The world burns as global warming crisis explodes
Wildfire near Idyllwild, San Bernardino County, California. | EPA

With summer at its crest, with climate change continuing to burn deadly swaths across the globe amid relentless heat waves, wildfire outbreaks are occurring worldwide.

Parts of the Arctic are on fire! Specifically in Sweden: The Nordic country is grappling with a heretofore unseen threat as flames encroach with such voracity that the government has had to call upon its military, citizen volunteers, and neighboring countries for help. The fires are the worst the nation has seen in decades, and much farther north than usual.

“Some of the biggest fires we’ve seen now are occurring in the subarctic and even in the high Arctic areas,” says Ed Struzik, an environmental studies fellow at Canada’s Queen’s University. “The fires in northern Sweden demonstrate that no place, including the circumpolar Arctic, is immune to the future effects of fire. Blame it on climate change, and an increasingly ice-free Arctic Ocean, which is driving fire-friendly weather patterns in ways we are only beginning to understand.”

Looking south to Greece, fires have so far claimed 81 lives and harmed and displaced many more. Flames—the result of a harsh forest fire—ripped through Mati, a resort town 18 miles east of Athens, gutting homes and forcing people to actually swim out into the tumultuous sea to escape the thick smoke. The blaze sprang upon residents so quickly that many had mere minutes to save themselves.

“We could smell something burning,” said Ilias Psinakis, mayor of Greece’s Marathon area, which was also affected. “Then everything was gone in a few minutes. The wind came, then moved away, then came back again. My house was lost.”

Experts are currently unsure whether the Greece fire is the result of global warming or arson. Fire has also been used traditionally as a way to clear land for development, and possibly in this case it got out of control. Either way, climate conditions did play a role in the disaster. Greek Defense Minister Panos Kammenos remarked, “This had such a tremendous force, powered by winds up to 110 kilometers per hour. It jumped over a road as wide as a highway. When you have conditions like this, nothing can stop it.”

As tragic as the fires in Greece are, the nation might not have quite as bleak a future as areas like northern Sweden, for specific environmental reasons. Ed Struzik noted that subarctic and Arctic fires are not unheard of, but have become larger over the last 15 years. That’s because boreal forests and tundra are drying up. As much of this type of land is covered in peat moss, it burns differently from other areas; instead of flaming upward, the fire continues to smolder in the ground.

“When it does that,” said Struzik, “it can last the entire summer, then ‘hibernate’ during the winter months, then start up again the following year.” These fires “have opened up a new chapter in an unfolding story.” The disasters ravaging this part of the world are expected to grow and worsen. We are only seeing the beginning of a new environmental reality.

In California, hope vanishing like a mirage

California, where as many as 17 separate wildfires are presently wreaking havoc from all the way north to all the way south, has borne out the truth that more rain does not necessarily translate to less fire. In fact, the opposite may be true: Two winters ago, the state finally received torrents of rain and snow that replenished the snowpack, nearly refilled the reservoirs, and turned brown hills green again, ending a five-year drought.

But when dry weather returned, all that new green growth turned brown again and provided new tinder for the next year’s fires. There is a direct correlation between extreme record heat and dry vegetation that makes fires burn ever more intensely. This year alone in California, the state’s worst wildfire year ever, more than 10,000 structures have burned and several dozen people have died.

Temperatures on the West Coast have risen 2 degrees over the last 40 years, “the effect of climate change,” says Jennifer Balch, director of the Earth Lab at the University of Colorado, Boulder.

“Flames have destroyed at least 966 structures in the area,” reports CNN about the Carr Fire in northern California’s Shasta County, “making it one of the top 10 most destructive wildfires in California history. In fact, seven of the 12 most destructive fires have happened since 2015.” Smoke from Shasta County has drifted over to bucolic Ashland, Ore.

Jeremy Samples, who currently lives in Chico and attends Chico State, has been home for the summer in East Redding. He told his story to People’s World. Bethel Church is a non-denominational charismatic megachurch founded in 1954 in Redding.

“On Monday, July 23, the Carr Fire began as a small blimp of smoke on the radar. It was not until Thursday that the fire made a push to West Redding and forced tens of thousands to evacuate their homes. The community as a whole came together to open their doors for evacuees: Shasta College and Simpson College, 3 miles and 1.7 miles from Bethel’s location, respectively, opened their doors. Five other churches also opened their doors to those affected.

“Rather than open their doors to a reeling community, the megachurch hired security to protect their enormous property, keeping people out. As a church with powerful global outreach, Bethel showed the local community that it wasn’t a major concern to them through what has been the most devastating disaster I’ve ever witnessed in my 24 years of growing up here. On Sunday, they opened their doors for three services to pray and worship, yet still no evacuees were allowed shelter.

“On Monday, July 30, they finally opened their doors as a distribution hub in wake of the backlash seen by community members wondering how an organization so powerful could be so absent in relief efforts. Their inaction defies the main principles of the Bible to help those in need and give to those less fortunate. At a moment when the values of the church could have given hope to families who had lost everything, they vanished like a mirage.”

“More than 300 miles south,” reports Time magazine, “the 57,846-acre Ferguson Fire prompted Yosemite National Park officials to close the popular Yosemite Valley for the first time in 20 years—during peak tourism season.

“Earlier this year,” writes Cassandra Moseley, associate vice president for research and research professor at the University of Oregon, “Congress passed a ‘fire funding fix‘ that changes the way in which the federal government will pay for large fires during expensive fire seasons. But it doesn’t affect the factors that are making fire suppression more costly, such as climate trends and more people living in fire prone landscapes.”

As fire becomes not the rare incident but an anticipated annual season, it behooves American society as a whole to have an honest conversation about the future. What is causing climate change, who is responsible, how can we lower the global climate and diminish the risks causing wildfires? How must we rethink where people live, what materials we build with, and how close to endangered areas? What alliances and coalitions do we need to bring about a new understanding of the problems we face? How significantly do we need to factor in new demands for labor in the firefighting sector (with adequate compensation and union representation)?

At present the door to such a conversation would appear closed in Washington, D.C., and without federal support and coordination there are limits to how much state and local governments can achieve.

For the sake of life on Earth, humanity needs a 180-degree turnaround in policy, toward realism, science and truth—or to use a common business term, “best practices.” The world cannot wait any longer as the fires of hell start lapping at our existential survival.

Heaven and hell here on Earth

People who reject the idea of heaven and hell sometimes like to say these are but metaphors for life here on Earth.

In a well-managed country, our daily existence could be just about the best that we can possibly expect from life.

Where systems break down, order and accountability are forgotten, reason and science are ignored, values of human kindness and environmental protection are discarded as having no standing in the marketplace—well, that will before long turn into a hell on Earth, won’t it?

Fire rages out of control in Greece. | Ioanna Spanou/AP

Wars on several continents, degradation of nature, acute homelessness, racial and ethnic strife, healthcare downgraded, authoritarian regimes…and fires. Wildfires. Forests, animals, homes burning; mudslides and avalanches where hillsides are denuded. People coughing, suffocating, dying. Everywhere. The fires of hell right here on Earth.

Even in places you don’t associate with dry, flammable underbrush—you know, well-watered areas like Siberia, and green Northern California.

The warning signs have been known for years. Virtually 100 percent of scientists agree that global warming is real. Climate change has been occurring gradually since the Industrial Revolution—some now say since the emergence of humans—and exponentially in the 20th century with the explosion of population, coal, gas, fossil fuels, methane.

According to some researchers and theorists we have already passed the point of no return: Certain species have already been killed off, and certain lands can never return to their former state.

You would think that world leaders would sit up and pay some attention. And indeed, the Paris Climate Accord of 2015 did mark a historic commitment to recognize climate change and do something about it: Limit emissions, burn less fuel, convert to renewable energy, make industry more responsible stewards of the planet. That was a hopeful moment. The last couple of holdout countries finally signed on to it within the last year.

But here at home, politics, business, religion and capitalism have now had their say. Backed by the Koch Brothers, major fossil fuels developers, as well as others in the profit über alles community, the questionably elected President Trump has withdrawn the United States from the Paris accord—the only nation in the world to do so. And he has reoriented national priorities to the policies of primitive capital accumulation, the environment, wellbeing and health of the American and the world population be damned. The rest of the world will have to carry on as best it can without any help from the U.S.A.

The Evangelical community, which voted for Trump in overwhelming numbers, overlooking the career of perhaps the most irresponsible, immoral and unprepared person ever to vie for the White House, apparently believes that God prefers Trump as the Great Helmsman of capitalism and national redemption. Is it the prosperity gospel at work—the theology that says the wealthy are manifestly the most divinely favored? Or is it the cynical belief that the Earth truly is going to hell, the sooner the better, so that the good people (among whom inexplicably they include themselves) will be saved in the Rapture?

It’s a stinking swamp of money, power, self-interest, military ambition, greed, pride, delusion and hubris—the very definition of the Cabinet Donald Trump has assembled for himself. It may not be long before firefighting will be outsourced to private enterprise (the American way!) since, you know, government is so bureaucratic and inefficient! We may soon see another demonstration of the Shock Doctrine coming to a local fire house near you.

In fact, the U.S. Forest Service currently commits more than half its annual budget to firefighting, and has already started contracting some of that work to private-sector contractors.

Is it any wonder that in such an administration, yet another week has gone by without the appointment of an official White House science adviser? There is simply no one in the administration who is offering clear, objective counsel on climate change or anything else.

Just another critical reason masses of people must turn out to the polls this November to turn out of office the climate deniers and their allies who have hijacked not just our government but common sense itself.

Blake Skylar and Chauncey K. Robinson contributed to this story.


Eric A. Gordon
Eric A. Gordon

Eric A. Gordon, People’s World Cultural Editor, wrote a biography of radical American composer Marc Blitzstein and co-authored composer Earl Robinson’s autobiography. He has received numerous awards for his People's World writing from the International Labor Communications Association. He has translated all nine books of fiction by Manuel Tiago (pseudonym for Álvaro Cunhal) from Portuguese, available from International Publishers NY.