Sara and Charles Rippey celebrated their 75th wedding anniversary in March. The couple had met in elementary school during the Roaring ’20s, and like any couple that’s been together for so long, the Rippeys had withstood a lot – including World War II, where Charles served in the U.S. military campaigns in North Africa, Italy, and France. But the 100-year-old husband who’d survived Hitler’s onslaught and his 98-year-old wife didn’t stand a chance against the fast-moving orange tsunami of deadly flames that tore through their Napa, Calif., neighborhood as they slept Sunday night.
“We kids would always talk about what it would be like if one of them died and the other was still alive,” their 71-year-old son, Mike Rippey, told the New York Times, as he sifted through the bleak pile of gray ash that had been their home, all that remained of a century of memories. “They just couldn’t be without each other. The fact that they went together is probably what they would have wanted.”
The Rippeys’ poignant end was just one of many stories in an apocalyptic American tragedy of hellfire and smoke that has devastated Northern California this week, as the worst wildfires in the state’s long history claimed at least 27 lives – scores of others are still missing amid the rubble – with entire neighborhoods looking more like firebombed Germany in 1945 than the thriving subdivisions they’d been just a few days ago.
The ecological nightmare has riveted the nation – except, perhaps, in that tiny pocket of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, where President Trump has spent much of his week rage-tweeting against the NFL or NBC News or blaming Puerto Rico for its natural disaster, the hurricane that has left many of the island’s American citizens without power or water for three weeks – while venturing out only to Pennsylvania so he could press his tax cuts that heavily benefit millionaires and billionaires. It’s probably less a matter of cynical politics – California, like Puerto Rico, isn’t a source of electoral votes for Trump – than just warped, narcissistic priorities, considering that the short-fingered vulgarian in the Oval Office has also tweeted nothing about four Special Forces soldiers killed on a mission in Niger.
But actually, the Trump administration’s “response” to the lethal California blazes is much, much worse than just the president’s lazy Twitter fingers. Scientists – the kind of people who don’t seem to register in Trump World – are pointing out that while wildfires in the dry and mountainous American West predate the arrival of humans, there’s also considerable evidence that the extent of these fires, as well as the length of the burning season, began to increase dramatically around the 1980s, just as the planet was beginning to see the impact of man-made global warming.
California’s recent weather – including the hottest August on record, one more trouble spot on a planet now recording record average temperatures year after year after year – set the stage for the calamity that’s unfolding. One major study found that climate change is responsible for about half of the dryness of forests in the western United States since 1979, and when coupled with longer fire seasons, the result since 1984 has already been a fire loss equal to the combined area of Massachusetts and Connecticut.
This week’s devastation is a kind of “perfect storm” of what climate scientists have been predicting for years. In Trump’s Washington, that made it the right time to announce its schemes to make it easier to burn fossil fuels – especially coal, the dirtiest fuel in that deadly arsenal – which have been the No. 1 source of the greenhouse-gas pollution that is warming our Earth. Indeed, consumers who picked up a morning newspaper or logged on to a news website often saw the utterly bizarre juxtaposition of EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt declaring that American coal is back, ringed by bright-orange or smoky, smoldering photos of the destruction in California wine country.
Today’s front page of the @nytimes.
This is what a climate emergency looks like. pic.twitter.com/iXCnyz3J4p
– Eric Holthaus (@EricHolthaus) October 10, 2017
It wasn’t a shock that Pruitt announced the administration’s intention to rollback the Clean Power Plan, announced in 2015 by President Barack Obama as the cornerstone of America’s efforts to reduce fossil-fuel emissions from power plants, especially those fired by coal. Trump himself had telegraphed the move earlier this year, just as he seeks to withdraw America from the global Paris climate accords – in line with the 45th president’s default position that anything with Obama’s signature on it needs to be undone, common sense notwithstanding. The practical impact of Pruiit’s announcement is to be seen – the Obama rule was on hold because of “red” Obama-hating states like Pruitt’s Oklahoma challenging it in court, while some states like California and savvier energy-industry leaders already see the writing on the wall for fossil fuels, regardless of what Trump and Pruitt’s weakened regulations eventually say.
But the moral implication is clear: The world is on fire right now, and the U.S. government just shoveled a big load of coal into the furnace. “The war against coal is over,” Pruitt declared Monday, speaking to miners in the aptly named Hazard, Ky., and the zealously pro-industry EPA chief went on to complain that the Obama-era regs were unfair because they discriminate against fossil fuels and in favor of alternative fuels that don’t contribute to climate change.
Really? That’s kind of like saying that the government’s auto-safety rules discriminate in favor of seat belts and against lifeless corpses strewn on the side of the road, or that the Clean Water Act is unfairly biased in favor of potable drinking water over guzzling dioxin (unless Pruitt scrapped that, too – I haven’t checked in a while). The government plays favorites when it comes to our safety; that’s why the people elect them. Look, we all know that we can’t simply stop using fossil fuels tomorrow, but if we don’t accelerate our efforts to phase them out with all deliberate speed, we will wake up like the citizens of Houston who suddenly found their gasoline-powered cars swamped under six feet of water – and more good people like Sarah and Charles Rippey will die.
Global warming doesn’t cause hurricanes, floods, or wildfires – but scientists have long warned that a hotter planet will make them worse. That is exactly what has happened in 2017, in Texas, which saw the most intense tropical rainfall ever recorded on U.S. soil; in the Caribbean, where hotter-than-average waters turned systems like Irma from tropical storms to Cat 5 hurricanes in a matter of hours, and now in California. There’s no scientific formula for breaking out how many of the dead (77 in Texas, possibly hundreds in Puerto Rico, or 27 and rising in California) are because climate change made these catastrophes worse than what they would have been otherwise. But it’s a good bet the number is more than four – and remember that Trump took to Twitter dozens of times to voice his outrage over the deaths of four American citizens in Benghazi. Yet the victims of global warming are getting a lump of coal from this White House, as the death toll mounts.
It would be naive, even foolish, to think there is anything that could be written or said, or any natural disaster, that could change the backward thinking of Trump ( who signed a 2009 newspaper ad praising Obama for reducing carbon emissions, before hatred for his predecessor got the better of him) or the GOP Congress, which has been in thrall to the oil lobby – especially the billionaire Koch brothers – for years. No, the only answer is to change them – with those opportunities not coming at the polls until 13 months and 37 months from now. While we wait, how many more Americans will die in catastrophes amplified by global warming? As Trump himself likes to say, we’ll see.