life of a fictitious storyteller, “Lucy” born in 2009 as she describes her life through the 21st century. The program presents snapshots of the Earth in the years 2015, 2030, 2050, 2085, and 2100 with analysis by scientists, historians, social anthropologists, and economists, including Jared Diamond, Thomas Homer-Dixon, Peter Gleick, James Howard Kunstler, Heidi Cullen, Alex Steffen and Joseph Tainter. It is a little bit dated but its strength is that it shows how climate change is going to play out over the lifetime of a person born in 2009. It really gives you a sense of what’s in store for the children who are being born today.