It wasn’t too long ago that a gender reveal party ended in over 10,000 acres of wildfire in California. It is perhaps the most perfect analogy for what’s happening around us: heedless human behavior causes earth to go up in flames.
The New York Times reports that regions from Australia to the Arctic are ablaze at unprecedented rates — and while the causes vary, it’s become an undeniable fact that the hot and dry conditions created by climate change are welcoming these fires with open arms.
There are three variables at play: humankind, climate change and fire. The grim reality is that neither the fires nor climate change would be happening if it weren’t for us meddling humans.
According to NASA, scientists say that the climate has been gradually warming for the last several decades due to increased greenhouse gas emissions in the atmosphere produced by human activity. Greenhouse gases are naturally occurring in our atmosphere; they trap heat from the sun close to earth, making our planet livable as compared to our extraterrestrial neighbors. Human industrial activity such as the burning of fossil fuels emits more greenhouse gases — primarily carbon dioxide (CO2) — into the atmosphere, effectively warming the planet like they’re supposed to. But it’s getting a little too warm. And now, the earth is on fire.
The Amazon Rainforest is a Major Player
The Amazon Rainforest plays a huge role when it comes to climate change. It holds about 25% of the atmosphere’s carbon, making it the world’s largest carbon sink, according to the journal Nature.
It’s vast plant life absorbs CO2 from the atmosphere and turns it into oxygen through photosynthesis, giving it the nickname “earth’s lungs.” That title can be a bit misleading, however, because scientists generally don’t view the Amazon as a net oxygen contributor, according to Encyclopedia Britannica. Plants produce about the same amount of oxygen by photosynthesis as they consume through respiration, which is the process by which they produce energy to grow. Therefore, it is a common misconception that a world with no Amazon would make us short on oxygen.
What a world with no Amazon would do, however, is accelerate climate change — and quickly.
While the rainforest may not be a significant oxygen producer, it’s carbon absorption function is critical to the balance of our atmosphere. The process of photosynthesis allows it to absorb a large amount of CO2. Because of this, it plays a vital role in slowing the effects of climate change.
The rainforest is also responsible for a large part of the water cycle in North and South America, according to Carnegie Europe, an international think tank. This means the rainfall in these regions is essentially recycled water from the Amazon. Without it, the land would begin to die and the climate in those areas would become increasingly hot and dry.
Thus, it’s clear that the rainforest is a key part of our global habitat.
Yet despite its significance, the Amazon is a major target for deforestation. It expands over two million miles, which is about the size of the U.S.
Greenpeace, an international environmental organization, reports that over 18% of the rainforest has already been lost to deforestation. Over the past few decades, land clearing in the Amazon has become commonplace.
As stated by NASA earth observatory, the most efficient way to clear out the terrain is through slash-and-burn techniques, an age-old land clearing practice. The trees are first cut down and then the entire swath of land is burned. The combustion of all that plant and animal life releases tons of CO2 into the atmosphere and transforms the terrain into a dry wasteland.
Due to deforestation efforts, plant and animal species’ in the rainforest are going extinct at exponential rates, according to Greenpeace. This poses harrowing threats to the food chain as well as the integrity of our global habitat.
As the Amazon disappears, so does the livability of this rock we call home.
California is no Stranger to Wildfire Season
On the other side of the equator, California is experiencing record high wildfire numbers, which are only expected to climb, reports The New York Times.
In 2020 alone, over four million acres have been scorched by wildfire in the state. Out of the 20 largest fires in California’s history, 11 of them have happened in the past decade, with only three of them occurring before 2000, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.
While the Golden State isn’t a stranger to “wildfire season,” global warming is making matters much worse.
More specifically, it’s the decline of the Amazon that’s contributing to the increasing wildfires in California. Because the water cycle of the rainforest is attributed to much of the state’s rainfall levels and resulting land moisture, the destruction of the Amazon has a direct effect on California’s drying climate, according to Carnegie Europe. As we lose large parts of the rainforest, its capability to mitigate California’s climate conditions in the face of global warming are becoming increasingly diminished. As a result, California’s weather is the perfect cocktail for a fiery future.
Cutting the Power
Whereas the fires in the Amazon are caused intentionally, the fires in California are not. Fingers get pointed to a variety of causes, but it’s almost always from some form of human activity— aside from the occasional dry lightning strike which is the only natural fire catalyst, according to the National Fire Protection Association.
Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E), a California utility company, has taken the blame for a large portion of the state’s wildfires in recent years due to sparks from power lines, reported Business Insider.
The company has since declared bankruptcy. In June 2020, PG&E pleaded guilty to over 80 counts of manslaughter in the Camp Fire case, reported The New York Times, which destroyed the town of Paradise, California in 2018. It’s now known as the deadliest fire the state has ever seen.
As a new precautionary measure, PG&E has executed planned outages when the weather conditions are the most optimal for wildfires — a decision their customers aren’t thrilled about, to say the least. Beyond the inconveniences posed by the outages, they also cause significant repercussions for businesses that rely on a steady power supply.
An October 2019 outage in Northern California’s Emerald Triangle, the largest cannabis-producing region in the U.S., was a detriment for many growers and dispensaries in the area, reported the Eureka Times-Standard. Operations that rely on grid power were severely impacted. At the time, PG&E cut power to more than 2.3 million people in response to extreme weather conditions, according to UC Berkeley. As a result, businesses closed. Large amounts of crops perished. Employees could not be paid. Customer traffic plummeted. For some, that meant thousands of dollars of lost revenue.
But for now, cutting the power seems to be PG&E’s only defense. Other precautions taken by the state, such as controlled burns to get rid of dry brush and building fire-proof infrastructure, are debated on their effectiveness, according to the International Association of Fire and Rescue Services (CTIF). For the time being, it seems they’re just applying a band aid.
The changing climate makes it almost impossible for California not to burn. In conjunction with the natural climate and the high population density, Californians are one stray spark away from starting the next wildfire.
There is an invincibility complex to humankind that puts an interesting twist on the situation — we simply cannot and will not be told no — even when the planet threatens to burn us alive.
Devastation is Vast
The devastation caused by wildfires is diverse and vast. Loss endures with every fire.
Above Farms, a cannabis farm in Humboldt County, California, lost 75% of its crop to the Mad River Complex Fire in 2015, just one year after they were founded, they told us here at Emerald. They have since been able to get back on their feet, but the experience is still a defining one for the company. As with most California cultivators, fire precautions have become part of Above Farms’ daily routine. They clear the brush in the surrounding forests often to lower the flammability of the area.
For a brand that is so closely connected to nature, witnessing the destruction of the land on top of their own loss as a business was staggering. “It’s not for the faint of heart to be out there,” said Carly Vandal, Director of Marketing at Above Farms.
What’s more, they play by the rules. They farm their crop organically, use environmentally friendly packaging and employ sustainable practices in their supply chain. Their story is symbolic of the urgency, reality and tenacity of this crisis. Not even a rule-abiding, tree-hugging cannabis farm is spared from the effects of climate change. It goes to show that whether we like it or not, we’re all in this together. The common thread between these disasters is that they’re all catalyzed by humans, and the repercussions of every unsustainable action are going to be felt by all of us.
Leadership is Questionable
Leadership around the world has not exactly left room for climate change to let up. President Jair Bolsnaro of Brazil — a country which is home to 60% of the Amazon — denies that the rainforest is burning at all, Reuters reported.
President Bolsnaro blames the media for spreading a false narrative about the fires, despite his own government releasing data on the spike in conflagrations. He’s also encouraged mining and agriculture to boost the nation’s economy, even though those activities are cited by the BBC for causing the most deforestation, both legal and illegal.
The Prime Minister of Australia, Scott Morrison, downplayed climate change during his country’s own wildfire crisis and even escaped to Hawaii while his constituents battled the fires, reported the Associated Press. He preached about working on the economy during this time, rather than discussing climate change.
In the U.S., President Trump has also infamously denied the climate crisis and stood behind unsustainable and detrimental practices like mining and fracking. But then again, perhaps it isn’t surprising that global economies are being valued above the health of our planet.
This hyper-acquisitive mindset is the reason for all the climate chaos in the first place. The idea that more is more — a core part of Americanna — is a huge contributor to that looming carbon footprint. Since the industrial revolution, the mantra has been go go go, 24/7, 365. But our greenhouse gas allowance is almost up.
As reported by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the rate of CO2 in the atmosphere has steadily increased since the 1960s. Today, the levels stand as much as 24% higher than before.
We’re existing in a state of limbo, inching closer and closer to our eventual demise by mass amounts of natural disasters caused by climate change.
This is humankind’s rendition of Icarus, and we’re flying very close to the sun.
And the Blame Goes to…
It seems to be our natural tendency as humans to look for a scapegoat when crises occur. In California, PG&E has taken on a lot of responsibility for the fires. In the Amazon, many fault President Bolsnaro. But scapegoating doesn’t necessarily lead to resolution.
The public focus may turn into a “whodunnit”, but it’s important to take a look at the full picture. Dishing out blame isn’t productive in fixing the climate crisis because it directs energy to the past. The real problem lies in the security of our future.
The climate crisis is woven into the inner workings of our everyday lives; it’s a direct byproduct of the way we power society. Reversing climate change is going to require a pretty substantial upheaval of the powers that be. Big business and international governments will likely be the most crucial to making real change. Because everything is so intertwined, it’s not going to be a quick or easy fix.
But if we want to extinguish the fires for good, we’ll have to accept that our daily lives will look a little different. Us humans are big on efficiency, convenience, speed… but a climatically sound planet is not. Consumption and environmentalism aren’t exactly compatible.
Either way, if we don’t stop, we will eventually see the day that it’s either going to be us or Mother Nature (spoiler alert: she wins).
“Climate change will have detrimental effects to our environment and personal health if we don’t make changes now,” says Danielle Weisse, a recent graduate of Western Connecticut State’s ecology program.
Those effects are already being felt, Weisse added. “Data collected on temperatures and our atmospheric layers show that climate change is making consequential changes to our planet.”
So, we return to the three core variables: humankind, climate change and fire. It’s inherently cyclical. Soon, we’ll no longer be able to have one without the other.
The fires in the Amazon Rainforest are representative of the persistent damage we’ve inflicted on the planet. The fires in California are representative of the future we’re in for as a result. Both are proof that humankind is at the core of this crisis.
At the current rate, our future is looking rather apocalyptic. Fires will continue to ravage the planet, and there likely will come a day our earth becomes uninhabitable if we don’t make a change now.
Assuming everyone wants to avert the impending doomsday at all costs, it’s time we put on our big girl panties and get to work.
This article was published in The Emerald Magazine’s EARTH edition.