With the West on Fire, Where Do We Go From Here?

Buildings are engulfed in flames as a wildfire ravages the central Oregon town of Talent near Medford.

Buildings are engulfed in flames as a wildfire ravages the central Oregon town of Talent near Medford.
Photo: Kevin Jantzer (AP)

After Sen. Ed Markey won his primary in Massachusetts earlier this month, he had a message: “The age of incrementalism is over.”

He was talking about politics, but he may as well been talking about the events of this week. Half a million people are on the run in Oregon alone as fires engulf the state. The most modern metropolis in California is encased in smoke from fires burning far away. The Gulf Coast is still reeling from Hurricane Laura last month. Put simply, the age of climate incrementalism is over.

Measuring climate change in parts per million or tenths of degrees is useful scientifically. But the lived experience of climate change is one of crisis. Humans have an amazing capacity to adapt, but what the past week alone has shown us is that climate change at 1.8 degrees Fahrenheit (1 degree Celsius) above pre-industrial levels is already pushing us to the limit. The world is on track for more than 5.4 degrees Fahrenheit (3 degrees Celsius) of heating. In other words, if you think this looks bad, you haven’t seen anything.

The idea that we can work on incremental fixes to the systems in place is a fallacy. Nibbling around the edge on climate policy, whether it’s decarbonization or better municipal regulations to stave off fire, is worthless in the face of a hotter, more deadly world. We need to overhaul every single thing—and we need to join together to collectively force entrenched powers to abandon the destructive status quo.

Science has dropped the pins on a map for where we need to go. This decade, global carbon emissions must fall by more than 7% each year to stave off even more catastrophic warming. By midcentury, the world will have to reach net-zero emissions and work to remediate the atmosphere by sucking carbon dioxide out of it using technology that doesn’t yet exist. Developed countries—particularly the U.S., which has contributed more to the crisis than any other country, historically—need to lead that movement, both because they have the money to fund the transition and a moral responsibility for overwhelmingly creating the crisis in the first place.

Even under a breakneck program of decarbonization, the climate crisis will still intensify. Hell, cutting emissions to zero tomorrow would still mean we’re locked in to the conditions that have spawned the West Coast firestorm for a generation or more to come. The climate isn’t a speedboat that can turn on a dime; it’s a lumbering cargo ship that slowly cuts a new path through the sea long after the captain turns the wheel. That means we will need to tap into that human ability to adapt regardless, finding ways to prepare forests for a hotter, drier future and coasts for more severe storm surges.

There’s a policy map that connects these pins as well. The Green New Deal offers a framework, and a number of policy experts have put out plans for how the U.S. can address decarbonization and create jobs with policy tools already available. Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden picks up some of those ideas in his $2 trillion climate and infrastructure plan, though there’s room for improvement. Other proposals, like recreating the New Deal’s Civilian Conservation Corps for the climate change era, are wildly popular with Americans and could, among other things, put people to work clearing up decades of overgrowth in forests and reducing the risk of high-intensity fires.

So we have our pins on the map and the routes to connect them. That’s a nice start, but ultimately we have to get to work building the roads (or if you’re feeling more climate-friendly, high-speed rail lines) to get there. Doing so requires power in the right hands.

A number of Democrats gravely intoned in tweets with dire images of the fires that Americans should vote thinking about the dire impacts of climate. To keep up our (admittedly strained) high-speed rail line analogy, voting is showing up at the job site with a hard hat under your arm. Do we love to see it? Yes, of course. Getting Democrats in control of Congress and the White House is absolutely essential given the nihilism that counts as Republican politics today.

But until recently, Democrats haven’t exactly been doing much on the climate front nationally either. Barack Obama, the last Democratic president, oversaw the fracking boom and said we should thank him for it. There are a growing number of climate champions in the halls of Congress, but the status quo is a powerful force, and even moderate Democrats are still under an illusion of incremental policies as the best way forward. Fossil fuel companies and other major industries, from auto manufacturers to agriculture to disaster capitalist firms that enrich themselves on government contracts after catastrophe strikes, have all invested in the status quo. Breaking the hold of those powerful industries on our institutions requires massive upheaval.

The plans Democrats have put out show they are thinking of taking the crisis seriously. They just need to be convinced to follow through. As Sunrise Movement co-founder Varshini Prakash wrote in the group’s recent book, Winning a Green New Deal, the way to achieve this is mobilizing people power.

“Just as the labor strikes of the New Deal made the Wagner Act possible, so too will strikes of students and workers make the Green New Deal possible,” she wrote, referring to an act passed by Congress in 1935 that gave workers the right to unionize and collectively bargain.

Building the economy of the next century will require sustained, intense pressure to achieve the radical reforms needed to stave off the worst version of the climate crisis. Just as important is understanding where the leverage is over powers that feel much bigger than each of us individually. It may mean grinding society to a halt.

“To func­tion, busi­ness­es require work­ers,” Hamilton Nolan recently wrote in In These Times, discussing the power of NBA players’ wildcat strike over racial injustice. “Col­lec­tive action, there­fore, is the real source of your lever­age. It is the abil­i­ty of you and your cowork­ers to deprive the busi­ness of the labor it needs to func­tion. Sol­i­dar­i­ty is pow­er for every­one.”

Incrementalism isn’t the only thing that has to end. So, too, does distrust of one another and willingness to not act together in our own collective interests. If you, like me, feel the rage of watching fellow Americans scatter as fire licks their heels and destroys their homes, or of hearing the stories of friends trapped indoors with children for days on end because the air outside is too toxic to breathe, then harness it. Find people who feel likewise. And prepare to organize, because the only way to drive a stake through the heart of incrementalism is to forge a radically new coalition that fights for each other.

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