Trump fiddled while California (and the world) burned

California Heat Wildfires
Flames from a wildfire engulf trees near Oroville, Calif., on Saturday. The fire south of Oroville was one of more than a dozen burning in the state as firefighters worked in scorching temperatures to control unruly flames.

President Trump has tweeted about a lot of things this week — Jim Comey, the economy, whatever they’re blathering about on “Fox and Friends,” the show that the president watches at the hour when most presidents used to get their CIA security briefing — but unless I missed it I haven’t seen anything out of the White House about the many wildfires that are ravaging Southern California right now. Maybe that’s because Trump only recognizes the states that are colored in red in his handy-dandy Electoral College map of the United States.

I know I’ve been watching the intense orange flames as they bear down on populated hillside communities like Santa Maria. That’s partly because I have a Southern Californian in my immediate family now, but also because I think it’s a loud warning shriek about the future of this country and the world — the kind of problem we used to think we elected our leaders to deal with. True, true, weather isn’t the exact same thing as climate, and — as someone who attended an Angels game in Anaheim on a Sunday afternoon when it was 106 degrees (you can look it up) in Orange County way back in 1988, I’m well aware that this isn’t the first time it’s been hot Out West. But the periods of intense heat are getting longer, the daily highs are getting higher, and the fires are more frequent — just what experts warned would happen in a warming planet. Even naysayers began to notice when it was too hot for some planes to take off from Phoenix.

That’s why I think — for our children and certainly for our grandchildren — that for all the hoo-hah about Trump’s meeting with Vladimir Putin and what they did or didn’t say about election hacking, the only thing anyone will remember about the Hamburg G-20 meeting 50 years ago will be Trump’s isolation….

…as the world’s other 19 actual leaders re-affirmed their commitment to the Paris accord, our last-change bid to curb greenhouse-gas pollution before the world passes a tipping point that the most gloomy assessors say the planet may have already passed anyway. While Trump plays politics with the most explosive issue facing the world — curbing funding for clean-energy projects and promoting the revival of coal, the dirtiest fuel in our arsenal — a particular glum warning about climate change in the 21st Century went viral from the pages of New York Magazine. Here’s an excerpt:

Since 1980, the planet has experienced a 50-fold increase in the number of places experiencing dangerous or extreme heat; a bigger increase is to come. The five warmest summers in Europe since 1500 have all occurred since 2002, and soon, the IPCC warns, simply being outdoors that time of year will be unhealthy for much of the globe. Even if we meet the Paris goals of two degrees warming, cities like Karachi and Kolkata will become close to uninhabitable, annually encountering deadly heat waves like those that crippled them in 2015. At four degrees, the deadly European heat wave of 2003, which killed as many as 2,000 people a day, will be a normal summer. At six, according to an assessment focused only on effects within the U.S. from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, summer labor of any kind would become impossible in the lower Mississippi Valley, and everybody in the country east of the Rockies would be under more heat stress than anyone, anywhere, in the world today. As Joseph Romm has put it in his authoritative primer Climate Change: What Everyone Needs to Know, heat stress in New York City would exceed that of present-day Bahrain, one of the planet’s hottest spots, and the temperature in Bahrain “would induce hyperthermia in even sleeping humans.” The high-end IPCC estimate, remember, is two degrees warmer still. By the end of the century, the World Bank has estimated, the coolest months in tropical South America, Africa, and the Pacific are likely to be warmer than the warmest months at the end of the 20th century. Air-conditioning can help but will ultimately only add to the carbon problem; plus, the climate-controlled malls of the Arab emirates aside, it is not remotely plausible to wholesale air-condition all the hottest parts of the world, many of them also the poorest. And indeed, the crisis will be most dramatic across the Middle East and Persian Gulf, where in 2015 the heat index registered temperatures as high as 163 degrees Fahrenheit. As soon as several decades from now, the hajj will become physically impossible for the 2 million Muslims who make the pilgrimage each year.

It is not just the hajj, and it is not just Mecca; heat is already killing us. In the sugarcane region of El Salvador, as much as one-fifth of the population has chronic kidney disease, including over a quarter of the men, the presumed result of dehydration from working the fields they were able to comfortably harvest as recently as two decades ago.

Too alarmist? Even some widely respected climate experts — most notably Penn State’s hot-button scientist Michael Mann — think so:

The point of Mann and other critics of the widely-read NY Mag piece is not even so much that it’s overly frightening and misstates or cherry-picks the data in a few spots, but that people need to understand that while the threat from climate change is very serious, humankind can still take real, doable steps to combat it. Which makes Trump’s wrongheaded inaction right now all the more frustrating.

In fairness, to some degree, the president is the epitome of a trend that’s been going on in the conservative quarters of American thought for several decades. Also this weekend, the New York Times published a maddening article about how lobbyists for the utility industries, encouraged by the likes of Big Oil’s the Koch Brothers, are using their clout with state lawmakers from coast-to-coast to kill subsidies that had fueled a boom in clean solar power. It’s no secret that government programs to boost clean energy aren’t perfect and can always be fine-tuned, but how can you morally justify moving in the complete opposite direction when the world is on fire? One of the most famous legends in political history is the notion that the emperor Nero played his fiddle while Rome burned. It may not have happened exactly that way, but it speaks to the occasional nightmare of politicians who obsess on trivia instead of solving actual problems.

It’s time for President Trump, Congress and our state governments to stop fiddling around.

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