Over the weekend, a megafire blossomed along the southern coast of Alaska, spreading smoke as far as Fairbanks, more than 500 miles north. For Alaskans, it could be a sign of what’s to come.
The fire now covers 284 square miles, making it one of the largest ever recorded in the Kenai Peninsula, according to Pete Buist of the Alaska Interagency Coordination Center. “A fire this large stands out,” said Buist, who’s logged 47 years fighting fires in Alaska.
This particular fire has grown so large as a result of “years of spruce bark beetle infestation,” he told me. The bugs have killed and weakened countless trees in this area, creating more kindling. That’s forced fire command agencies to take a step back and essentially let the fire burn, for safety reasons: “You can’t put people into an area where a bunch of trees have died and fallen."
The U.S. Forest Service predicts that “the greatest risk to spruce forests over the next 30 years will be in Alaska,” as spruce beetles expand their attack on trees. Beetle habitat is expanding thanks to warmer temperatures and drought-weakened trees. Alaska is warming at twice the national rate, thanks to climate change.
The U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has just completed a series of landmark reports that chronicle an update to the current state of consensus science on climate change. In a sentence, here’s what they found: On our current path, climate change could pose an irreversible, existential risk to civilization as we know it -- but we can still fix it if we decide to work together.
But in addition to the call for cooperation, the reports also shared an alarming new trend: Climate change is already destabilizing nations and leading to wars.
Climate change worsens the divide between haves and have-nots, hitting the poor the hardest. It can also drive up food prices and spawn megadisasters, creating refugees and taxing the resiliency of governments.
When a threat like that comes along, it’s impossible to ignore. Especially if your job is national security.
In a recent interview with the blog Responding to Climate Change, retired Army Brig. Gen. Chris King laid out the military’s thinking on climate change:
“This is like getting embroiled in a war that lasts 100 years. That’s the scariest thing for us,” he told RTCC. “There is no exit strategy that is available for many of the problems. You can see in military history, when they don’t have fixed durations, that’s when you’re most likely to not win.”
The parallels between the political decisions regarding climate change we have made and the decisions that led Europe to World War One are striking -- and sobering. The decisions made in 1914 reflected political policies pursued for short-term gains and benefits, coupled with institutional hubris, and a failure to imagine and understand the risks or to learn from recent history.
In short, climate change could be the Archduke Franz Ferdinand of the 21st century.
Earlier this year, while at the American Meteorological Society annual meeting in Atlanta, I had a chance to sit down with Titley, who is also a meteorologist and now serves on the faculty at Penn State University. He’s also probably one of the most fascinating people I’ve ever spoken with. Check out his TEDxPentagon talk, in which he discusses how he went from “a pretty hard-core skeptic about climate change” to labeling it “one of the pre-eminent challenges of our century.” (This interview has been lightly edited and condensed.)
Unlike so many previous climate change reports, this time there’s significant good news: The world doesn’t need to sacrifice economic growth to get the job done. The task can largely be achieved with existing technology. And hey, we’ll end up with a better planet at the end, too.
Earlier this month, squeals of delight (and/or searing pain) gripped much of the country as we were collectively introduced to the wonders of the polar vortex. But now the novelty’s over, and for the second time this month, an extreme weather pattern is sending Arctic weather toward the Deep South.
An uncommonly sharp kink in the jet stream is partly responsible for plunging more than half of the United States into the freeze. Meanwhile, (and for the same reason), Alaska is toasty warm. But we’ll get to that in a minute.