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This is the New Normal

By Petr Knava | Politics | September 11, 2020 |

By Petr Knava | Politics | September 11, 2020 |


More than half a million people are now fleeing the ongoing devastation being wreaked by gigantic wildfires across Oregon and the Pacific Northwest. Oregon has a population of 4.2 million, so this is more than 10% of the state that has now been forced to abandon everything in the face of cataclysmic climate change. One of the fires in Oregon is being treated as suspicious arson, though police have discounted right-wing theories circulating on social media that have tried to lay the blame at the feet of ‘antifa’ activists.

Across the whole of the United States, over 100 fires are currently raging, with Oregon, Washington, and California being the worst affected. 4.4 million acres have already been destroyed. Four human fatalities have been confirmed in Oregon, though the exact number will likely already be far larger. Oregon itself is currently seeing dozens of wildfires. Oregon Governor Kate Brown told reporters: ‘We have never seen this amount of uncontained fire across the state… This will not be a one-time event. Unfortunately, it is the bellwether of the future. We’re feeling the acute impacts of climate change.’

Thanks to capitalist climate change, wildfires, in general, are increasing in frequency and severity around the world. Hotter, drier winds, decreased precipitation, changes in vegetation, increased lightning storm activity—all consequences of industrial activity that have made it possible for blazes to rage like never before.

A 2016 study by Columbia University reported that the average temperature of Western forests had increased by almost 2.5 degrees just since 1970. In 2019 it was reported that California had seen 12 of the 15 worst fires in its history in just the last 15 years. In the EU, the fires of 2017 burned at three times their historical rate. According to a report on the fires in the National Geographic:

The worst fire years tend to appear amid seasonal extremes, when a wet season that fuels exuberant plant growth is followed by an extremely dry season that sucks the water out of the plants and the soil.

These conditions are exactly what caused the fires in northern Europe this year. A wet winter fattened plants across the continent, and then the heat set in. A historic heat wave—which scientists say was about twice as likely to occur because of human-caused climate change—settled in over the continent.

‘Seasonal extremes’ is exactly what climate change is bringing to the world.

The National Geographic report continues:

Bill DeGroot, a scientist with the Canadian Forest Service, explains that the fire “season” has extended over the past few decades in many parts of the world, largely because warmer temperatures dry out plants more thoroughly and sooner in the year. In the western U.S., the length of time between the first and last fires of the year stretched by nearly 80 days since 1980. In Canada, where he works, the season is about a month longer.

This is our new normal. With every passing day of political inaction, that new normal will get worse and worse. Nothing less than a total, immediate commitment to upending our entire political system and a cessation of fossil fuel capitalism will avert the worst of the catastrophe of which we are now only seeing the smallest glimpse. There is no happy ending to this. We are past the point of no return. The best we can hope for is already terrible. And what is the answer from most of our politicians? The same as it’s ever been. Contempt and complicity. The planet is divided between the voices of the 99% begging for some hope of a liveable future—with those in front line communities in the Global South at most risk most often being denied any voice at all—and the deafening silence from the capitalist elites on the other. I’ll be honest. Many days it’s becoming too much to take. I’m exhausted just from writing.

In addition to the American fires, Brazil—that other country ruled over by a far-right lunatic—is currently seeing some of the worst wildfires in its history. Said far-right lunatic has of course dismissed the fires as a conspiracy and has a record of referring to conservationism as a cancer, as well as running on a campaign promising to ‘open up the Amazon’ for business. The Pantanal is a 195,000 square kilometre region in the Brazilian state Mato Grosso do Sul. It also covers parts of Bolivia and Paraguay. It is the world’s largest tropical wetland, its largest flooded grasslands, and it is now burning at a catastrophic rate.

And while parts of the world burn, others drown. Sudan is currently in the midst of a three month state of emergency, after the Nile burst its banks and rose to the highest level since records began. The deadly floods have already killed 100 people, and forced 500,000 from their homes. In the state of Khartoum alone, over 100,000 are in desperate need of shelter. Sudan is used to a degree of seasonal flooding, but the scale of what capitalist climate change is establishing as the new normal is unprecedented, and will only get worse. Sudan is also a striking case study of the political dynamics of climate change: Regions of the world that have contributed the least to the historical emissions record will bear the brunt of the worst of the crises.

This is the new normal. If you’re gonna say, ‘2020 is the worst year in the last hundred years,’ you might as well also add, ‘and it will be the best year in next hundred years’.

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Petr is a staff contributor. You can follow him on Twitter.

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