SAN FRANCISCO — The United States election season’s climate detour hit the West Coast this week, with surreal terms like “climate arsonist” and “more explosive” trees competing for headlines as the smoke stank and the candidates bickered.
Climate change is a convenient club for former Vice President Joe Biden to pound President Donald Trump with. And for Trump in turn to beat California Democrats with. But it’s not an election issue priority for either.
That’s because most Americans can now witness the effects of climate change with their own eyes, either through West Coast fires, East Coast hurricanes or Midwest flooding. There is still disagreement on cause, but little on the fact that it is here. Three dozen Republicans running for U.S. House and Senate offices this election season have climate strategies or prioritize the environment, according to endorsements from the American Conservation Coalition, a conservative climate group.
Start the day smarter. Get all the news you need in your inbox each morning.
The apocalyptic orange skies that encased San Francisco’s Bay Area last week are gone, giving way to a blanket of thick smoke for the millions of residents, which unlike COVID-19, presents a visible threat outside our home windows. Even as the state — and Oregon and Washington north of it — begins a slow recovery from a summer of COVID spikes, the prospect of two more months of fire season has caused a general depression that psychologists call “climate change grief.”
You will hear more about this in coming months. Because contrary to President Trump’s assertion that California’s problems are a “forest management” issue, and that other countries don’t have these problems, even though they have “more explosive” trees, California’s problem is the world’s problem.
Wildfire season on the move
Wildfire season will soon begin in Australia and New Zealand. China and India have wildfires. Israel has had wildfires. South America has them, and this summer the Arctic has burned like never before. The world is not on fire, as some headlines suggest. But it is burning more, a result of higher temperatures caused by greenhouse gas emissions.
Wildfires, blackouts, anger: California shows us the future of climate change
The goal of the Paris Agreement, endorsed by 197 countries in 2015 to set a limit on further global average temperature increases from greenhouse gas emissions to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, has not been breached yet. Some scientists believe it will be in the next four years.
If what we are experiencing now is a result of temperatures that are only about 1 degrees Celsius higher or a little more, what can we expect at 1.5 degrees Celsius? Or even 2 degrees Celsius?
Next week is “climate week” in New York City, hosted by the United Nations and the City of New York. In past years, world leaders have flocked to the UN for their annual gathering, and climate has become more and more of an important topic. This year, while most events will be virtual because of COVID, we should still expect to hear pledges of new commitments and new money directed toward climate solutions.
Not acting fast enough
While welcome, the biggest disconnect between the climate disasters now and the corporate and political pledges of support, is that the pledges all target a year in the distant future, such as 2030 or 2050. Large institutions on Wall Street and in Europe are increasingly directing money now into investments in solutions, but even those come with a promised outcome still years away.
Toxic outside, contagious inside: Fire and COVID rage all around me. Can’t we do better?
The COVID-inspired decline in greenhouse gas emissions earlier this year has now largely been squandered, as China and India regear their factories, and as the fires wipe out any gains we might have made against pollution. Biden may be reaching to call Trump a “climate arsonist,” as are debunked social media rumors that antifa arsonists are setting the fires out West. But the idea that we are increasingly burning our environment is no stretch. Here in California, we can taste it.
In the end, Trump is not completely off base. Climate change is a management issue. The president’s management issue. The world’s management issue. This week California. Next week the Gulf Coast. Next month Australia.
The settings change, but the results will not. Despite the smoke, we can see where this is going.
David Callaway is a former editor-in-chief of USA TODAY and the founder of Callaway Climate Insights.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Borders can’t contain climate change: California’s crisis is a world management issue