The numbers shock, of course: these past weeks, West Coast fires have burned an area the size of New Jersey. The smoke has thickened the air to the point where the pollution is literally off the E.P.A.’s existing charts. Five of the ten largest fires in California history are currently burning. But it’s the color that I think will linger in our minds—the orange not of flames but of the shroud of particulates and fog, which tints San Francisco an eerie mango and turns the glorious Yosemite views that Ansel Adams imprinted on our brains into something haunted and grim.
In that terrifying glow, what do we do? One answer might be: give up. These fires are an illustration of the power that we’ve already unleashed; there is no question that they represent a new baseline and that, as the climate scientist Peter Kalmus and the fire ecologist Natasha Stavros explain in the Los Angeles Times, they’re going to get worse. Unless, as President Trump blithely observed on Monday afternoon, to California’s secretary for natural resources, “It’ll start getting cooler, you just watch.” (Trump added, “I don’t think science knows, actually.”) And the blazes along the blue Pacific are probably not even the most dangerous burning on the planet right now: an article in Nature this week makes it clear that the vast Siberian fires are burning into the Arctic peatlands, which hold truly massive stores of carbon, threatening to set off a large-scale feedback loop.
But giving up is generational aggression: it consigns the planet’s young people (and all future generations) to an ever-grimmer planet. And that would be wrong, because there’s still much that we can do—if not to prevent global warming then to prevent it from getting so bad that civilizations like the ones we’ve known are no longer an option. So this is the moment—maybe the last moment—to pay full attention to what young people are telling us. It’s been a couple of weeks now since Ed Markey came back from seventeen points down to crush Joseph Kennedy III in the Massachusetts Democratic Senate primary, but it’s worth looking back at that race. That huge swing resulted almost entirely, I think, from young people adopting the seventy-four-year-old Markey as one of their own. First, it was the Sunrise Movement, the post-college climate champions who brought us the Green New Deal and are now emerging as a potent political force. Then came Students for Markey, Ed’s Reply Guys, and the “Markeyverse.” Many were too young to vote, but they could meme: soon Markey was way cooler than Kennedy, which is amazing, since, as Marshall McLuhan once noted, Kennedy’s great-uncle was the coolest politician America ever saw. And Markey’s coolness was rooted mostly in his support for climate action. [Continue reading…]