California wildfire
Credit: U.S. Department of Agriculture/Flickr

The catastrophic consequences of climate change are already making themselves felt all over the world. But nowhere is it more obvious today than in the American west, where unprecedented wildfires are raging, billowing plumes of smoke, turning the skies orange and forcing those without air conditioning or suffering from power blackouts to choose between breathing unsafe air or enduring stifling heat indoors. The scenes are almost apocalyptic:

More than 3.1 million acres have burned in California this year, part of a record fire season that still has four months to go. A suffocating cloud of smoke has veiled the West Coast for days, extending more than a thousand miles above the Pacific. And the extreme fire behavior that’s been witnessed this year hasn’t just been wild — it’s virtually unprecedented in scope and scale.

Fire tornadoes have spun up by the handful in at least three big wildfires in the past three weeks, based on radar data. Giant clouds of ash and smoke have generated lightning. Multiple fires have gone from a few acres to more than 100,000 acres in size in a day, while advancing as many as 25 miles in a single night. And wildfire plumes have soared up to 10 miles high, above the cruising altitude of commercial jets.

And yes, Rush Limbaugh notwithstanding, the intensity and severity of the fires is directly attributable to the climate crisis:

“This shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone,” said Michael Gerrard, director of the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia University. “Maybe we underestimated the magnitude and speed” at which these events would occur, he said, but “we’ve seen this long freight train barreling down on us for decades, and now the locomotive is on top of us, with no caboose in sight.”

In a matter of weeks, California has experienced six of the 20 largest wildfires in modern history and toppled all-time temperature records from the desert to the coast. Millions are suffering from some of the worst air quality in years due to heat-triggered smog and fire smoke. A sooty plume has blanketed most of the West Coast, blotting out the sun and threatening people’s lungs during a deadly pandemic…

“What we’ve been seeing in California are some of the clearest events where we can say this is climate change — that climate change has clearly made this worse,” said Zeke Hausfather, a climate scientist at the Breakthrough Institute, an Oakland-based think tank. “People who have lived in California for 30, 40 years are saying this is unprecedented, it has never been this hot, it has never been this smoky in all the years I’ve lived here.”

The impacts of the climate crisis are also being felt on the east coast in many forms, including record heat waves, snowfalls, and especially hurricanes, doubling the number of storms in a given year:

As a result of climate change, which has raised global average temperatures around 1° Celsius, meteorologists have been warily updating their seasonal forecasts. A warmer-than-normal Atlantic combined with decreased wind shear across the basin has created consensus that there will be more storms…

How would those tallies for 2020 stack up against an average season? It would be like undergoing two complete seasons in a single year. The 30-year average is for 12 storms to be named in a single six-month Atlantic season.

And then, of course, there’s the global impact in terms of refugees, resource shortages, species devastation, fishery destruction, sea level rise and so much else. For all the immediate crises on healthcare, policing, the pandemic and the economy, climate change remains the most pressing issue facing humanity as a whole. Whatever the cost and disruption of a Green New Deal may be, it would almost certainly be orders of magnitude less costly and disruptive than the consequences of failure to act. The consequences of climate change are consistently coming at us faster and harder than even the extreme edge models predict. On the current track, we are headed to a future not just of discomfort and disruption, but likely catasrophe for human civilization itself.

Which makes it entirely unsurprising that Donald Trump continues not only to do nothing about the issue, but to actively misinform the public and make matters worse. Most recently he named one of the world’s most prominent climate science deniers to a key position at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, commonly known at the NOAA:

David Legates, a University of Delaware professor of climatology who has spent much of his career questioning basic tenets of climate science, has been hired for a top position at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Legates confirmed to NPR that he was recently hired as NOAA’s deputy assistant secretary of commerce for observation and prediction. The position suggests that he reports directly to Neil Jacobs, the acting head of the agency that is in charge of the federal government’s sprawling weather and climate prediction work.

Legates is an academic best known for promulgated discredited theories that the sun is to blame for climate change, and for stating that loss of polar bear ice habitats were not attributable to human causes. He is also known for his work with Koch-funded studies to minimize climate change predictions and for his affiliation with the far-right Heartland Institute:

Legates has a long history of using his position as an academic scientist to publicly cast doubt on climate science. His appointment to NOAA comes as Americans face profound threats stoked by climate change, from the vast, deadly wildfires in the West to an unusually active hurricane season in the South and East…

Legates is a professor in the Department of Geography and Spatial Sciences at the University of Delaware. He is also affiliated with the Heartland Institute, a think tank that has poured money into convincing Americans that climate change is not happening and that the scientific evidence — including evidence published by the agency that now employs Legates — is uncertain or untrustworthy.

The purpose of appointing him to NOAA is almost certainly to meddle and interfere with NOAA’s climate science predictions, at a time when accurate predictions will be more crucial than ever in driving the sort of transformative policies that will be needed to stave off total devastation.

It’s just one more way in which Trump and the conservative movement are sowing chaos, hurting people and the environment, and making it harder to pull the country back from the brink.

David Atkins

Follow David on Twitter @DavidOAtkins. David Atkins is a writer, activist and research professional living in Santa Barbara. He is a contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal and president of The Pollux Group, a qualitative research firm.