Smoked Out

McKenzie Funk

  • Firestorm: How Wildfire Will Shape Our Future by Edward Struzik
    Island Press, 248 pp, £22.99, October 2017, ISBN 978 1 61091 818 3
  • Extreme Cities: The Peril and Promise of Urban Life in the Age of Climate Change by Ashley Dawson
    Verso, 384 pp, £20.00, October 2017, ISBN 978 1 78478 036 4
  • Seeds on Ice: Svalbard and the Global Seed Vault by Cary Fowler
    Prospecta, 160 pp, £29.99, September 2016, ISBN 978 1 63226 057 4
  • Storming the Wall: Climate Change, Migration and Homeland Security by Todd Miller
    City Lights, 272 pp, £7.99, September 2017, ISBN 978 0 87286 715 4

Last spring, my wife, wanting to change career, was accepted by nursing school, and our family – the two of us, two young boys, a middle-aged dog – suddenly had to move house. We were leaving Seattle, where we had lived for a decade, a city with ample rain, though one within range of volcanoes and earthquakes, for a small town in the mountains of southern Oregon. I put the climate change books I had agreed to write about for this paper in a cardboard box and put the box on top of the others starting to fill our garage, and soon spring turned to endless, destructive summer.

The town we were moving to is called Ashland. It’s beautiful, a surprise cluster of civilisation just north of Oregon’s border with California, where restaurants and shops and stately wooden houses sit at the foot of a forested mountain range called the Siskiyous. It has twenty thousand residents but swells during the academic year with students and in warmer months with tourists, many of them here for the summer-long Oregon Shakespeare Festival. There are flower-filled parks, excellent schools, people riding carbon-fibre mountain bikes, retirees driving luxury cars, travellers with dreadlocks, nice dogs reliably on leashes. Restaurants and real estate agencies line Main Street. People in Ashland are often from somewhere else, and they pay good money to be here. The town’s economy relies, above everything else, on its quality of life.

I first heard about the smoke problem from a publisher of religious and philosophical books who had lived in Ashland for 24 years, raising his three children in a blue, three-bedroom house near the business district. Now they were grown up and publishing was dying and he found he had trouble breathing in the summer months because there were an increasing number of fires in the surrounding hills. The forests here are dense and dry. The valley is shaped like a trough. When wildfires burned, the smoke lingered in the valley for weeks, and he had to stay indoors. It had happened almost every summer for the previous six years: it was the ‘new normal’, people in Ashland said, an effect of climate change. The publisher was moving to Los Angeles, a metropolis once famed for its smog, partly because the air there was sure to be better. When I visited him one rainy May evening during a house-hunting trip – his home was supposedly a steal because it was selling for under half a million dollars – we drank tea at his kitchen table, surrounded by his boxes and furniture and former life, him at the end of something and me at the beginning. The house wasn’t quite right for us. I decided we should rent instead and found a place a few blocks away, across the creek.

Jenny liked the old house we ended up with. We moved her in one June weekend, the boys crawling in and out of the doors of the secret closet in their new bedroom. She would live here alone for the first month, riding her bike to and from the university, eating at the grocery co-op, revelling in the fact that in a small town everything is ten minutes from everything else. The boys and I returned to Seattle, and wrapped up our existence there. ‘We’re going to need new sunglasses for the boys,’ Jenny told me early on. It was always sunny. The air was so crisp. It was so easy to get around. We’d be spending a lot of time outside. Then, a week before we were to drive the nine hours down Interstate 5 and finally join her, bad news: ‘The smoke started,’ she said. ‘It came early this year.’ Although there was little imminent danger of its spreading to Ashland, the nearest fire – the result of a lightning strike near Hells Peak – was just nine miles from our new home.

When a building is burning, firefighters usually try to extinguish every last flame. It’s a fight to the death, over in a matter of hours. When thousands or tens of thousands of acres of forest are burning, the major goal is containment, a kind of negotiated peace with a force greater than man. Wildland firefighters try to halt a blaze’s progress, encircling it with natural or manmade firebreaks. They work to keep the flames away from people and property, hoping to hang on until environmental conditions – humidity, wind speed and direction – change and the autumn rains finally arrive. Many wildfires are left to smoulder, and to smoke, for weeks or months on end, causing little newsworthy damage. Disasters like the conflagration that consumed Paradise, California, in November, killing 81 people – the deadliest and most destructive wildfire in the state’s history – do happen. But the climate disaster facing millions of other residents of the American West is more insidious. In a town like Ashland, the smoke blots out the colour of the houses and the hills, rendering everything in grayscale, a slow-burn diminution of the way life here used to be.

On the afternoon the boys and I arrived the town and the Rogue Valley where it sits were surrounded by nine separate wildfires. The next day, Ashland registered the worst air quality in the United States: 321 on the Air Quality Index. The AQI scale is colour-coded – green-yellow-orange-red-purple-maroon – to denote health risk, and we were well into maroon, or ‘hazardous’. Outside, the air was totally still and the temperature had hit 100°F. It looked like dusk in the middle of the day. Inside, the boys’ upstairs room was like a furnace, but we couldn’t open the skylights for fear of letting the smoke in. We rushed out to buy an air-conditioning unit. At the hardware store down the road, we got the last child-size smoke masks on the shelves, the ones rated N95 for the particulate matter the internet said we really needed to keep out of their lungs. Prepping for the unknown, we ordered a dozen more masks from China on Amazon.

The boys’ first summer camp was in a nature area five minutes from our house. They were meant to spend the whole week outside. Instead they spent it in the cramped quarters of the visitors’ centre, where they sang songs about the forest and built fairy houses out of bark and moss and acorns. Some days, the AQI dropped into the orange zone, and at least once into the yellow, but the smoke always returned when the wind shifted. I tried to walk the dog whenever the air looked best, helped by the AQI app I’d downloaded to my phone, and I grew used to wearing my smoke mask in public, grunting muffled hellos to other pedestrians in masks of their own, fellow travellers in the apocalypse. It began to feel normal. In the café where I went to work on my laptop, I noticed how routine this existence was becoming for others, too. Walk in, take off mask, order coffee. Put mask back on, walk out. In Seattle, I had always taken my rain jacket when I went outside. Here, one had to remember the smoke mask. Your baselines shift. You adapt.

By the end of the week, however, our younger son, then three, had developed a rough cough. I took him to a clinic, and the next day we decided to get him and his brother out of Ashland until the smoke had gone. I loaded up the car again and drove the boys and the dog four hours north-east to the other side of the Cascade Mountains, where my extended family had a cabin. We were climate refugees, I joked, escaping to higher elevations and latitudes in search of a more hospitable environment. The six-year-old asked me what ‘refugee’ meant, and I had to explain, but told him I didn’t really mean it. All we could honestly claim was a new-found feeling of dislocation, of being stuck between lives. I had brought the long neglected box of climate change books with me, and now, safe in the mountain air, I began reading.

*

There were four books in the box. They are very different from one another, but as a whole they represent a generational break with the climate change books before them. This is because not one of them is strictly about the topic at hand. Not one of them bothers to argue that climate change is real. Not one bothers to explain how societies can work to cut greenhouse gas emissions. Not one gets hung up on atmospheric science or computer models or the Paris Agreement. Instead, they simply take for granted that temperatures will rise and that the world as we know it will soon be fundamentally altered. The migration scholar writes about migration and the seed scientist about seeds and the ecosocialist about urban capitalism, but climate change – the biggest, most pervasive ongoing event in the world – is always present in the background. This is by necessity. Climate change is and will be everywhere. It doesn’t stand apart from our daily existence, not any more.

Edward Struzik’s Firestorm is about the coming age of ‘megafires’ – wildfires covering an area of 100,000 acres or more. The phenomenon isn’t new, but megafires now occur with unprecedented frequency, and are uprooting more and more people from their homes. In Canada, the average area affected annually has doubled since global temperatures began their abrupt rise in the 1970s, and it is likely to double again by 2050. Quoting a favourite scientist, Mike Flannigan, Struzik lays out the three simple reasons for this. First, warmer temperatures mean drier forests. Second, warmer temperatures mean more lightning strikes. Third, warmer temperatures mean longer fire seasons. Struzik centres his story on the Horse River Fire, also known as the ‘Beast’, which struck Fort McMurray in Alberta, Canada’s tar-sands capital, in 2016. It spread across 1.5 million acres, destroyed 2500 homes and 12,000 vehicles, and forced 88,000 residents to flee. The firestorm was of such ferocity it created its own weather patterns, including lightning strikes that set off smaller fires to herald its approach. The irony of the fire’s location wasn’t lost on Struzik. ‘Behind us glowed the lights of fossil fuel-driven human activity,’ he wrote of a night spent in the burned-out forest not far from the site of the $7.3 billion tar-sands project, ‘emitting greenhouse gases that are warming the climate and triggering atmospheric disturbances, driving wildfire to burn bigger, faster, hotter, and more often.’

Struzik describes how Fort McMurray residents escaped from the Beast while bureaucrats were still fighting over how to respond; dives into the scientific mystery of the fire’s lightning-producing pyrocumulonimbus clouds, or pyroCbs; describes how politics have caused forest managers to retreat from the practice of controlled burning, allowing forests to become choked with unburned fuel; explains how drought and invasive beetles have made trees more susceptible to fire; explores the way people’s encroachment on woodland has made more homes susceptible to fire; and underscores the fact that water supplies which may already be facing climate stress are further threatened through contamination by wildfires. He dedicates an entire chapter – bless him – to the dangers unsuspecting people face from smoke inhalation from distant fires. But when the book concludes with a quiet call for better evacuation planning and more research – in both Canada and the United States federal budgets go overwhelmingly to firefighting rather than fire science – the reader is left with an uncomfortable realisation: it’s too late. From here on it’s triage. Some future fires may be allowed to burn so as to clear out accumulated fuel, and some may be suppressed as they are today, even if this increases the risk of later megafire. Either way, our forests will burn.

This human knack for increasing long-term risk by trying to diminish it in the short term doesn’t apply only to fires. In Extreme Cities, Ashley Dawson, a New York-based activist and scholar of postcolonialism, argues persuasively that cities are becoming ground zero for climate change. They are home to most of the world’s people and the source of most of its emissions. We have built our megacities – 13 of the largest twenty are ports – in sinking river deltas. Half of the world’s population already lives close to the sea, and now more people, fleeing rural drought or poverty, are moving there. ‘Two great tides are converging on the world’s cities,’ Dawson writes. ‘The first of these is a human tide. In 2007, humanity became a predominantly city-dwelling species.’ The second tide, of course, is the literal one: the rising seas, which may be metres higher by the end of the century.

Dawson’s book is about the way responses to climate change are being shaped by the entrenched interests of capital. He takes aim at the comfortable notions of ‘resilience’ and ‘green growth’ pushed by – among others – the former mayor of New York Michael Bloomberg and his cast of visiting Dutch architects, questioning post-Hurricane Sandy projects like the Big U seawall proposed for lower Manhattan: it would attract tourists and protect Wall Street, but displace storm surge waters to surrounding, poorer neighbourhoods. ‘Under present social conditions,’ he writes, such schemes are ‘likely to be employed by elites to create architectures of apartheid and exclusionary zones of refuge’. For Dawson, New York is the ‘extreme city’ problem in microcosm. The affluent invest their money in such places because real estate is where the big returns lie as people move into cities – 60 per cent of global wealth, he claims, is in real estate – and because under capitalism investments must grow in value. City planners are then compelled to protect these growing investments, which gives speculators confidence that the city is a safe harbour for yet more investments, and thus overall risk creeps up with the tides.

The $40 billion, Dutch-built Great Garuda seawall in Jakarta, soon to be the biggest in the world, will displace thousands of shack-dwellers on an existing seawall and put tens of thousands of fishermen out of work – but it will give developers a chance to profit from selling luxury homes on artificial islands. The Eko Atlantic development on a peninsula off the coast of Lagos is patrolled by heavily armed guards and surrounded by shanty towns built on stilts where the chefs and nannies live. ‘Both Eko Atlantic and the Great Garuda,’ Dawson writes, with excusably escalating rhetoric, ‘offer visions of the extreme social injustice of emerging neoliberal urban phantasmagoria in a time of climate change.’ Just as Struzik makes it plain that some forests will just have to burn, Dawson asserts that some cities – Miami, for example – will have to be abandoned. Eventually, taking a page from Naomi Klein’s concept of disaster capitalism, he calls for ‘disaster communism’ in the face of climate change – a radical redistribution of wealth that liberates poor and rich alike from our cult of growth before it literally sinks us.

Before the boys and I had to leave the cabin I had time to read the third book, Cary Fowler’s Seeds on Ice. It is a retelling of the creation of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, commonly known as the ‘doomsday’ seed vault. Built into an Arctic mountainside to safeguard key crops – rice, wheat, sorghum, maize, beans – from climate change or terrorist attack, the vault holds almost 900,000 seed varieties from almost every country in the world. Fowler explains that he and a colleague at the international agricultural research organisation CGIAR became afraid for the world’s seedbanks after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. He describes his first visit to Svalbard, where he ate polar bear carpaccio in an old hotel in the coal-mining town of Longyearbyen. The island’s political and climatic stability added to its appeal, and the Norwegian government was persuaded to pay for the project. To make the vault impregnable it was decided to tunnel into solid stone and permafrost rather than repurpose an old mining shaft.

Fowler explains why this all matters. ‘Agriculture faces its most severe set of challenges since the Neolithic period,’ he writes. One problem is the need to grow more food for more people with less water and land and phosphorus. The other problem is climate change: warmer average temperatures, warmer extreme temperatures, warmer nights, longer heatwaves, variable rains. ‘We are headed towards climates that our crops have never before experienced. Global warming will give us climates that are pre-rice, pre-wheat, pre-potato, pre-agriculture.’ Even if Germany’s future temperature range becomes like that of Italy today, Italian crops are not guaranteed to grow in German fields. Soil and pests will remain different, and so too will the length of the days. What plant breeders and farmers will need is a stockpile of heat-tolerant traits so they can produce new crop varieties, and this is what the seed vault was designed to be. When I looked up the vault online, however, I found that it had suffered a breach soon after Fowler’s book was published. No seeds were damaged, but a dramatic Arctic warm spell during what had been Earth’s warmest recorded year had brought heavy rain to Svalbard instead of the usual light snow, and the vault’s entrance had been flooded with meltwater. Norway has recently pledged one hundred million kroner – about £10 million – to build a new entrance tunnel and revamp the vault’s emergency power and refrigeration systems: a Plan B for civilisation’s Plan B.

I didn’t do much reading after that one, not for a while. The boys and I had to drive to our next destination – my parents’ house, two hours from the cabin – and as soon as we were halfway settled I had to complete another late writing assignment that might at first seem unrelated to this one, an investigation into immigration enforcement in the age of Trump. Jenny was still stuck in class in Ashland in the smoke. Now she drove an air-conditioned car to and from the university with the windows rolled up, and her bike sat idle. I kept checking my AQI app. Smoke was still choking the Rogue Valley, and haze spread from other fires to the rest of the Pacific Northwest as the summer dragged on. The boys and I stayed away from Ashland until the end of August, when the AQI edged more frequently into the yellow zone and their school year began and I dressed them in smoke masks and new shoes and took them to meet their teachers.

There was no distinct moment when the smoke stopped. But in September it was more often the case that when the wind blew it away, it didn’t get blown right back again. We went outside with sunglasses on. We kept waiting for the hills to disappear again, for our fragile string of yellow and green days to turn orange, but eventually we realised it was over. Now we could assess the damage. That month, regional vineyards got a letter from a major buyer, a California winery, saying that their contracts were cancelled due to ‘smoke taint’. The Oregon Shakespeare Festival, engine of the local economy, announced that the smoke had cost it at least $2 million in lost ticket revenue. The knock-on effects on hotels, shops and restaurants amounted to many millions more, and a few businesses closed down. For me, it hadn’t been nearly that bad. I’d lost some savings and some time, but suddenly the air was crisp and the boys were at school and I could sit and type for uninterrupted hours.

I thought I might find a moment to read the last book in my pile during our reunited family’s first trip together, a long weekend in California to attend a friend’s wedding. But the day before we were meant to leave, a wildfire just south of the state border jumped over Interstate 5, the major north-south artery. The news showed images of abandoned trucks, smoke still spiralling up from their blackened shells. To get to the wedding, we took a detour through the mountains on a series of minor roads, driving late into the night behind an endless line of cars and trucks. The drive was long, and the drive back even longer – 12 hours – and I didn’t read a thing.

In early October, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, meeting in South Korea, issued its worst report yet: the consequences of even a 1.5ºC rise in global temperatures, as opposed to the previously studied threshold of 2ºC, would be widespread catastrophe. The worst effects – a mass die-off of coral reefs, coastal flooding, widespread food shortages – could come as soon as 2040, well within the lifetimes of most people living today. The report’s authors stressed that it was still technically possible to avert this through a massive transformation of our energy economy, but even they admitted that this was according to the laws of physics and chemistry, not politics. When I saw the headlines about the IPCC report, I was at a conference in Florida, where Hurricane Michael – one of the strongest storms ever to hit the continental United States, soon to be responsible for dozens of deaths – was bearing down. I headed to the airport to fly home less than 24 hours before Michael made landfall, the sky already dark and the rain battering the windscreen of my taxi and flooding the streets. Back in Ashland, things seemed pretty normal for a week or so, but then residents began catching glimpses of a mountain lion. It was seen near the theatres. It was beside the supermarket. It was by the university. It was roaming outside the library, with two cubs. Biologists suggest that mountain lions may increasingly follow their favourite prey – deer – into urban areas as the hinterlands go dry. While there was nothing definitively to tie this particular cat to climate change, you can forgive me for having my suspicions. It was that kind of year.

*

When I finally turned to Todd Miller’s Storming the Wall: Climate Change, Migration and Homeland Security, the mid-term elections were approaching and Trump had dispatched US troops to the Mexican border to repel a caravan of hungry asylum-seekers from Central America. In the news, there had been little attempt to explain why farmers from Guatemala and Honduras – two ‘dry corridor’ countries wracked by consecutive years of drought – were trekking to the United States. Miller’s book was a welcome antidote. ‘Just like super-typhoons, rising seas and heatwaves, border build-up and militarisation are by-products of climate change,’ he writes. ‘Just as tidal floods will inundate the streets of Miami and the Arctic ice sheets will melt, if nothing changes we will find ourselves living in an increasingly militarised world of surveillance, razor wire, border walls, armed patrols, detention centres and relocation camps.’

One important revelation in Miller’s book is that climate change science is wholly uncontroversial inside the military and security establishment, even high up in the Trump administration. It’s widely accepted that the warming world will soon see many more refugees – 50 million, 250 million, a billion, nobody can say for sure – even if climate migrants can’t formally be called refugees under present international law. Miller attends security conferences and border-tech exhibitions on two continents, and traces the use of the term ‘threat multiplier’, which has been employed by governments and analysts since 2004 to describe the way climate change adds to the usual array of threats against our financial and political order. He shares Dawson’s concern that we’re hurtling ever more rapidly towards a world of haves and have-nots. ‘More dangerous than climate disruption was the climate migrant. More dangerous than the drought were the people who can’t farm because of the drought. More dangerous than the hurricane were the people displaced by the storm.’

Miller tells the story of Yeb and A.G. Saño, two Filipino brothers whose hometown was largely destroyed by 2013’s Super Typhoon Haiyan and whose home region was arguably destroyed by the police state that rose in the typhoon’s wake. The brothers marched a thousand miles on foot across the Alps to arrive in Paris for the start of the 2015 UN Climate Summit, with Miller joining them for the last few kilometres. But the climate talks took place just weeks after Islamic State’s attack on the Bataclan concert hall, and Paris was in a state of emergency when the marchers entered the city. The brothers – foreign, brown, idealistic – put their arms around each other outside a café for a photo op, and a man came out and yelled at them, thrusting a newspaper with an image commemorating Bataclan in their faces. ‘People here in France are not concerned about climate change,’ he told them. ‘The people of France are concerned about terrorism.’ The next day, Miller walked alongside protesters demanding carbon cuts, running when they were attacked by riot police. It’s a blunt but effective metaphor. ‘As I ran,’ he writes, ‘I realised I had arrived at the true climate summit.’

In Ashland, the mountain lion disappeared from town and the Shakespeare festival laid off a few dozen employees. State and federal fire officials traded barbs in the local newspaper, which started running a countdown clock to the 2019 fire season. A local lawmaker proposed that college students should take a year off to work on tree-thinning projects. The bookstore I frequented was put up for sale, but I overheard two long-time patrons predicting that there would be no serious bids. ‘Ashland’s not what it used to be,’ one said. My younger son learned to ride a bike in the sun in the park just down the block. My older son started playing soccer, and by the pitch one morning another parent told me about a campsite near the Pacific that filled with local families every summer once the smoke began. ‘Maybe we’ll be like Europeans,’ he said. ‘Everyone will just leave every August.’ It almost sounded reasonable.