California prides itself on being a national and global trendsetter. Unfortunately, the state is also setting the pace for climate change disasters, with searing heat and intense wildfires now regular features of its endless summer. Last Sunday, Aug. 16, the aptly named Furnace Creek ranger station in Death Valley posted the highest temperature ever reliably recorded on Earth, when the thermometer hit 130 degrees Fahrenheit. That same weekend, lightning strikes north of Lake Tahoe set off the massive Loyalton Fire in desiccated Lassen and Sierra counties, producing a rare “fire tornado” as high winds whipped flames into a violent, all-consuming vortex, sending a pillar of smoke and ash miles into the air. The statewide heatwave resulted in rolling electricity blackouts, a situation Gov. Gavin Newsom called “unacceptable” but was powerless to prevent.
Last week, as smoke from the Loyalton Fire darkened the normally brilliant Sierra Nevada sky and turned Lake Tahoe’s famously blue waters a dull grey, residents and vacationers hunkered down indoors, unable to see across the water, much less enjoy a view that Mark Twain rightly called “the fairest picture the whole earth affords.” They had plenty of company across California, where more than two dozen major fires were raging. Since Jan. 1, the state has experienced 6,754 wildfires, up from about 4,000 this time last year.
California’s plight is a direct consequence of the human addiction to fossil fuels, a dependency that threatens to make many portions of the Earth unbearable, even uninhabitable, over the course of the 21st century. Thanks to the steady accumulation of atmospheric greenhouse gases, the past two decades have included 19 of the hottest 20 years since modern recordkeeping began around 1880. Earth has warmed only 1 degree Celsius since the Industrial Revolution began, and yet since 1980, the number of dangerous heat waves worldwide has increased fiftyfold. In 2019, scorching summer temperatures shattered records in Europe. This June, the thermometer topped 100 degrees Fahrenheit at the Arctic Circle. In July, Baghdad hit 125.