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By early August, 85 large fires burned in California and northern California was declared a national disaster. Exacerbated by years of western drought, they caused more than a dozen deaths, thousands of evacuations, more than a thousand destroyed homes and nearly $3 billion in damages. The Mendocino fire burned nearly half a million acres and was the largest fire in the state's history. Of the 20 largest California fires since record-keeping began in 1932, 15 occurred since 2000 with the largest occurring this year and the second largest last year.

It wasn't just California: Eight other western states were also burning, and an intense heat wave and severe wildfires racked 12 European nations. And it wasn't just this year: California Gov. Jerry Brown warned this busy fire season is "the new normal."

Large wildfires in the U.S. burn annually more than twice the area they did in 1970 and the average wildfire season is now 78 days longer. Climate scientist Michael Mann this is a consequence not only of higher temperatures and drought but also of changes in the atmosphere's jet-stream, which is becoming more chaotic and also slowing in its forward motion. Thus we get weather extremes such as droughts, and any particular extreme event tends to stick around longer.

None of this should come as a surprise: The United Nations predicted the wildfire threat in every global warming report since 1990.

Fires are only one element of the accelerating climate disaster. The primary globe-changer is sea-level rise caused mainly by melting ice, especially in the miles-thick Greenland and Antarctic ice caps. Average temperatures worldwide have increased by 1 degree C (1.8 degrees F) since the industrial age, but the Arctic increase is 2 degrees C because of feedback effects, such as the increasing ability of the Arctic ocean to absorb the sun's radiation as gleaming ice is replaced by dark ocean water.

The main long-term driver of climate change is carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Our normal CO2 concentration during 10,000 years prior to the industrial age was 280 CO2 particles for every million air particles, but we have pushed this to over 400 parts per million today. We are just beginning to see the consequences. Most effects will not be seen for a century, as the planet approaches equilibrium with this abnormally high CO2 concentration. The best guess of many scientists, including me, is that the climate at that time will be comparable to the Pliocene era 4 million years ago, when CO2 concentrations were also 400 ppm. Average temperatures during the Pliocene were 3.3 degrees C (6 degrees F) above pre-industrial temperatures, and sea levels were 70 feet higher. This is what the future looks like under the optimistic assumption of no further increase in CO2 concentrations. The Paris climate accord expresses the hope of holding the temperature increase in 2100 to 2 degrees C, but this would be a stretch even if the entire world fully cooperated.

We're in dire straits. A simple, honest price on carbon would help avoid the worst, but America and the world continue fiddling as the planet burns.

A commendable recent book, Unprecedented Crime by Peter Carter and Elizabeth Woodworth, makes the case that the fossil fuel industry knew, during the 1980s, that its product would cause global warming, with the tragic consequences that are now becoming obvious. Rather than alerting the world and changing its business model, the industry formed denial organizations such as the Global Climate Coalition while pursuing business as usual, choosing to protect its own profits by opposing regulation of CO2 emissions in much the same way cigarette companies had earlier opposed cigarette regulation. They argued the scientific case against fossil fuels was doubtful, and it was premature to regulate emissions. This sinister strategy is eloquently described in Naomi Oreskes 2010 book The Merchants of Doubt. As Oreskes shows, industry's key product was not fossil fuel; it was propaganda in the form of doubt about global warming.

Industry knew, by the early 1980s, of fossil fuels' destructive potential, yet it chose hype and business as usual. By the time of the first United Nations assessment in 1990, governments around the world also knew. As Michael Mann puts it, "The number of lives that will be lost because of the damaging impacts of climate change is in the hundreds of millions; to me, it's not just a crime against humanity, it's a crime against the planet."

Unprecedented crime, indeed.

Commentary on 10/02/2018

Print Headline: Crime against the planet

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