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California and the Apocalypse

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It’s hard to even talk about what is going on in California right now. The West is just going to burn up and dry out. It’s horrifying. But Leah Stokes at least tries to articulate the hellscape.

Last week, a heat wave baked the West. In Death Valley, a world record may have been set for the hottest temperature observed on Earth: 130 degrees Fahrenheit. From Phoenix, Arizona, to the Bay Area, people turned up their air-conditioning, straining California’s electricity infrastructure, because the state imports power from its neighbors. Demand outstripped supply, and the grid operator started rolling blackouts. The cause is climate change: It has made heat waves five times more likely to occur in the western United States.

During the blackouts, California had unusually intense lightning strikes, which dotted the darkened landscape with electricity from the sky. These storms triggered fires across Northern California, forcing more than 100,000 people to evacuate their homes. Climate change has increased fire risk, and lengthened the fire season. It’s only August, and already more land has burned in California this year than all of 2019.

These climate disasters are happening against the backdrop of the still uncontrolled coronavirus outbreak, which makes it harder for people to flee to safety. Evacuating to a friend’s house or a community center when a highly contagious illness is circulating is not a simple choice.

Those theoretically “safe” in their homes don’t have it easy, either. Without electricity, many Californians have to choose between opening the windows and breathing in air choked with smoke, or keeping them closed in a hot house. My friend posted a picture wearing an N95 mask with an exhalation valve, and a surgical mask on top: the first to protect herself against the smoke, the second to protect others from the virus.

I don’t want to live in a world where we have to decide which mask to wear for which disaster, but this is the world we are making. And we’ve only started to alter the climate. Imagine what it will be like when we’ve doubled or tripled the warming, as we are on track to do.

Climate change is not just destabilizing California’s grid. The East Coast is facing down a deadly hurricane season and has already seen outages for 1.4 million people. An unprecedented wind storm—which some are calling an “inland hurricane”—left a quarter million people in the Midwest without power.

Yet some people refuse to acknowledge that climate change is the cause of the problems California is facing. The Wall Street Journal published a misleading editorial blaming the state’s reliance on renewable energy for the outages.

In reality, several fossil-gas plants unexpectedly went offline when the heat wave struck, resulting in less available power. Gas plants can struggle to operate in the heat. In an ironic twist, burning fossil fuels will become less reliable in our hotter world. And California’s grid is connected to other states’, so when a heat wave spikes electricity demand from Arizona to Nevada, that leaves less power to import. With lower rainfall and many years of drought—again, caused in part by climate change—many of the state’s hydropower plants were also underperforming.

To say the least, COVID-19 is not the greatest crisis we face in this nation right now. And we are doing far worse in dealing with climate change than we are with our incompetent and murderous response to the epidemic.

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