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“This Is the Climate Crisis”: Michael Mann on Maui Wildfires & Why Disasters Are Becoming Deadlier

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We speak with leading climate scientist Michael Mann about the devastating Maui wildfires and how the climate crisis makes such disasters more frequent and more intense. “This is the climate crisis. It’s here and now,” says Mann, director of the Penn Center for Science, Sustainability and the Media at the University of Pennsylvania. Meanwhile, pressure is mounting for President Biden to declare an official climate emergency.

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

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman.

We look at how the fires in Hawaii that killed at least a hundred people, and likely far more, were made worse by the climate crisis, which has led to a rise in temperatures at the same time Hawaii is facing a drought. This was amplified by Hurricane Dora Tuesday, when it passed south of Hawaii, hundreds of miles away, as a Category 4 storm, quickly spread the fire. Climate change is also linked to stronger hurricanes.

Last week, the scientist Michael Mann wrote on social media, “What we’re seeing in #Maui is a 'compound' climate catastrophe, where an immediate factor (in this case, unusually strong winds from the outer bands of a passing hurricane) interact w/ background state (extreme drought that has been in place for a month).”

Michael Mann joins us now, presidential distinguished professor and director of the Penn Center for Science, Sustainability and the Media at the University of Pennsylvania. His upcoming book is Our Fragile Moment: How Lessons from Earth’s Past Can Help Us Survive the Climate Crisis.

Welcome back to Democracy Now!, Professor Mann. If you can start off by making that link, as many say, “No, this is about weather; it’s nothing to do with the climate crisis”? Teach.

MICHAEL MANN: Yeah, thanks, Amy. It’s good to be with you, although it seems we never have good news to talk about, and the stories that, you know, we’ve heard reported here are just so harrowing.

And this is the climate crisis. It’s here and now. It’s impacting us today in profound ways. And this is just the latest example. And there is clearly a climate component to what’s happened here, a climate change component. Those winds that you talked about are governed by differences in pressure, in surface pressure. A hurricane is a low-pressure system. In the subtropics, you have high pressures. And the difference between them, the gradient, as we call it, in pressure between the high and the low, is what determines the strength of those winds. And so, we have higher and higher pressure over time in this region of the world, associated with the changing atmospheric circulation associated with climate change, high pressure to the north. We had a storm, a rapidly intensifying storm, and climate change encourages rapid intensification of these storms, that gave us that low pressure to the south. That difference in pressure gave us those huge winds.

And it interacted with an epic drought. And that drought is part of the climate story here, as well. As we see more and more high pressure in the summer over this region of the planet, we see less rainfall. Hotter temperatures mean more evaporation of what soil moisture there is. And so we see this epic drought.

The winds did sort of provide the spark, in a sense. The downed power lines provided the spark. But what allowed these fires to spread so quickly, to become so damaging, was, in substantial part, the huge amount of fuel there was in the form of dry materials, the tinderbox conditions that are there today. All of those things have been impacted by climate change. So we can’t tell the story without talking about the climate crisis.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to turn right now to President Biden. Last week, during an interview with the Weather Channel, meteorologist Stephanie Abrams asked him — he was in Arizona at the time — asked President Biden to talk about a climate emergency. President Biden said he had “practically” declared a climate emergency.

STEPHANIE ABRAMS: Mr. President, you called climate change a code red for humanity. The World Health Organization said it will cause an additional quarter of a million deaths a year starting in 2030. Are you prepared to declare a national emergency with respect to climate change?

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: I’ve already done that, a national — we’ve conserved more land. We’ve moved into — we’ve rejoined the Paris climate accord. We’ve passed the $368 billion climate control facility. We’re moving. It is the existential threat to humanity.

STEPHANIE ABRAMS: So, you’ve already declared that national emergency?

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: Practically speaking, yes.

AMY GOODMAN: “Practically speaking.” Michael Mann, could you explain what it would mean if a climate emergency were declared in this country?

MICHAEL MANN: Yeah. So, you know, there was a little bit of word evasion there, I suppose, in President Biden’s response, because, of course, what that means specifically, declaring a national emergency, is that you can bring funds immediately to bear on the problem. It’s something that the chief executive can do through executive authority.

Now, I imagine, you know, the president is a bit averse to declaring a national emergency, because we’ve seen that abused. For example, Donald Trump tried to use that as a pretext for building his wall at the southern border. So I think there’s sort of some — there is some concern about how that can be abused. And, you know, the climate crisis is this continually evolving and worsening crisis, so declaring it as an emergency sort of sounds like we’re talking about an acute problem, like we can just bring a whole bunch of resources to bear, solve the problem, and we’re done. That’s not what’s going on here. We, of course, have to continue to provide more and more resources to bring to bear. We need policies that will get us off fossil fuels as quickly as possible.

Now, the president is right: The Inflation Reduction Act, that he signed into law last year, that does get us somewhere down the road. But it doesn’t go far enough. We need more action. The president is somewhat limited right now by a split Congress, Republicans who oppose everything he tries to do, and he’s encountering resistance with the conservative court system now. So, when he tries to, for example, block pipelines through executive authority, the court system is rejecting those attempts.

And so, what it comes down to is us. We’ve got to turn out in droves. Those of us who care about the climate crisis have to turn out in droves in the next election and elect climate-forward politicians, because we will not see the progress that we need without massive policy support, without overwhelming majorities in the Senate and Congress and a president who will all work together to solve what is the defining crisis of our time, the climate crisis.

AMY GOODMAN: Michael Mann, I hope we’ll be coming back to you soon, presidential distinguished professor and director of the Penn Center for Science, Sustainability and the Media at the University of Pennsylvania, author of the forthcoming book, Our Fragile Moment: How Lessons from Earth’s Past Can Help Us Survive the Climate Crisis.

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