USA: Has the climate crisis made California too dangerous to live in?
By Bill McKibben
Monday morning dawned smoky across much of California, and it dawned scary – over the weekend winds as high as a hundred miles per hour had whipped wildfires through forests and subdivisions.
Three years in a row feels like – well, it starts to feel like the new, and impossible, normal. That’s what the local newspaper, the San Francisco Chronicle, implied this morning when, in the middle of its account of the inferno, it included the following sentence: the fires had “intensified fears that parts of California had become almost too dangerous to inhabit”. Read that again: the local paper is on record stating that part of the state is now so risky that its citizens might have to leave.
But California? California was always the world’s idea of paradise (until perhaps the city of that name burned last summer). Hollywood shaped our fantasies of the last century, and many of its movies were set in the Golden State. It’s where the Okies trudged when their climate turned vicious during the Dust Bowl years – “pastures of plenty”, Woody Guthrie called the green agricultural valleys. John Muir invented our grammar and rhetoric of wildness in the high Sierra (and modern environmentalism was born with the club he founded).
Still, it takes a force as great as the climate crisis to really – perhaps finally – tarnish Eden. In the last decade, the state has endured the deepest droughts ever measured, dry spells so intense that more than a hundred million trees died. A hundred million – and the scientists who counted them warned that their carcasses could “produce wildfires on a scale and of an intensity that California has never seen”. The drought has alternated with record downpours that have turned burned-over stretches into massive house-burying mudslides.