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California fires and climate change

Wherever you live on this planet, you’ve probably seen images of the orange skies that we witnessed over the San Francisco Bay Area a few days ago. They are caused by the California wildfires which, we have little doubt now, are increasing due to climate change. Today seems better in that the sky is merely grey – I was even excited to see a few spots of sunlight and to hear birds sing again – but the air quality is actually worse today than it was on Wednesday, or “Blade Runner Day,” as it has come to be known.

San Francisco, viewed from Treasure Island around noon, Sept 9, 2020. Image credit: Cecily W.

The wildfires of 2018 were so devastating that Cal Fire grimly announced that fire season in California is now a year-round event. However, 2020 is proving to be even worse.

Over 3.1 million acres have burned in California since January 1st. That beats our record. [In 2018] it was 1.9 million acres, so we have surpassed that by well over a million acres and we still have 4 more months in the year to go. – Cal Fire assistant deputy director, Daniel Berlant

Take a look at the chart below, showing the largest California fires in terms of acres of land burned. Three things to note:

  1. The five largest fires all date between 2017 and 2020
  2. Three of these five largest fires are current fires, still burning
  3. These records go all the way back to 1932, yet 17 of the top 20 fires occurred since 2000

A few days ago I was reviewing the draft of my next post on Trader Joe’s, reading over lines about palm oil sourcing and large carbon footprints and part of me thought: Is this too much? Do people have time for this when they just want to just get on with their normal lives? Well, the fires and orange skies have provided a timely reminder that our normal lives are becoming increasingly inconvenient.

Just as the Coronavirus pandemic has highlighted the need for ethical consumerism, so have the wildfires. On a mental level, the stats on wildfires leave little doubt that climate change is real. Then, more tangibly, the discomfort of smoky air and preternatural skies make our sacrifices to reduce our carbon footprints seem so much more pressing.

There’s another aspect to the California wildfires, related to ethical consumerism, that I think we haven’t appreciated yet. The air pollution that Californians are temporarily experiencing is par for the course in many developing nations, worldwide. Air pollution is one of the leading causes of human mortality, being responsible for 1 out of 8 deaths and killing an estimated 7 million people per year. Lifestyles in California and the Global North in general are major contributors to air pollution, whether from fossil fuel use, deforestation, mining, or manufacturing.*

So, yes it does matter whether palm oil sourced by Trader Joe’s comes from deforested land or not. All of it matters, and the pale red dawn on Wednesday provided a very surreal but timely wake up call.

On a personal note, I’ve quit my day job as a research scientist to focus on this. Apologies to my blogger friends for not keeping up over the last couple of years – I hope to make up for it 🙂

*Global economic inequality, another key focus of ethical consumerism, also plays a major role in air pollution. Specifically, domestic air pollution that results from limited cooking and heating options.

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