Cate Johnson

World on Fire

I slowed the car and tentatively rolled down the window. The glass squeaked against plastic as I pressed firmly on the button. A thick, yellow smog quickly seeped into my car. I felt my chest tighten and my breath quicken. I attempted to avoid inhaling the yellow muck. It hurt to breathe. Crossing Jackson Street, I saw a family waiting for the school bus. The 6-year-old had a huge, white mask stretched across his face, practically two sizes too big. An eerie, apocalyptic feeling pervaded the scene. Everyone was wearing masks to protect themselves from the carcinogenic air—the mailman, the shopper, the Uber driver. I drove past a playground. Empty. It was like all of the kids had suddenly evaporated. Parents were probably keeping them inside, worried about the negative effects the air would have on their lungs. The TV had said that morning that breathing in the toxic air for a day was the equivalent of smoking half a pack of cigarettes. The air quality index was 165, levels deemed extremely unhealthy by the EPA. I quickly rolled the window back up. Was this just a small taste of what was to come?


When I returned home over Thanksgiving break, I found San Francisco enveloped in thick smoke, a cloud that clogged the air from Sacramento to Southern California. Fires were burning all across the state. San Francisco was just one of the many places getting hit hard by Camp Fire, the deadliest wildfire in California’s history. President Trump wrote a tweet about the natural disaster: “There is no reason for these massive, deadly and costly forest fires in California except that forest management is so poor. Billions of dollars are given each year, with so many lives lost, all because of gross mismanagement of the forests. Remedy now, or no more Fed payments!" Harold Schaitberger, President of the International Association of Fire Fighters, stated that Trump’s comments were “reckless and insulting to the firefighters and people being affected.”

Although the origins of the fires are still under investigation, it is imperative to note that, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA), July 2018 was the hottest month ever recorded in California. It was also the month of the infamous Mendocino Complex Fire, the largest wildfire in California history. This is no anomaly: six of the 10 largest wildfires in the state’s history have occurred in the past decade. Trump’s refusal to acknowledge the implications of California’s historical and scientific records allows him to blame the occurrence of fires on poor forest mismanagement. However, Trump is missing the fact that it wasn’t forest managers’ fault at all—it’s the anthropocentric mismanagement of oil and greenhouse gas emissions altering the climate in irreversible ways, leading to warmer, drier climates ideal for instigating wildfires of mass destruction.

Overall, the correlation is clear: the effects of rising global temperatures and political agitation go hand in hand. For example, when Trump denies climate change, he does so in part because he needs to align with Republican voters; he chooses political alignment over logic. This denial of fact-based evidence of climate change and its detrimental effects leads him to do nothing about greenhouse gas emissions. Therefore, emissions continue to increase at an unprecedented rate, spurring warmer temperatures and more fires. It’s a simple positive feedback loop of ignorance and denial fueling further destruction. Under Trump’s government, the effects of climate change seemingly don’t exist. His Twitter account tells us that it’s not the heat that caused the fires, it’s simply the forest managers’ fault.


Political apathy and our president’s disregard for the effects of climate change in turn act as catalysts for further environmental destruction. For example, in California, the wildfires soon became an “opinion-based” debate in politics, with both politicians and media outlets posing questions like “who was responsible?” We see this trend resurface every time climate change is brought to the table in political debates. As soon as the issue becomes politicized, candidates ignore science in favor of politics and dig the environment into a deeper and more catastrophic hole. On the national stage, politicizing climate change usually takes the form of simply debating its existence. Right-wing politicians deny that climate change impacts their politics, but as the Earth heats up, so does the debate. Science should be able to speak for itself outside of the lens of politics. Knowing the evidence of the dangers of a warming climate should incite progressive steps towards new policies that could save human lives. Politicians’ apathy and inability to listen to science has resulted in a direct threat to our human rights, properties, and lifestyles.

Climate change deniers throughout the United States and rising right-wing populists in Europe choose to ignore the power that natural disasters have in shaping a country’s political agenda. As Trump himself once stated, “I don’t believe in global warming. I believe in weather.” But what happens when that so-called weather starts spiraling out of control as a result of anthropocentric greenhouse gas emissions, heating up the globe at unprecedented rates? It puts humans directly in harm’s way.


The Humans Rights Association states that access to resources such as water, food, and shelter is a fundamental human right. Therefore, rising temperatures, burgeoning storms, and receding coastlines threaten not only global economies and capitalist systems but also human rights. Although they are diverse geographically, culturally, and politically, Iraq, the UK, and the state of California have all experienced both the drastic effects of temperature rise and political upheaval in 2018. Whether the political activity was driven by the heat itself, or simply exacerbated by it, the trends of political apathy causing rising temperatures and other effects of climate change cannot be denied. Governments choose to neglect the significance of climate issues because if they confront them, they must then confront the capitalist systems and industry driven environmental destruction lying beneath.


As we all know, the extreme temperatures of the summer might have dipped briefly in the fall, but global warming trends continue to point to a world that’s only going to get hotter. To top 2018 off with a sizzle, the Camp and Woolsey fires in California mark the deadliest wildfires in the state’s history, with over 86 deceased and a collective burning of 250,285 square miles. Though as of November 26, the Camp Fire had been 100 percent contained, California’s fire season reveals the terrifying implications of our changing globe.


There’s no doubt that 2018 was sweltering: California’s wildfires prove so. If greenhouse gas emissions continue to increase, scientists suggest 74 percent of the global population will experience more than 20 days of lethal heat waves per year by 2100. Only 30 percent of the population currently experience these levels. It’s obvious we are going to see more of these heat waves in the future and on a much larger scale. Climate change has begun to impact our daily lives, even with something as seemingly mundane as a few degrees warmer weather. And it’s impacting our politics too. As we look to the 2020 election, a new tide of democratic candidates has created climate centric platforms, ready to create and implement radical legislation to combat climate change. This tide stands in stark contrast to the apathetic smog encompassing the White House today.


We should be paying attention to what we observe, experience, and what science says outside of the jargon of political discourse. We need a grassroots political agenda in order to make sure our governments respond to these future warming events with direct action in the interest of human rights. These warming events are no longer hypotheses or just data points on a graph. Rising temperatures are negatively impacting human lives across the globe. It’s time we put on our Dickies, lace up the Docs, grab some posters, and get to work.

Lights Out Issue | May 2019