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Experts: If We Don’t Stop Climate Change, CA Fires “Will Seem Mild in Comparison to What’s Coming”

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The Mendocino Complex fire in Northern California is now the largest wildfire ever recorded in California’s history. It started burning in July—the state’s hottest month on record. Of the 20 largest wildfires in California history, 15 have occurred since 2000. This year’s fires have already burned nearly three times as many acres as the same time last year. Experts say climate change has increased the length of fire season. In Oakland, California, we speak with Michael Brune, the director of the Sierra Club. We also speak with Michael Mann, distinguished professor of atmospheric science at Penn State University and author of “The Madhouse Effect: How Climate Change Denial
 Is Threatening Our Planet, Destroying Our Politics, and Driving Us Crazy.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: We begin today’s show in California, where 17 wildfires are raging across the state. The Mendocino Complex fire in Northern California is now the largest wildfire ever recorded in the state’s history. It has already scorched more than a quarter of a million square acres and is still burning. Firefighters say it is expected to burn uncontrollably for the rest of this month and is currently the size of Los Angeles. Fires have also forced the indefinite closure of much of Yosemite National Park. Meanwhile, the Carr fire near Redding, California, has destroyed more than a thousand homes and taken at least six lives.

AMY GOODMAN: Of the 20 largest wildfires in California history, 15 have occurred since 2000. Since 2012, there has not been a single month without a wildfire. The three biggest fires currently burning in California all started in July, which was the state’s hottest month on record. Experts say climate change has increased the length of fire season. This year’s fires have already burned nearly three times as many acres as the same time last year. This is California Governor Jerry Brown.

GOV. JERRY BROWN: We’re being surprised. Every year is teaching the fire authorities new lessons. We’re in uncharted territory. Since civilization emerged 10,000 years ago, we haven’t had this kind of heat condition, and it’s going to continue getting worse. I mean, that’s the way it is. And some people don’t want to accept that, and some people just outright deny it. But I don’t say it with any great joy here. We’re in for a really rough ride. And it’s going to get expensive. It’s going to get dangerous. And we have to apply all our creativity to making the best out of what is going to be an increasingly bad situation, not just for California but for people all over America and all over the world.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Meanwhile, on Tuesday six youth activists were arrested after holding a sit-in protest at Governor Brown’s office to demand action on climate change.

PROTESTER: We need clean air!

PROTESTERS: We need clean air!

PROTESTER: No new oil expansion!

PROTESTERS: No new oil expansion!

PROTESTER: No new gas expansion!

PROTESTERS: No new gas expansion!

PROTESTER: Jerry Brown, this is your last chance!

PROTESTERS: Jerry Brown, this is your last chance!

AMY GOODMAN: This comes as smoke from the massive California wildfires continues to move north into Washington and east to the central part of the United States.

For more, we go to Oakland, California, where we’re joined by Sierra Club executive director Michael Brune. This week, he wrote a piece headlined “Jerry Brown’s Last Challenge.” Also joining us, Michael Mann, distinguished professor of atmospheric science at Penn State University, author of The Madhouse Effect: How Climate Change Denial Is Threatening Our Planet, Destroying Our Politics, and Driving Us Crazy.

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Dr. Mann, I want to begin with you.


AMY GOODMAN: The corporate media is covering the fires in California constantly, and that’s very important, but what is rarely mentioned in any of these reports is the connection between the fires and climate change. Can you explain what that connection is? What is happening right now in California?

MICHAEL MANN: Sure thing. And, in fact, some of the networks have started to connect the dots when it comes to climate change and the role that it’s playing with these wildfires. NBC Nightly News the other night did have a segment where they did make that connection.

Well, you know, it’s not rocket science, OK? You know, you warm up the planet, you’re going to get more intense and longer heat waves. You’re going to get drier soils, because that heat is baking the soil. It’s baking the surface of the Earth. So you’ve got hotter temperatures, you’ve got drier soils, you’ve got less winter snowpack, which is less snow falling in the winter in the Sierra Mountains, and the storms are getting diverted north of California. And we think that that jet stream behavior itself may have a climate change connection.

So you put that all together, and you sort of have a perfect storm of consequences when it comes to wildfire. You’ve got all the ingredients coming together, and so it’s not a surprise. It’s not a surprise that we are seeing these record wildfires in California, in the Arctic, around the Northern Hemisphere this summer, as a consequence of heat and drought caused by human-caused climate change.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, on Sunday, just hours after the Trump administration declared the California wildfires a major disaster, President Trump tweeted, quote, “California wildfires are being magnified & made so much worse by the bad environmental laws which aren’t allowing massive amount of readily available water to be properly utilized. It is being diverted into the Pacific Ocean. Must also tree clear to stop fire from spreading!” he wrote. Then, on Monday, he tweeted again. Trump tweeted again, quote, “Governor Jerry Brown must allow the Free Flow of the vast amounts of water coming from the North and foolishly being diverted into the Pacific Ocean. Can be used for fires, farming and everything else. Think of California with plenty of water–Nice! Fast Federal govt. approvals.” So, those were Trump’s tweets. Dr. Mann, could you respond to that?

MICHAEL MANN: Yeah, well, you know, this is, unfortunately, the sort of diversion that we’ve often seen from the president, a misdirection, because the irony here of course is that what we’re seeing has nothing to do with environmental regulations. In fact, it’s Trump’s effort to eliminate environmental regulations and policies to act on climate change which are putting us in a precarious position. These wildfires will only get worse as we continue to warm the planet by burning fossil fuels and increasing the concentration of these warming greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, and the Trump administration is doing everything it can to scuttle international efforts and domestic efforts to act on climate.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Michael Brune, could you talk about the state-level response to these wildfires? What has Governor Jerry Brown’s response been? And what do you think can happen at the state level, given the Trump administration’s response?

MICHAEL BRUNE: Well, there’s really two parts to that question. First is, what is the state doing to help to control these wildfires and respond to some of the life-threatening fires that we’re seeing across the state? And the response really has been impressive. There are more than 15,000 firefighters putting their lives on the line. There are thousands of families and homes and schools and businesses that are under threat, and the response has been impressive. The firefighters have all the water that they need. What they need is some support, and they need some respect coming from the president and people in the administration. But the response has been heroic, very brave. And frankly, it’s been impressive to see the way in which people have come together to fight this challenge, in this fire season, in the last several fire seasons, as well.

These fires are happening in the context of a big debate here in California about climate policy, and there are two policies that are being debated. One is the fact that you highlighted at the beginning of the show, which is that Governor Brown, even though he’s been a great leader on promoting energy efficiency and solar power and beginning to take cars off the road and move to electric vehicles, under his watch, more than 20,000 new wells and drilling permits have been issued. The state is expanding oil production in the state, even as they’re scaling up clean energy. And so the Sierra Club and hundreds of other organizations and scientists are calling for Jerry Brown to begin a managed phaseout of fossil fuels, reasonably, thoughtfully, over time, to respond to this climate crisis.

And then, at the same time, there is also a debate in the state Legislature to move the entire state, which is the fifth-largest economy in the world, all the way to 100 percent clean energy. San Diego has committed to go to 100 percent clean energy—San Jose, San Francisco, Oakland. Large parts of the state, at the city level, have committed to move to 100 percent clean energy. We’re looking to see the whole state get off of all coal, all gas, all fossil fuels and move to 100 percent clean energy as quickly as possible over the coming years.

AMY GOODMAN: So, Michael Brune, you began your piece by saying—let me just find it, because—well, you can tell us how you began your piece. “If Donald Trump could take carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere as efficiently as he sucks oxygen out of the news cycle, the climate crisis would be solved faster than you can say 'Mexico will pay for that wall.'” And you go on to say, “Unfortunately, even as we deal with the Trump administration’s daily cascade of corruption, crudeness, and cruelty, the clock keeps ticking and climate pollution keeps rising. But the math is merciless: If we don’t accelerate a phaseout of fossil fuels today, then the wildfires, droughts, and extreme weather events currently plaguing the planet will seem mild compared with what’s coming.”

Yet you have, as the fires are gaining intensity in California, the Environmental Protection Agency now under the former coal lobbyist Andrew Wheeler, who has replaced the corrupt Scott Pruitt, who you really helped to tank, certainly, your organization, the Sierra Club, by exposing a lot of what he was doing. The EPA announced last week it’s going to freeze Obama-era fuel economy standards at 2020 levels, in the latest blow by the Trump administration against efforts to curb catastrophic climate change. Can you talk about what it is Wheeler is doing?

MICHAEL BRUNE: Sure. Well, let me just add one word to what you said. The EPA will try to—they will try to freeze the U.S. auto efficiency at current levels or at 2020 levels. We will fight them, and dozens of other groups will fight them, as well, both in the courts and in the marketplace.

One of the best things that the Obama administration did on climate change, probably the best thing that the administration did on climate change, was to work with the auto industry, to work with states across the country, to work with unions, to increase the fuel efficiency and increase an acceleration towards electric vehicles so that we could save money at the pump, we could save a lot of oil, we could import a lot less oil and reduce climate pollution. So, of course, the Trump administration is opposed to that and is seeking not only to roll back those protections, roll back all of those savings, but also, crucially, to eliminate the ability for the state of California, and then other states, to fight for clean air and to work with the auto industry directly in order to reduce emissions from auto—from cars and trucks and SUVs.

So, this is something that is being challenged by states’ attorneys general across the country. It’s being challenged by groups like the Sierra Club and many others. We’re going to prevail. We’re going to make sure that these rules are protected. But it’s one more fight that we have with the Trump administration, which is taking us backwards when we need to be moving very quickly—very quickly—in the opposite direction.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, Michael Mann, one of the causes that you’ve pointed to for these extreme weather events that we’re seeing today are changes in the jet stream. Could you explain what the jet stream is and how it’s changing and why?

MICHAEL MANN: Sure thing. So the basic factors are easy to understand here: hotter temperatures, drier soils, less runoff, less water running off from the Sierra mountains. Obviously, those create the conditions conducive to these wildfires.

But there is this other ingredient that we think is involved here and in this whole array of unprecedented extreme summer weather events that we are seeing over the past month around the entire Northern Hemisphere—unprecedented floods, droughts, heat waves, wildfires. And what’s happening here is that these weather systems are not moving along the way they normally do. The jet stream is this band of strong winds that blow from west to east, and if you’re flying in a jet, it’s faster flying from west to east across the United States than in the other direction because you’ve got that tailwind. So that’s the jet stream. The jet stream also pushes weather systems from west to east.

And what’s happening, as we melt the sea ice in the Arctic—believe it or not, what happens in the Arctic doesn’t stay in the Arctic—that warming in the Arctic is actually changing temperature patterns in the atmosphere in a way that slows down the jet stream. The jet stream is actually driven by the contrast in temperature from the warm equator to the cold polar regions. When you decrease that contrast by warming the poles more than the rest of the planet, you slow down the jet stream. Now, there are other physical processes that are involved, but that’s really the key process here. And so you have these large meanders in the jet stream, you see the jet stream really wiggling vigorously north and south, and that gives you extreme weather events.

But the added ingredient here is that the jet stream isn’t moving along, it’s not pushing those weather systems along, so the same locations get rained on day after day or get baked by the sun day after day. And that’s when you see unprecedented extreme weather events like what we’re seeing around the Northern Hemisphere this summer. The impacts of climate change are no longer subtle. We are seeing them play out this summer in real time on our television screens.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about the “hothouse state”? Yesterday, a group of leading scientists warning the cascading effects of melting ice, warming seas, shifting currents and dying forests could push the planet into a “hothouse state.” Michael Mann?

MICHAEL MANN: Yeah. So, that article, it’s more of a commentary than an original research article. The basic science that’s discussed there is science we’ve understood for some time. James Hansen, the former director of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, made this point a number of years ago, that if we keep CO2 levels elevated even at current levels and we allow the climate system to equilibrate to those high levels of CO2, then over many centuries we lose the ice sheets. Forests start to migrate. We fundamentally remake the planet. And it turns out that can add a whole lot of extra warming. And that isn’t always taken into account in these projections you see of the warming we can expect over the next century or so. There’s is this longer-term commitment. Much of that CO2 that we’ve put into the atmosphere is going to remain in the atmosphere for thousands of years.

If we keep that CO2 elevated at levels they are now or even higher than they are now, then we could see major disruptions in the climate. Again, the science there isn’t new, but it’s important. And what it tells us is not only do we have to cut our emissions dramatically to avoid warming the planet more than a catastrophic 2 degrees Celsius, 3.5 degree Fahrenheit—we can still do that. Paris will get us halfway there; we have to improve on Paris to get all the way there. We can do that. But it isn’t enough just to level off those CO2 concentrations. Ultimately, we’re going to have to pull that CO2 back out of the atmosphere. If we leave it at current levels for centuries, we will commit potentially to catastrophic changes in our climate.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, you said, Michael Mann, that if emissions are not reduced, we will witness major disruptions in the climate. Would you not describe what’s happening now as a major disruption? And if not, then what do you anticipate happening?

MICHAEL MANN: Yeah. So, too often, you know, we allow the problem of climate change to be framed as if there’s some tipping point: There’s a certain amount of warming that we go beyond, and then, you know, we suddenly have a calamity on our hands. It’s much more like a minefield. We’re walking out onto this minefield already, and we’re starting to set off some of those mines. But what we know is, the further we walk out onto that minefield, the more of those mines we are going to set off. So the only sensible strategy is to stop moving forward out onto the minefield. We’ve got to go back to where we came from. We’ve got to bring those carbon emissions down.

Again, the Paris accord gets us about halfway to where we need to be to stave off the most catastrophic impacts of climate change, but we’re already seeing dangerous climate change now. If you talk to people in California, if you talk to the people of Puerto Rico, people in Europe, people all around the world, in many respects, dangerous climate change is already starting to arrive. We’re on this highway, this carbon highway, and we have to get off at the next available exit.

AMY GOODMAN: As we wrap up, Michael Brune, Governor Brown is going to be holding this Global Climate Action Summit in September in San Francisco, and there’s going to be a countersummit, as well. What are you demanding? What are you saying is most important he do right now? And what about these protests, for example, of the young people, six of them arrested at his office doing a sit-in?

MICHAEL BRUNE: Yeah, sure. Thanks for asking the question. Well, the summit—the summit really is well timed. I’m calling in from Oakland this morning. You can see the fires here in the Bay Area. You can see the smoke from the fires in the Bay Area, even though the fires are a couple hours to the north and to the east of the city.

What we need from Jerry Brown, here in the state, and leaders across the country and around the world, but what we particularly need from Jerry Brown, is a managed phaseout, a thoughtful and reasonable managed phaseout of fossil fuel production here in the state. The first thing you do when you want to solve a problem is stop making it worse. We need to make sure that we’re focusing both on the demand for clean energy, increasing that as quickly as we possibly can, but also focus on the supply of fossil fuels and reducing that as quickly as we can. Here in the state, we need to be making sure that we’re protecting communities, families, homes and businesses. Many of them live within 300, 400, a thousand feet of an oil well. We should be phasing those sites out the quickest. Any site that’s within 2,500 feet of an oil well, we should be able to phase out the production of oil from those sites as quickly as possible.

And then, from a large-scale perspective across the state, let’s think carefully: How do we help the communities that are currently dependent on producing oil in the state? How do we make sure that the transition away from oil is one that is good for workers and good for the communities that are economically dependent on fossil fuel production? We can do this, if we’re thoughtful, if we’re reasonable, if we make sure that we’re taking care of the communities and the workers who economically depend on fossil fuels. But it takes leadership. It’s going to take leadership from Jerry Brown. And so far, he has been absent on this issue.

And around the world, what we need to see much more of is an aggressive replacement of fossil fuels with clean energy. If the Republican mayor of Georgetown, Texas, can do it, and if the Republican City Council in Abita Springs, Louisiana, or in San Diego, California, can say, “We are moving to 100 percent clean energy,” then we should be able to see heads of state and leaders of corporations and governors across the country and people around the world saying, “We’re going to get off of fossil fuels entirely. We’re going to move to clean energy. We’ll save money, as well as saving lives in the process.”

AMY GOODMAN: Michael Brune, we want to thank you for being with us, executive director of the Sierra Club, speaking to us from Oakland, California, and Michael Mann, professor of atmospheric science at Penn State University.

Coming up, we’ll look at the thousands of California prisoners who are on the front lines battling the fires. They make a dollar a day. Stay with us.

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