By Teresa Smith
In September, entire towns in Western Oregon and Washington burned to the ground in hours, while giant fires swallowed vast swaths of land.
As I write this, forests that I used to walk through as a child are still burning — forests of ferns and mossy evergreens that used to sparkle with dew, forests that are now completely dried out.
Thanks to climate change, the climate of the West Coast no longer matches the ecology. We don’t get enough rain in Oregon and Washington to support rainforests anymore, so now they are leaving via fire. Many parts of California are likewise now too hot and arid for their pre-climate-change ecologies, and each year the fires in Cali get bigger and more intense.
These massive fires are going to continue, likely for the next decade or two, until the relics of the old ecosystems completely burn off. This is what climate change looks like. We don’t get to go back to the way things were.
Last summer, I had a chance to meet with a few climate scientists and look at climate data and climate models with them.
The thing about this experience that shocked me the most is that I learned that many climate scientists have not been entirely forthright about the data: they have been showing us models that make things look better than they actually are. These climate sciences have been caving in to the pressures of toxic positivity, and so some of them are pretending the crisis isn’t as bad as it is. As one scientist I spoke to explained, “We don’t want to scare or depress people, so we just show them the less intense models.” But the less intense models don’t factor in the acceleration of burning carbon that is actually happening, so they have lured us into a false sense of security, of thinking we have more time than we do. But if you look at the models that match the acceleration of carbon emissions that is actually occurring (for example, the CanESM5 model under SSP585), you see exactly why we have massive fires spanning from the lip of the Pacific to the Rockies right now. Carbon emissions are accelerating rather than going down. Things are worse sooner than most of the projections they were showing us.
It may be too late for the West Coast’s ecology, but we need to fight like hell if we’re going to save other parts of the ecosphere. Otherwise, our entire planet is going to end up a lifeless husk.
A number of my friends in carbon-free off-the-grid communities in rural Oregon have been displaced from their homes due to the fires, and the entire West Coast has been choking for weeks under the thick smoke — smoke that is filled with deadly PM2.5 particles.
Perhaps the biggest take-way from all of this is that we can’t simply “drop out” and go create carbon-free communes in the woods. No matter how “carbon-free” our individual lifestyles or communities become, climate change will follow us, wherever we go.
We are having to wake up to the reality of just how interconnected we all are. Many humans are on course to burn down the planet. There is nowhere to hide from their behaviors. If we are going to end climate change, it will have to be a collective process.
It is easy to blame consumers, but the reality is: it is the carbon dealers who need to be shut down — through divestment, public policy, and diversity of tactics.
The carbon dealers have been tricking us into blaming other consumers for climate change for decades. In the late 1990s, BP Oil created the “carbon footprint” campaign as a way to direct attention towards consumers and away from the oil companies. Meanwhile, oil companies and private utilities have been actively working to kill carbon-free and lower-carbon alternatives. Those corporations have been fighting to force an economy upon us in which carbon is increasingly put into the air.
Why are the corporations doing this? Because they are legally beholden to their investors to create more money next quarter than this quarter.
The legal impetus for growth is perhaps the most fucked up thing about any corporation: investors can sue CEOs who fail to turn a profit — meaning in the case of oil companies, our whole legal system is compelling them to put more carbon in the air next year than this year. The same goes for private utilities.
If there is one thing that has become increasingly clear: When the energy sector is governed via capitalism, we are committing collective suicide.
Why aren’t there solar panels on every roof? Why haven’t electric cars replaced gas-powered ones? Why isn’t there a light rail system in Los Angeles and in many other key cities?
- Because private utilities have spent the last 40 years dismantling pro-solar policy.
- Because big oil companies fought to sequester patents and crush all lower-carbon alternatives.
- Because automotive companies literally pulled up the light rail tracks in LA and other places because they wanted to enforce dependence upon cars.
It is time to face the fire. The transition to a carbon-free society can’t happen while the logic of capital controls the energy sector. And the transportation sector probably needs to be de-capitalized as well.
Now more than ever, we should be putting every ounce of strength we have into completely ending practices that put carbon into the air.
It is time to endthe production of cars with combustion engines.
We need to de-carbonize the system of transporting things, or better yet: switch to hyper-local production of food and goods.
It is time to de-carbonize the electric grid.
The practice of burning coal for power must go.
We need to remove the logic of capital from oil, from the electric grid, from the entire energy sector, and from most forms of transportation as well.Time is up.
If humans survive these times, we’ll probably spend the next few millennia writing tragic poems about how we gave our power over to these deranged institutions called “corporations” that ran rampant and destroyed our air, water, and ecology and caused untold levels of harm for nothing. Nothing the capitalists promise each other will be worth anything on a dead planet, and if capitalists continue controlling the energy sector, that is the only possible outcome.
As we grieve the ecosystems that are now leaving us, we must awaken to the fast work that needs to be done if we such to keep our planet habitable.
How much carbon is going into the air?
- The typical passenger vehicle emits 4.6 metric tons of carbon dioxide in a year.
- Around 17% of CO2 emissions come from transporting goods.
- At least 1,763 million metric tons of carbon were emitted in 2018 by the U.S. electric grid (that accounts for around 30% of the total 5,268 million metric tons of carbon emitted by people of the United States that year) (source: EIA data).
- 17% of the U.S. power grid is still powered by coal