California wildfires wipe out the state’s green energy gains

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Author David Wallace-Wells and the cover of his new book. Photo courtesy of UCSB Arts & Lectures.

The impending climate crisis isn't just impending -- it's already here. That’s according to David Wallace-Wells, the deputy editor and climate change columnist at New York Magazine.

“In the U.S., California is a case study for what the climate future may look like,” he says. “It's a state that's already being changed in some pretty profound ways, in part because of accidents of its geography, but also because of the way that it's been developed. It stands right in the face of some quite dramatic climate impacts.”

In his new book, “The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming,” he investigates what the world will look like in the near future, from the jobs we’ll have, where we’ll live, and what we’ll eat.

Ahead of his event at the New Vic Theater in Santa Barbara on March 5 through UCSB Arts & Lectures, Wallace-Wells talks to KCRW about the effects already hitting the Golden State.

Wildfires wiping out gains

“Fires have been a feature of life in California forever, but they are getting much, much worse. The latest data shows that they've grown five times worse since the 1970s. And scientists expect that they're going to at least double, maybe quadruple, by 2050. 

It's quite discouraging because the state is leading on green energy. And even so, since fires release so much carbon, they entirely wipe out the gains that have been made through all of the state's green energy policies. 

So not only is the state not doing enough by the standards of science, it’s not even doing enough to counteract the negative effects of the wildfires on carbon emissions.”

Redrawing coastlines

“Sea level rise is going to redraw all of the world's coastlines. How much is a bit of an open scientific question because we don't quite know how quickly some of the planet's ice is likely to collapse. Some of the most dramatic impacts are likely quite far down the line, but even in the short term, coastal erosion, flooding from storm surges…”

An army of solutions

“We're not going to solve it in any one way. I think it will come through the deployment of every solution at every level of the problem, in every corner of the world.

In order to avoid 2 degrees of warming, the U.N. says we need to decarbonize at a rate of about 8% per year every year for the next 10 years, and then accelerate after that so that we get all the way to a totally zero carbon planet by 2050. 

Eight percent per year is faster than any nation in the world for any single year has ever decarbonized. The U.N. says … that would require a global World War II-scale mobilization against climate change. And for those who don't remember, in World War II, every man of working age was drafted into the army. Every woman of working age was drafted into the workforce. We had whole industry and industrial sectors nationalized in the space of months and repurposed for this purpose. The U.N. says we need that kind of an action to have a hope of hitting these targets.

In addition to that incredibly rapid decarbonization, we also need to build out a negative emissions industry -- ways that we could take carbon out of the air and bury it or make use of it in other ways. 

In addition to this unprecedented decarbonization program, we need to build out a new industry to do this negative emissions that would be at least twice as big and maybe four times as big as today's oil and gas business by 2030, which took a century and a half to build, and which is still immensely profitable. There is no market at the moment for negative emissions technology, which means we'd have to build it out of philanthropy or public support.

We have the solutions we need to begin to set down our path. We will probably continue to innovate in ways that will make that path easier to follow. But we can't comfort ourselves by just saying, ‘Okay, the technology is here, therefore the problem is solved.’ Because the much more challenging part will be deploying it at the speed and scale that science says is necessary. It has to be the organizing principle of contemporary society.”

 What will the presidential candidates do about climate change?

“All of the candidates have put together remarkably ambitious and detailed climate proposals. Bernie Sanders’ [plan] is the most ambitious. Joe Biden is considered the most retrograde on climate. Many climate activists consider him hopelessly stuck in the past. And yet he is many times more ambitious than Barack Obama was when he was in office, and many times more ambitious than Hillary Clinton's platform was in 2016.

The problem is that we have so little time, and I think the obstacle is less the vision of the presidential candidates and more the challenge they'll likely face in the Senate and Congress and even in the federal bureaucracy, where it can be hard to implement dramatic changes at the speed that someone looking at it from on high might say is necessary.”




Kathryn Barnes