World Scientists Call for Global System Change to Address Climate Emergency

Moved by a moral obligation to “tell it like it is,” more than 11,000 scientists from 153 countries have released a statement warning humanity of the “catastrophic threat” we face as the climate emergency continues apace. Without transformative changes to save the biosphere, they warn, there will be “untold suffering due to the climate crisis.” Since the statement was published on November 5, thousands more scientists have signed on to it.

The statement in the online journal BioScience pointed out that, despite 40 years of global climate negotiations, the world has “generally conducted business as usual and largely failed to address this predicament,” with only minor exceptions. As a result, they say, global temperatures have reached crisis levels and climate disruption is accelerating faster than most scientists expected, now “threatening natural ecosystems and the fate of humanity.” The danger includes potential climate tipping points that could lead to a “hothouse Earth” beyond any ability for humanity to control and that could even make “large areas of the Earth uninhabitable” according to the warning.

The fix that’s needed is not simply one of everybody doing their own small part, personally, to solve the problem. In the statement’s conclusion, scientists say that “mitigating and adapting to climate change while honoring the diversity of humans entails major transformations in the ways our global society functions and interacts with natural ecosystems.” The scientists call on those in power and all of humanity to respond to the emergency warning and act to “sustain life on planet Earth, our only home.”

The statement vividly brings to life the key trends of changing climate through a suite of “graphical vital signs” of human activity over the last 40 years. The basic scientific data of these changes is presented simply and with great clarity: a 5 percent rise every 10 years in carbon emissions; a 3.65 percent rise of another powerful greenhouse gas, methane, every 10 years; a global surface temperature rise of .183 degrees Celsius every 10 years; a decline of Arctic sea ice at a rate of 11.7 percent every 10 years; significant drops in the ice mass of Greenland, Antarctica and world glaciers; an increase in ocean acidity and temperatures; an increase of 44 percent in the amount of area burned by wildfires in the U.S. every 10 years; and an 88 percent rise in extreme weather events per 10 years.

The scientists make clear that wealthy, Western countries are primarily responsible for the build-up of these greenhouse gases, and also, in general, have the highest per capita emissions. They link these trends to a number of factors, including an increase in world gross domestic product (GDP) and total institutional assets, a rise in ruminant livestock and meat production, a rise in human population, an increase in tree cover loss, and air transport.

There are certain positive trends, such as a decrease in fossil fuel subsidies and the global total fertility rate, as well as in the rate over the past two decades of Brazilian Amazonian forest loss, for instance. Still, the scientists also point out that even some of these positive trends are beginning to reverse or flatten out. One concrete positive they point to, however, is the surge of concern about the climate crisis, including youth climate strikes around the world.

The illustration of reality portrayed in the statement deserves thorough examination by all people who care about life on the planet and who are trying to figure out why this planetary death spiral continues, despite all the decades of warnings and the growing awareness of the problem.

But it’s still not too late to save large portions of planetary life, they say. The scientists outline steps in six critical areas that human society could take to significantly address the danger:

  • Fossil fuel stocks must be left in the ground, and the world must quickly “implement massive energy efficiency and conservation practices” while replacing fossil fuels with renewable energy sources.
  • Short-lived climate pollutants like methane need to be promptly reduced.
  • Humanity must move to protect and restore Earth’s ecosystems — coral reefs, forests, savannas, wetlands, soils and marine habitats — to stop habitat and biodiversity loss. Forested lands must be enhanced at enormous scales.
  • Plant-based foods need to increasingly replace such a massive consumption of meat.
  • Economic extraction of materials and exploitation of ecosystems driven by economic growth need to be quickly curtailed and replaced by maintenance of long-term sustainability of the biosphere.
  • Population must be stabilized, and ideally, reduced by making family-planning services available to all people and achieving full gender equality.

“Our goals need to shift from GDP growth and the pursuit of affluence toward sustaining ecosystems and improving human well-being by prioritizing basic needs and reducing inequality” the statement reads.

These steps are profoundly rational and achievable. They provide a basic road map humanity could follow to save our planet, transforming major aspects of how we relate to nature.

Of course, the problem is that those in power remain deeply entrenched in running a system that is doing the opposite. Capitalism, as a system, precludes the possibility of prioritizing calculations and decisions on such rational and well-founded arguments about what’s needed to sustain planetary life, and instead is continually driven by what is most profitable and beneficial to the economic/political interests of the world’s ruling classes.

In some of these countries are the Trumps and Bolsonaros of the world who are actively accelerating the climate and extinction crisis by expanding fossil fuel extraction, wiping out regulations and protections for humans and other species, and mowing down rainforests. In the countries of “enlightened” capitalists, leaders pay lip service to the problem, but are prevented by the workings of the systems they head to do what’s necessary to deal with the crisis, and so continue with “business as usual.”

All this continues despite the clear, repeated warnings pointing to a global extermination of species, increasingly powerful storms (especially devastating the poorest on the planet), and the specter of complete climate catastrophe.

The question for all of us, for humanity as a whole, is: Will we rise to wrest control from the hands of a system that is destroying planetary life? Will we transform human social relations, or succumb to the inexorable death spiral capitalism has wrought?

Letter to MoveOn

I wrote this today to MoveOn in  response to a petition they sent me to demand an investigation by the House Judiciary Committee and Justice Department Inspector General of William Barr’s Justice Department, after the announcement they will seek a reduced sentence for Roger Stone.

Dear MoveOn,

Respectfully,  the time for petitions has passed. These are not stopping Trump. We need to be in the streets-from here forward. MoveOn should be calling for this now. If not, you are failing in your mission. I’m sorry to say it and I’m not condemning your work, and know you work hard. But the simple truth is the only thing that will stop this escalating fascism concentrated in Trump and his government is non-violent, mass on-going protest in streets. To concentrate on petitions, occasional protest and voting-when Trump is ripping up the rule of law and has repeatedly shown willingness to steal elections by any means, and continues to get away with it and becomes strengthened,  almost comes down to collaboration with this.

At the very least it suffers under a very dangerous illusion-that democracy and legal channels will still stop this. He will work to steal the election, to further suppress the vote even more than already has, to strip provisional ballots to steal vote, to use social media with help from foreign countries to manipulate public opinion and the vote, use various other means, (some I’m sure blatantly illegal to manipulate or steal the vote), mobilize fascist sentiment in the streets, possibly invade another country, even delay or cancel the vote if other means fail. Or he may simply declare the election null and void, saying it was a fake election, making up phony justifications of bussed-in immigrants or whatever to cover up and justify his clampdown.

He is capable of anything, and if not stopped, we may well be looking at a Nazi Germany type scenario-or possibly a Putin/Erdogan/Duterte/Bolsonaro type fascism. So we, the people generally, must recognize this and act accordingly. To rise repeatedly in mass non-violent protest now, is our only hope.  Yes it will be scary and will cause much upheaval. People may even die, but without this there is little to no hope of preventing even more catastrophe from Trump and his people. What we’re already seeing is small compared to what this regime is capable of if fully consolidated.

Please respond to this historic challenge we face as thinking people.

Thank you,

Trump Escalates War on Species as We Face an Extinction Emergency



Curtis Johnson,



August 21, 2019

The Trump administration’s recent announcement of rule changes to the Endangered Species Act (ESA) will blow a hole through protections that have been crucial to preventing extinctions and to helping the recovery of many threatened species. The changes, announced by the Interior Department’s, Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) and National Marine Fisheries Service, will take effect in September.

About 1,600 plant and animal species in the U.S. are listed under the ESA. It’s been estimated the ESA has prevented 227 species from going extinct. It has a 99 percent success ratio, meaning only 10 species ever listed have gone extinct. According to a recent study, 77 percent of once-endangered marine mammals and sea turtles protected by the ESA are now recovering. Without the ESA, it is very likely many iconic as well as many lesser-known species would have disappeared forever. Among others, the ESA is believed to have saved the bald eagle, the monk seal, the leatherback sea turtle, the grizzly bear, the gray wolf, the California condor, the snowy plover, and humpback and gray whales. It is also protecting plant, insect and other species that are vital parts of natural ecosystems.

These changes to the ESA will damage the act’s ability to protect species in a number of ways.

First, a blanket rule automatically extending endangered species protections to newly designated threatened species has been torpedoed. Only threatened species that have special rules set up for them will now receive the greater protections given to endangered species. States could now open hunting or trapping seasons or allow other means that kill off threatened species. Noah Greenwald, endangered species director of the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD), told Truthout that there is currently a backlog of around 500 species before the FWS under consideration for threatened status. As a result of the changes he said, “Threatened species really won’t have any protections at all” making threatened status an “almost meaningless designation.”

The new rules change the establishment of critical habitat that is crucial for the survival of threatened species.

If a species is impacted by climate change but not primarily by habitat destruction, the new rules won’t designate critical habitat, even though climate change-threatened species need more habitat protection, not less, Greenwald said. “The rules also make it harder to designate unoccupied habitat. So both of these things are very bad for climate change-impacted species because there’s a decent chance they’ll have to move.”

Without the ESA, it is very likely many iconic as well as many lesser-known species would have disappeared forever.

Unoccupied habitat is habitat not yet occupied by the species but that would be beneficial to a species and could help it survive if a species were forced to move, by say, climate change. Scientists have already documented the migration of species northward and to new habitats as a result of climate change, so the need for critical habitat designations isn’t just theoretical.

Greenwald pointed up the example of the wolverine. Only about 300 wolverines are estimated to be left in the wild in the U.S. They are dwindling, particularly as a result of climate disruption lessening mountain snowfall. Wolverines are currently up for a listing decision and are likely to be given threatened status but no designated physical habitat under the new rules. Greenwald says wolverines are affected by winter sports and things like ski resort development because they rely on spring snowfall at high elevations for denning. But since it’s hard to predict exactly how various habitats will be impacted by climate change, the animals are unlikely to be given critical habitat designation now by the FWS rule changes.

Environmental groups are also condemning the ESA changes because they remove language requiring that decisions on protecting species be based solely on science “without reference to possible economic or other impacts of determination.” The new rules allow economic calculations to be made in considering protection of species. This could open the door to weighing those costs against protecting a species. For instance, when deciding whether protecting a certain species threatened by logging of old growth forest is outweighed by the economic benefit of logging. FWS Assistant Director Gary Frazer insisted science would remain the sole basis of determining protections, but the whole attempt to weaken the ESA for many years (mainly by Republicans) has always sought to open the door to overrule protecting species in favor of big capitalist business interests like logging and fossil fuel extraction.

Trump officials are trying to cover over their true intentions by speaking of “updating” or even “improving” the Act. Interior Department head David Bernhardt, a longtime ESA opponent and advocate for coal and oil interests, now claims to just make the ESA more “clear and efficient” to “ensure it remains effective in achieving its ultimate goal — recovery of our rarest species.”

Jacob Malcom of Defenders of Wildlife doesn’t buy it. “They’re going to make these arguments because that’s the only way they’re going to have any traction in trying to defend them, but they’re simply not true,” he told Truthout.

“Threatened species really won’t have any protections at all” making threatened status an “almost meaningless designation.”

Greenwald concurs. “They say they’re going to rely on the best scientific information in making their decisions but what’s the point of doing the economic analysis?” he told Truthout. Greenwald said these changes will also create pressure by large monied interests to list species as threatened instead of endangered, because they will get less habitat protection. Republicans in Congress like John Barrasso, who have conducted a years-long attempt to undermine and do away with ESA protections, also see these changes as a “good start” and a gateway to even more drastic gutting of the Act, while claiming to “update” and “strengthen” it.

Facing criticism for the rule changes, Trump officials have simply doubled down on their assault on species, denying endangered protections to six more species on August 14.

CBD, Earthjustice and the attorneys general of California and Massachusetts have announced they will go to court to stop the rule changes.

Extinction and the Larger Ecological Crisis

The assault on the ESA happens at a moment of global mass extinction and climate crises. It will further that crisis unless prevented.

“When we’re seeing this kind of crisis … we should be strengthening laws we know are effective at saving species,” Malcom told Truthout. “Instead, the Trump administration is doing the opposite. They are weakening the rules, making it easier for harm to happen to these species and ultimately to drive species closer to extinction.”

In May, the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) reported that up to 1 million species are threatened with extinction. The report said “nature is declining globally at rates unprecedented in human history — and the rate of species extinctions is accelerating, with grave impacts on people around the world now likely.”

Scientists have already documented the migration of species northward as a result of climate change, so the need for critical habitat designations isn’t just theoretical.

According to the report, three-quarters of the land-based environment and about 66 percent of the marine environment have now been significantly altered by human actions, and land-based habitats have fallen by 20 percent. Approximately 40 percent of amphibian species, 33 percent of reef-forming corals and a third of all marine mammals are threatened. Scientists have also been finding evidence of a collapse of insects in certain places, leading to fears of an apocalypse at the base of the food chain.

About one-fourth of the global land area is “traditionally owned, managed, used or occupied by Indigenous Peoples.” And areas with large concentrations of Indigenous Peoples and many of the world’s poorest people are now “projected to experience significant negative effects from global changes in climate, biodiversity, ecosystem functions and nature’s contributions to people.” IPBES Chair Robert Watson said, “We are eroding the very foundations of our economies, livelihoods, food security, health and quality of life worldwide.”

The gutting of the ESA happens against a backdrop of other human-caused catastrophes that has been escalating with shocking rapidity and scope, this summer especially.

This July ranked as the hottest month ever recorded. An intense heat wave scorched the northern hemisphere, causing between 12 and 24 billion tons of Greenland’s ice to melt in a single day. Scientists said the melt was reaching levels climate models hadn’t predicted until 2070. In the Arctic, extremely hot temperatures and resulting drought set off massive wildfires that are visible from space. In vast regions of Siberia, the smoke got so bad that, mixed with dark clouds, it caused the sun to “disappear,” as also happened last summer. Now residents talk about this as the sun “going off.” Waters are so warm in some Alaskan rivers that salmon are literally being killed off.

The increased warming of the Arctic is causing a feedback loop releasing even more greenhouse gases by melting frozen permafrost. “Arctic permafrost isn’t thawing gradually, as scientists once predicted,” reports National Geographic. “Geologically speaking, it’s thawing almost overnight.”

The new rules allow economic calculations to be made in considering protection of species.

If fossil fuel burning isn’t dramatically altered, in a few decades, emissions of carbon and methane from melting permafrost will contribute as much to greenhouse emissions as that of China, currently the world’s largest emitter. Meanwhile, in the Bering Sea, warming ocean waters are triggering ecological disaster, killing off seabirds, seals, walruses and whales at rates not seen before. Rick Thoman, a scientist with the Alaska Center for Climate Assessment and Policy, said at a public forum in Nome, Alaska, “We’re not approaching the cliff. We’ve fallen off it.”

Trump’s Multileveled and Criminal War on Nature

Given the cataclysm already engulfing the globe, emergency measures are needed to address the crisis.

Nothing like this is occurring, and in the U.S., Trump is instead barreling ahead in ways that will further destroy species and ecosystems to increase profitability for capitalism with what could rightfully be called life-destroying criminality.

A report in Scientific American details how the Trump administration is “torpedoing climate science.” Another report reveals that after meeting with Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy, Trump personally intervened with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to force a withdrawal of opposition to the proposed Pebble Gold and Copper Mine that will likely devastate the habitat of the world’s richest and most pristine remaining salmon run, in Bristol Bay, Alaska. Trump’s Interior Department is also being exposed for suppressing science in an environmental assessment of drilling plans in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge’s coastal plain. Government scientists warning of the likely damage to caribou, polar bears and Native communities are being disregarded.

And on another front, Trump’s EPA has continued to refuse to stop the use of dangerous pesticides that are killing endangered plants and animals, including important pollinators. In the case of the pesticide chlorpyrifos, which has been shown to cause neurological and developmental damage to humans and animals, the EPA reversed a ban on its use even though the agency knew it could jeopardize the existence of almost 1,400 endangered plants and animals.

In July, Trump gave a speech on what he claimed were the great achievements of his government on the environment, including how under him, the U.S. has the world’s cleanest air and water. However, as Brett Hartl, government affairs director of the Center for Biological Diversity told Truthout, “Since he’s been elected, the air has gotten dirtier, the water has gotten dirtier, the amount of enforcement of our environmental laws has dropped off a cliff so polluters are getting away with much more, and they’re cutting the science and the staff to do the basic research to monitor the air and water.”

The CBD has filed 151 lawsuits to date challenging the Trump administration’s moves that would cause damage to the environment, species and people. The scope of the CBD lawsuits is remarkable, and reviewing them is an excellent way to take in the awful reality of what the regime is attempting to do and the legal attempts to stop this. Hartl said that a number of the lawsuits and legal actions filed by CBD and others have met with success; for instance, blocking Trump moves to open up Arctic waters for drilling, stopping the Keystone XL Pipeline for a time, stopping construction of an open-pit copper mine in Arizona, and winning protected status for a number of species.

The Trump regime is not only a threat to endangered species, but to all species — including our own. Preventing mass extinction and addressing the climate crisis is a global imperative, and time is short.

Copyright © Truthout. May not be reprinted without permission.

Curtis Johnson

Curtis Johnson is a research scientist, freelance writer, and a revolutionary and environmental activist. He has reported and written on the Gulf oil spill, the battle to stop the Keystone XL Pipeline, Western wildfires, the threat to orcas and wild salmon, the extinction and climate crisis, as well as the fight for justice for families of those murdered by police and to stop Trump’s fascism. He’s a hiker, fisherman, and lover of Northwest forests, the redwoods, wildlife, nature and humanity. Follow him on Twitter: @curtisjohnson70.


The Unbroken Line: From Slavery to the El Paso Shooting


This week Saira Rao, a former Congressional candidate in Colorado posted a mulit-tweet commentary on the topic of plantation tours in the American south. Rao, who is Indian-American said, “Having grown up in Virginia, I’ve visited many plantations. Every time it’s been the same. White guide humanizing slaveowners, how kind so & so was to those whom they enslaved.” She went on to say she had been on a recent tour that was completely different. On this tour the guide, who was white, told of the actual history of slavery, including the brutal oppression by slaveowners of the people they enslaved. When some of the white visitors “bristled” and questioned whether it was “really that bad”, and one of the white tourees commented, “bet they stayed in line because they were treated so well.”, the tour guide turned to her, “finger pointed up and said: ‘These white people were terrorists. Just like white people today shooting everyone.’”

Rao said a number of reviews of the tour online complained the tour was “disappointing”, hadn’t shown enough of the plantation grounds or quarters, was too “agenda-driven” and even “racist”. When this came out on twitter after Saira’s posts, the tour complainers were excoriated by Black people and others as well. One Black woman tweeted, “Who goes to a plantation and then gets angry about hearing about slavery? Do you know what a plantation is m’am?” Another person tweeted, “While black people are practically weeping during plantation tours, this woman is looking for an enjoyable plantation tour. Next stop: an enjoyable trip to concentration camps”.

It makes you ask yourself, what is really wrong with many white people and what can be done about all of this?

What it caused me to reflect on, was the unbroken line in the history of this country from the horrors of slavery down to the horrors of today. This line begins in the founding days of this country, with its part in the deaths of millions of Africans in the kidnapping, murder, and death by disease of the transatlantic slave trade. This horror was followed by two hundred and forty years of sanctioned and legalized brutality; family separation, overwork, starvation and sexual exploitation of 4 million in the “peculiar institution” of American slavery that built this country. The line weaves through the legalized oppression of the Jim Crow south, the night rider terrorizing of Black communities, the thousands of lynchings of Black people up into the 1960’s that traumatized the entire population of African-American people. And now to the new Jim Crow, the mass incarceration of disproportionate percentages of Black people, the routinized police murder of disproportionately black and brown people in today’s America, regardless of what administration is in power. The routine stigmatizing, oppression, and humiliation of millions of Black people, present throughout this nation’s history, continues today, as so concentrated in the pictures this past week of police on horseback in Galveston Texas leading a Black man through the streets by a rope.

The unbroken line goes through the wiping out of Native peoples in America and throughout the continent through disease, war and the annihilation of their means of survival. It encompasses the stealing of their lands for westward expansion of capitalism, and the continued disenfranchisement, poverty and assaults on indigenous sovereignty to today; from the police assaults at Standing Rock to Trump’s stealing of large portions of Bear Ears national monument with its architectural treasures and rich indigenous culture for oil and gas exploitation. The line wends to the anti-Chinese immigrant laws in the late 1800s and early 1900s, the exploitation of imported Mexican labor, and yes to the racist slaughter of El Paso. And this line branches out from America worldwide, to the invasions by the U.S. of the Dominican Republic, Haiti and other countries, to the mass annihilation of millions by the U.S. military in Southeast Asia, to the U.S. backing of death squads and genocide in El Salvador and Guatemala in the 1980s, to two invasions of Iraq resulting in the deaths of hundreds of thousands at least and the displacement from their countries of millions.

This is America, and now it’s Trump’s America. This is an America where Trump’s racist tirades appeal to and whip up a “nostalgia” among some of its white citizens for the “good old days”, despite how awful they were for non-white peoples, for women, and for many of the exploited immigrant and poor white laborers. These “good old days” were days of terror, misery and yes genocide for oppressed nationality peoples, and exploitation for the poor as a whole, most especially worldwide. And this is what Trump is seeking to restore and take further, under a new American fascism. This is a capitalist/corporate fascism, which is being allowed and supported by big businesses which find Trump’s tax and regulation cuts richly profitable and for some at least, enhancing of their competitive edge over others.

Trump’s recent racist tirades, including against “the squad” has further stoked his white supremacist base. A young white bigot, pumped up by Trump rants about America being “invaded” by Central American migrants, and white supremacist theories of white people being “replaced” by immigrants, unleashed his murderous resentment in El Paso, killing twenty-two people. His online manifesto justified the upcoming slaughter saying, ““if we can get rid of enough people, then our way of life can be more sustainable.” Think about it, these words of the El Paso shooter could literally have come out of the mouth of Donald Trump. Essentially, they have.

Evan as Trump sickly posed for photo ops in El Paso complete with smiles and a thumbs up while Melania Trump held the baby of parents who died shielding him in the shooting, I.C.E., the Trump regime’s official arm of ethnic cleansing, rounded up 680 immigrants at their jobsites in Mississippi. The children of those detained were left abandoned, crying and terrorized.

Amanda Armstrong-Price, assistant professor at Fordham University connected the shooting and I.C.E. round-up very well on Facebook, saying, “the mass raid … is the state affirming the El Paso shooter and encouraging others.” And the El Paso shooting, along with killings, assaults, and insults large and small by an increasingly mob-like Trumpian base, has become the unofficial arm of state policy enforcing cruelty and the terrorizing of whole sections of brown peoples.

Trump’s imposition of fascism, with a racist genocidal edge, is intensifying and straining the fabric of things. Outrage and resistance to all this is growing on the people’s side too, and things could break open in a positive way for stopping this as well. Mass resistance is needed now, to this racist genocidal thrust and to putting an end through mass non-violent action a la Puerto Rico, to the whole fascist regime. Having something positive emerge from these horrors is going to be hard, but only people in their millions, acting in common, can make this happen. It is possible.

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Curtis Johnson is a research scientist, freelance writer, and a revolutionary and environmental activist. He has reported and written on the Gulf oil spill, the battle to stop the Keystone XL Pipeline, Western wildfires, the threat to orcas and wild salmon, the extinction and climate crisis, as well as the fight for justice for families of those murdered by police and to stop Trump’s fascism. He’s a hiker, fisherman, and lover of Northwest forests, the redwoods, wildlife, nature and humanity. Follow him on Twitter: @curtisjohnson70.

Trump’s Tweets Are Not Just a Diversion, They’re Part of a Fascist Agenda

Of course, Donald Trump is a racist. His tweet attacks telling four Democratic congresswomen of color to “go back to their broken and crime infested” countries are only the latest ugly examples of a consistent, unbroken pattern. As Washington Post journalist Eugene Robinson rightly noted, Trump’s comments to Ayanna Pressley, Rashida Tlaib, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ilhan Omar are not different from the white segregationists screaming “Go Back to Africa” at Black students as the U.S. integrated public schools in the 1960s.

And then it got even uglier. It could have been taken from a Nazi rally at Nuremberg: Trump singled out Ilhan Omar for special attack at a North Carolina rally and the crowd responded, chanting, “Send her back! Send her back!” After unleashing this viciousness, Trump pretended to be unhappy with the chants the next day, only to reinvigorate and heighten his assaults on the four the day after.

Racism is woven into Trump’s worldview and his political brand. In 1989, Trump took out ads in all four New York City dailies calling for reinstating the death penalty right after the arrest of innocent Black youths in a vicious rape and beating. After the ad, the “Central Park Five” were coerced and beaten by police into confessing to a crime they didn’t commit. Trump told Larry King in an interview at the time, “Maybe hate is what we need if we’re gonna get something done.” Trump would become a leading advocate of the “birther” movement that claimed Barack Obama wasn’t born in the U.S. After the far-right Charlottesville rally in 2017, Trump gave political cover to the white supremacist assaults, claiming there were very fine people on “both sides.” Trump ranted about why it was always immigrants from “shithole countries” coming to the U.S., instead of white majority nations like Norway. He referred to undocumented Mexican and Central American migrants as criminals, rapists and “animals.” Now his regime is acting on this rant, viciously stealing migrant children from their parents at the border and locking them in cages to suffer without proper food, sanitation and care. Yes, this is all racist, and the list could stretch to pages. People with minds that think and a sense of justice and history have known this for a long time.

Trump’s “Make America White Again”

But the problem is deeper than Trump’s personal racism or even that these types of things are now being said and done from the highest office in the land, as dangerous as that is. In the wake of the House vote condemning Trump’s tweets, Trump and his defenders deny he’s a racist and say “the Squad,” as the four congresswomen have been named, are vicious anti-Americans who “hate our country” and should “just leave.” Never mind that all of “the Squad” are citizens of the U.S., duly elected representatives, and three of the four were born in the U.S. The Trumpian project is seeking to redefine those who deserve the right to stay in the U.S. and remain citizens as those who swear unquestioning allegiance to Trump and his vision of the country and the world. A central part of Trump’s program involves slamming back people of color and women, and interning or expelling people from other countries, particularly poor, oppressed countries comprised of mainly non-white peoples. To Trump and his ilk, “Make America Great Again” is about returning to a past where whites were openly dominant without apology, where women “knew their place,” and where (white) people of “good will” didn’t have to suffer to hear Spanish being spoken around them.  Trump’s speeches and tweets are appealing to and cohering the most backward sections of society into a force, including those that harbor deep resentment at having to worry about being confronted for spouting racist belief. Many of these people have a deep fear about “losing our America” to “foreigners,” “socialists” or Black people.  This is Trump’s base; many who want simple answers find their “truth” in conspiracy theories, and harken back to a mythical time of peace and harmony without the need for a lot of complicated thinking or debate about evidence; a past where the “white Christian” identity of the U.S. stood unchallenged.

Make no mistake, the Trump project intends to make white supremacy, white nationalism, misogyny, and unbridled American chauvinism the basis of what rules in this country and what it inflicts on the rest of the world. When Trump pardons and extols a war criminal like Michael Behenna, an Army first lieutenant convicted by a military court of executing a bound and blindfolded Iraqi prisoner during an interrogation in 2008, this is a sign of what’s to come.

The Fascism at the Heart of Trump’s Program

In the wake of Trump’s tweets and the House vote, many liberal pundits and Democrats are condemning his tweets, but saying either Trump is just trying to fire up his base for the 2020 election, or distract from other things. In a press conference, the four Democratic Congresswomen rightly condemned Trump’s racism and xenophobia, but also echoed the view that Trump’s tweets were meant to distract from issues of “larger concern to the American people,” including the inhumane treatment of immigrants at the border.

What is being missed is that there is a logic at play in Trump’s tweets. The racist tweets and attempts to marginalize and turn hatred toward “the Squad” is connected to the devastation his regime is imposing on innocent asylum seekers driven to escape their home countries. It’s connected to his attacks on the press as the enemy of the people, his regime’s refusal to cooperate with congressional subpoenas to testify, his flouting of the law and attempts to destroy it by executive order, and turning the Justice Department into a tool of presidential protection and prosecution of political enemies. It’s connected deeply with all of the rest of Trump’s racist attacks on professional athletes and public figures. And it’s connected to a broader Republican agenda to outlaw abortion, and positioning to again suppress the vote to guarantee victory in 2020. It’s connected to his slash-and-burn destruction of the environment at a time of global crisis. It’s also connected to Trump openly preparing his base to come out into the streets in the event of a move to impeach him or if Democrats would win the 2020 election. It’s connected to Trump’s lovefest with dictators around the world and floating out maybe he should indeed be president beyond two terms. Sure, there is diversion involved in Trump’s moves and tweets at times, but what is not being confronted is that all these things, including diversions, are elements of and in service to, an overall fascist program.

Trump and his allies in the Republican Party and at powerful levels of the ruling class are hammering into place a transformation of American society and rule from an already oppressive capitalist “democracy,” to an openly authoritarian or fascist society where obedience and allegiance — especially to “the leader” — are demanded, and where opponents are crushed. This is a nightmare future with potentially genocidal implications. Right now, many are beginning to get a sense of this, but it needs to be fully confronted by many more. Then, people’s actions must flow from this understanding.

Any regime where it is legitimate and right to characterize whole nations as shitholes and entire peoples as rapists, murderers and animals; to lock up children with no regard for their health, or the terror and harm it inflicts; and then double down on this even when children die in their custody — is headed toward fascism. Any regime that whips up hatred and fascist mobs to verbally threaten and even attack the regime’s political opponents, as Trump has done repeatedly, is a regime seeking to cement fascist rule.

After the “Send her back!” chants in Trump’s North Carolina rally, Jason Stanley, author of How Fascism Workstweeted, “I am not easily shocked. But we are facing an emergency. Journalists must not get away with sugar coating this. This is the face of evil.” In his book, The Anatomy of Fascism, author Robert Paxton says fascism is more plausibly linked to a set of “mobilizing passions that shape fascist action than to a consistent and fully articulated philosophy. At bottom is a passionate nationalism” and a conspiratorial view of history as a fight between good and evil “in which one’s own community or nation has been the victim.” This would be an accurate description of any Trump rally speech. Paxton says, “Fascists need a demonized enemy against which to mobilize followers, but of course the enemy does not have to be Jewish. Each culture specifies the national enemy.”

In Trump’s U.S., the enemy started as Muslims and immigrants from oppressed countries. Now it’s spread to include other non-white people, and political opponents the fascists call “anti-American,” even those who believe in the U.S. but just oppose Trump. It’s very important to recognize the Nazi elements being given life and scope by Trump. We would fail to heed at our own peril, for example, the murders of 11 people carried out by an anti-Semite at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh who targeted the temple for its support of immigrants, using Trumpian language about the immigrant caravan “invaders.” This is one reason it’s heartening to see Jewish groups and movements like Bend the Arc and #NeverAgain Action building protests to shut down Immigration and Customs Enforcement concentration camps and defend immigrants, saying, “Never Again is Now” and “Never Again Means Never Again for Everyone.”

These ugly comments by Trump from the highest office in the land are a disgrace, and an exposure of the true character of American democracy. Trump is attempting to cement an unbridled white supremacy, a nativist and fascist form of rule. But this is built on the bloody and ugly history of the U.S., from its establishment in slavery, to its genocide of Native people, down to today with the routinized murder of Black, Brown and Native people, the caging and family separations of migrants and denial of legal rights, the mass incarceration of millions of overwhelmingly people of color, the genocidal wars in southeast Asia, the mass slaughter in Iraq. For the U.S., violence is, as H. Rap Brown famously said in the 1960s, “as American as cherry pie.”

What Way Forward?

We have been counseled by leading Democrats like Nancy Pelosi and liberal TV pundits like Rachel Maddow to first put our hopes into Robert Mueller, then to throw all into the 2018 blue wave, then to rely on the federal prosecutors of the Southern District of New York, then to wait with bated breath the outcome of hearings in the House, all in hopes of stopping Trump. These hopes — illusions — have fallen, one after another. People will vote, and probably they even need to in these circumstances, but relying on this to stop Trump and fascism is a fatal mistake. The only “out” in this situation, given the seriousness of the threat and the antagonism Trump has for Constitutional norms, is for people to mobilize, connect with each other and increasingly build up our organized, collective resistance, in the streets and every sphere of society. It’s time to confront the fact that the Democrats will not stop this, especially if left to their own devices. They have neither the will nor the audacity to do so. They are another ruling class party, more invested in maintaining the social order than weathering all the upheaval involved in really confronting Trump. And this is the case despite the fact that they themselves will likely be sacrificed by Trumpian fascism. But a massive uprising by the populace could break the inertia, and even potentially impact the vigor with which sections with power oppose fascism.

There are some hopeful signs of increasing resistance, in the protests against concentration camps; in global student strikes to address the climate crisis; in the Extinction Rebellion movement worldwide, including the U.S.; in the resistance to Trumpian thugs; and in the Refuse Fascism movement. But all this and much more is needed, and it needs to be taken to an entirely different level. People of conscience in the arts and sciences, entertainment, in the medical and legal realms, religious communities and people broadly, who still deeply care about justice, could be drawn in. Links need to be made, political unity hammered out to the advantage of all, and new forms created so that millions eventually get drawn into the streets and all parts of society, in ongoing protest that doesn’t stop until Trump and his dangerous regime is pushed aside. Time is short.

With Food Source Endangered, Southern Resident Killer Whales Face Extinction

If the orcas are to be saved, immediate large-scale efforts must be taken.

If the orcas are to be saved, immediate large-scale efforts must be taken.  MONIKA WIELAND SHIELDS / SHUTTERSTOCK



Orca whales are iconic natural wonders of the Pacific Northwest. Powerful and joyful, they are honored and cherished by coastal Indigenous peoples and many others. People travel from around the world to see them, particularly the Southern Resident Killer Whales. Typically each summer, the J, K and L pods that comprise the population gathers in the waters of the Salish Sea near the San Juan Islands in Washington State. The pods reunite here in the summertime after a winter of ocean foraging, to gorge on Chinook salmon as the fish congregate to run into area rivers to spawn.

The orcas are intelligent and unique. Their society is matrilineal, grouped around older females, often grandmothers and great grandmothers that male and female offspring stay with throughout their lives. The Southern Residents have their own distinct dialect, a language particular to them. They communicate through calls and sounds that can travel 10 miles under water.

To see the whales is unforgettable. Once, when I stood with others on San Juan Island watching an orca pod very close to shore, a large whale came out of the water and looked directly at us, then vigorously slapped its tail twice as if to say, “Have you ever seen anything like this?”

Now this wondrous species is facing an emergency threat to its survival. From 98 whales in 1995, they have declined to only 75 today. The Southern Residents are apex predators, a keystone species of the region’s marine ecosystem. They’re fish-eaters, distinguishing them from the transient orcas that eat marine mammals, and the offshore orca populations with a more generalist diet that includes sharks, fish, etc. For tens of thousands of years, these whales have lived by preferentially eating the biggest and fattest salmon, the Chinook, which historically filled the nearby seas and rivers. Supporting a body weight of anywhere from 3,000-12,000 pounds requires eating a lot of salmon.

But the workings of the capitalist system has now decimated the great natural bounty of salmon. The orcas are suffering food stress, even being starved to death. They are not reliably reproducing. And the Chinook salmon, like the orca, has become an endangered species.

Tahlequah’s Story

Whale scientists were thrilled in July when the female orca Tahlequah, also known as “J-35,” gave birth to a calf in waters near Victoria, British Columbia. They rushed to document the new baby whale, which, if it survived and thrived, would have been the first for the endangered Southern Resident population in three years. But by the time they got there, the little calf was already dead. Over the past two decades, 75 percent of newborns have not survived.

For the next 17 days, Tahlequah carried and pushed her dead baby on her rostrum in a heartbreaking act of public mourning. For hundreds of miles around the Salish Sea in waters between Washington and British Columbia, even out to the ocean and back, Tahlequah pushed the calf while traveling with her pod.

“It was like a tour of grief,” Ken Balcomb, founder of the Center for Whale Research, told Truthout. One resident of San Juan Island reported to the Center that at sunset on the night of the new calf’s death, “a group of five or six female whales gathered at the mouth of the cove … in a close, tight-knit circle, staying at the surface in a harmonious circular motion for nearly two hours” in moonlight, as if in ceremonial ritual.

Scientists say displays of grief and mourning are common among many different whale species worldwide. Given the intelligence and social bonds among various whale populations, it’s not surprising.

Yet in no other known case has such a display continued for as long as Tahlequah’s.Whether by design or not, Tahlequah was sending a message to humanity.

As Tahlequah grieved, a young female whale in her pod, J-50, was also in trouble. J-50 was having problems keeping up with her pod, especially falling back when swimming against strong currents. She appeared to be starving and sick, possibly close to death. The loss of another whale, particularly a female, to an endangered population with only 27 females of breeding age and another seven juvenile females, would be devastating.

Scientists from the University of Washington, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and others went out to try to determine J-50’s condition. Deborah Giles, a research scientist at the University of Washington’s Center for Conservation Biology, said that despite being almost four years old, J-50 was the size of a typical 1-year old whale. After collecting and analyzing breath samples and scat, the researchers decided to try to treat J-50 with an antibiotic and also a de-wormer to counter parasites.

In August, the NOAA and the Lummi Nation teamed up to try to feed J-50, releasing Chinook salmon in her path. It wasn’t clear if their efforts were successful. Hereditary Chief Bill James told the The Seattle Times the Lummi felt they couldn’t just let J-50 die.

“We are both fishing creatures; we both live for the salmon. And in our community, we come together when someone is hurting. We come together when someone needs help,” James said. “It is the same with the Salish Sea, and with the orcas. She is part of the web that connects us all … We each belong to the Salish Sea.”

As of August 20, the NOAA reports that J-50 was seen socializing with the rest of her pod and may be improving slightly, yet her condition is still very serious. Tahlequah, meanwhile, is no longer carrying her baby. The Center for Whale Research says she seems in good physical condition, and was seen vigorously chasing a school of salmon with her pod-mates. While this is slightly encouraging news, it doesn’t address the deeper extinction threat to the Southern Residents.

Threats to Orca Survival

In the 1960s and ’70s, 50 Southern Resident orcas were cruelly captured for aquarium and marine park displays. Historically around 140 individuals, the population was reduced to 71 by the year 1976.

At the same time, Chinook salmon numbers have plummeted and some runs have been eliminated entirely, and the orcas are suffering other threats caused by a human society that puts profit before all else. They’re being poisoned by toxic chemicals that accumulate in their blubber and are released when the whales are food stressed. Noise from vessels interferes with the fine-tuned echolocation the orcas use to locate prey. And now, escalating climate change is disrupting and killing off salmon and ocean life.

The orcas are also threatened by plans by the Canadian government to vastly increase oil tanker traffic through the Salish Sea. Importantly, a Canadian court recently ruled that the Canadian government did not properly assess the impact that the Trans Mountain Pipeline Expansion Project, a controversial fossil fuel pipeline extending across Canada to the Pacific Coast, could have on the survival of the endangered Southern Resident orcas, including the threat posed by a seven-fold increase in oil tanker ship traffic through whale habitat. The court also ruled that Indigenous people in British Columbia were not properly consulted before the project was approved. This represents a significant setback for the embattled pipeline project.

In 2005, as a result of a petition and then a suit filed by the Center for Biological Diversity, the Southern Resident orcas were listed under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) by the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), and 2,500 miles of critical habitat essential for protecting the whales was designated in the Salish Sea waters. But since the ESA protections were established, the orca population has continued to decline.

Catherine Kilduff, who is a senior attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity and works in the Center’s Oceans Program, told Truthout that whales are dying more often in the winter and early spring, when they’re dependent on salmon in Pacific coastal waters. Photographs show the whales in a more emaciated state at this time, indicating the need for more salmon and protecting the ability of orcas to forage successfully. In 2014, the Center filed a petition to expand critical habitat along the Pacific coast. Kilduff says this would require the federal government to consult experts about management rules to protect whales before permitting commercial and military activities, which can disrupt foraging.

Despite the NMFS agreeing in 2015 to expand critical habitat, the Trump administration has failed to implement protections for the whales. Instead, the administration is pushing for expanding drilling offshore, which could prove devastating for marine life, including orcas. So this August, the Center filed suit against the federal government to expand habitat protections their own agency agreed are needed. The Center’s lawsuit says better habitat protections would reduce “the principal threats” to the whales of “starvation, contamination from toxic pollution and harassment from noise and vessels.”

A 2017 study in the journal PLOS One found that the main factor limiting population growth and reproductive success among the Southern Residents was lack of proper nutrition, especially lack of Chinook salmon. Ken Balcomb documented that in the first decade of the Center for Whale Research’s orca survey, from 1976-1986, the interval for viable calf births for a female in the population was a little over one every five years. Now it is more than every nine years. Females are still getting pregnant, but at least two-thirds of pregnancies seem to result in miscarriages. And the calves that are born often die.

Restoring Wild Salmon and Removing the Snake River Dams

If the whales are to be saved, immediate large-scale efforts must be taken to increase salmon for the orcas to eat. While evidence shows the orcas depend on many different Chinook runs, especially important to restoring wild salmon are the historically massive runs in the Fraser River in British Columbia, and the Columbia River and its largest tributary, the Snake. Fraser River Chinook are depleted and in serious trouble.

Historically, the mighty Columbia River was host to 10 to 16 million wild salmon every year, with 4 million headed for the Snake River watershed. Wild spring-summer Chinook salmon returns in the Snake River alone were 2 million.

Rick Williams, fisheries ecologist at the College of Idaho, told Truthout that the number of salmon in the Columbia system today is only about 10 percent of historical levels, an about 85 percent are hatchery fish. So the wild fish numbers today are only about 1.5 percent of what existed before Europeans arrived. Williams said wild fish are much more genetically fit than fish produced by hatcheries, as they are “evolutionarily adapted to do well in the environments where they live.” Fisheries scientists measure that fitness with what they call the “Smolt to Adult Return Rate,” or SAR. Williams says Chinook SARs measured over the last 15 years in the Snake River are around 1 percent, meaning for every 100 smolts traveling to the ocean, 1 adult returns to spawn. This compares to historic SAR estimates of 8-15 percent for wild fish in the Pacific Rim.

Human activity has decimated the wild salmon throughout their range, including deforestation, overfishing and now climate change. In 2015, 475,000 mostly wild sockeye salmon passed the Bonneville Dam in the Columbia River headed for the Okanogan River system. The fish were coming back not due to hatcheries, but because of restoration measures enhancing oxygenation and flow in Osoyoos Lake where the fish spawn. But of these huge numbers of fish, only about 10,000 made it back. They were killed off by extremely warm waters they encountered in the Columbia River due to its lack of flow and the drought that year, fueled by climate change.

In the Columbia system, the building of hydroelectric dams has devastated the runs. Dams kill many juvenile fish in their journey to the ocean and are a significant barrier for adult fish to pass on their spawning runs. They vastly reduce flow, causing waters to warm. The Snake River has eight dams on it, which form a serious block to thousands of miles of prime spawning habitat upriver in Idaho.

Whale researchers, fisheries biologists and environmental groups are pushing for the removal of the lower four Snake River dams and restoring the river. This could help in increasing wild salmon runs, and in saving the orcas from extinction. Proponents of these dams argue they produce enough green energy to sustain Seattle for a year. But studies show these old, inefficient dams could be replaced by other forms of sustainable energy, and combined with conservation, would cost customers essentially the same they are currently paying.

Williams argues that other dam removals have shown the ability of fish to rebound faster than scientists often expect.

“The salmon evolved in a large Pacific Northwest landscape that was dominated by ice sheets and glaciers, so they’re readily adapted to move into newly opened habitat, even when that habitat is still in flux … and make a go of it,” Williams said.

Removing the Snake River dams would help orcas. Still, this would take some years, and more must be done immediately. The Wild Fish Conservancy in the US and the David Suzuki foundation in Canada have proposed a closure of Chinook salmon fishing and whale watching, at least short-term, as the best emergency, scientifically supported actions to save the orcas.

Clearly, the existing framework is not working in the interests of wild fish or orcas. For many decades, fisheries managers have tried to restore salmon runs by pumping out more hatchery fish through what amounts to an industrial production system, spending billions and repeatedly failing. Williams is a co-author of an important article titled, “Wild Pacific Salmon: a Threatened Legacy.” It details this history of failure, and faults a conceptual approach where salmon are privatized as a commodity, and technology—especially hatcheries—are seen as the solution. The result has been a continuing decline in the abundance of salmon, extinction of many populations and a deteriorating fitness of the salmon population as a whole, as the wild salmon are pushed to the brink.

What is needed, the article argues, is a completely different approach and methods flowing from it. This starts with “a new conceptual foundation that links the salmon to their habitat and key ecological processes, and includes recognition of the value of wild salmon as a public trust and a legacy for future generations.”

Williams and his co-authors advocate developing a salmon national park as an important step to protecting wild salmon and treating them as a public trust instead of as a commodity.

Saving the Southern Resident Orcas at a Time of Mass Extinction

Balcomb described how, when the fish were plentiful around the San Juan Islands in summer, the Southern Resident pods would come together in one super-pod “like big extended families coming to an annual picnic reunion … Everybody with food and reproduction on their mind, touching and rolling around each other … Now, you don’t see much of that.” Instead, the orcas are searching everywhere for food, using up more energy. Even their society is being devastated.

Orcas are in a crisis. Saving them requires emergency action. Many measures are needed: removing the Snake River dams, enhancing wild salmon habitat, expanding critical habitat for orca foraging, shutting down or curtailing commercial fishing, an emergency moratorium on all new fossil fuel tanker traffic, and other measures. Washington Gov. Jay Inslee has launched a task force to address orca survival, but the orcas can’t wait for more years of discussion and pledges.

The paradigm of making small, ineffective changes guided by “business as usual” and commodity relations must end if orcas and wild salmon are to survive and recover. This is a moment of widespread species extinction worldwide and impending climate catastrophe brought to us by a destructive, profit-driven system. We must mobilize people to resist, to bring forward change before it’s too late and we lose so much of the planet’s natural heritage.

Curtis Johnson is a research scientist and freelance writer who has reported on the Gulf oil spill, the Fukushima nuclear disaster, the extinction crisis and the climate crisis, as well as other environmental topics. Follow him on Twitter: @curtisjohnson70.


Summer of Environmental Disasters Driven by Capitalism

The environmental situation is getting worse and worse. This summer has been a full court press: heat waves/wildfires fueled by climate change; threats of  species extinction, such as that facing the magnificent Southern Resident orca whales in the Pacific Northwest due primarily to lack of chinook salmon;  killing algal growths, caused by pollution and disregard by officials in Florida. This system keeps demonstrating that it’s incapable of sustaining life. And Trump’s anti-scientific and criminal approach is taking all this to a catastrophic level.

The situation demands emergency action from people, all over the world, to transform the situation, and get rid of the systems of capitalism causing this escalating catastrophe. Here in the U.S., the immediate challenge lies in driving out Trump and his fascist regime, that are a concentration and pinnacle of this destructive system-and a criminal obstacle standing in the way of addressing climate change. Beyond this, the regime is an existential threat to humanity and the planet.

Given the spread of wildfires throughout the western U.S. and around the world, and monster heatwaves across the Northern hemisphere, I’m reposting below  an article I wrote about last summer’s fires, which are becoming more and more a yearly norm as the planet warms to dangerous levels.

In particular, I want to point to comments from Jennifer Francis below, and from Michael Mann in this piece, on how climate change is altering the jet stream and causing more persistent extreme weather events.


Our Summer of Fire and the Fires to Come

A helicopter prepares to drop water on a fire that threatens the Oakmont community along Highway 12 in Santa Rosa on October 13, 2017. Early morning mandatory evacuations happened on Adobe Canyon Road and Calistoga Rd. (Photo:Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)A

Helicopter prepares to drop water on a fire that threatened the Oakmont community along Highway 12 in Santa Rosa, California, on October 13, 2017. (Photo: Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

Explosive wildfires have raged in Northern California over the last two weeks. Forty-one people are dead, and at least 6,700 structures have been destroyed, making these the most destructive fires in the state’s history. Parts of the city of Santa Rosa have burned to the ground. Extremely hot and dry conditions, continuing impacts of the state’s drought, and high winds combined to create fires so fast-moving, many residents were forced to flee for their lives with only minutes notice. Tens of thousands have been forced to evacuate. In the last several days, better weather has been helping firefighters fight the blazes, though many are still continuing. Air quality in the region has been called the worst in recorded history due to wildfire smoke.

The fires in Northern California come after a summer of infernos and smoke spanning the West.

It began in Seattle on August 1, 2017. Coming out of work that day, I looked around to try to fathom why the entire atmosphere was thick with haze. Maybe the city’s smog had suddenly become abominably worse for unexplainable reasons? Looking around, I noticed it was smoke that lay everywhere. It filled my throat and lungs. The world seemed suddenly wrong, without sense.

These days, and especially this summer, living on Earth feels like existing in dread of the next environmental apocalypse. That day, it felt like it had arrived.

That night, I heard the news. Smoke from wildfires in British Columbia was blanketing the area.

For the next two weeks, it was hard to take a breath outside. The air was acrid, lung-burning. The blue, fresh summer skies Seattle is known for were extinguished. Being outside felt like walking in a stagnant, dead, smoky bubble. The sun and moon eerily appeared through a deep haze, orange or blood red. It was like living in an alternate universe. The smoke returned throughout August and early September.

The Seattle Times said that the region’s “natural air conditioning,” marine air blown by winds from the west, had broken down. Air quality levels in August plunged so severely, at times Seattle and Portland had air quality worse than Beijing. Elderly people, children and those with compromised respiratory systems were warned to avoid going outside. The general population was told to avoid strenuous outdoor exercise.

I was happy to get out of town on August 11 to head for the Oregon coast and hiking in the Redwoods in Northern California. I looked forward to being able to breathe fresh air again. But it became clear the smoke went way beyond Washington State. As we drove into Eugene, giant plumes of white smoke billowed out of the Willamette National Forest to the east. Further south, more clouds filled the sky from the North Umpqua complex fire. Driving down Highway 101, we came to Brookings on the Pacific coast at the southern tip of Oregon. Smoke choked the town. A fire up the Chetco River had just “blown up” and was spreading in all directions. A few days later, we heard that people were being evacuated immediately due to the fires’ rapid spread, in certain spots all the way down to the ocean.

Arriving in Redwood National Park, we were amazed to see the skies there clouded with smoke. In the late afternoon in the Tall Trees Redwood Grove, rays of sunlight angling through smoke and off the trees turned the grove a beautiful but surreal red. Coming home in late August, Oregon was smothered in smoke far thicker than it had been in Seattle, from the southern border almost to the northern. It was hard to imagine people having to try to live and function every day in this.

Summer of Heat and Western Fire

This summer, Seattle broke records for the driest in recorded history, the most consecutive days without rain — 55 — and also tied for the warmest summer on record.

Similar conditions were present throughout the West. High-pressure systems repeatedly set up and refused to budge along the north Pacific coast or slightly onshore, and blocked any developing weather systems from the west. After weeks without rain, forest brush and understory that had grown thick after an unusually wet winter withered and dried to a crisp. It was like jet fuel awaiting a match. It was only a matter of time until lightning strikes from dry storms, as well as humans, set things alight.

Scorched by record temperatures, British Columbia (BC) went up in flames in July. Fires raged all summer and 1.2 million hectares burned — the equivalent of 4,680 square miles — an area almost as large as the state of Connecticut. The area burned exceeded the yearly average of area burned in BC from 2006-16 by almost 10 times.

In Oregon this summer, a Rhode Island-sized area went up in flames. The Chetco Bar Fire scorched old-growth redwoods in a protected grove at the northern edge of the Redwoods range, severely burning 25 percent of the trees. Another major fire was one along the Columbia River Gorge in northeast Oregon. Started by fireworks on September 2, the fire was fanned by extreme heat and easterly winds. It exploded. Dozens of hikers were forced to hike for their lives to escape. Embers crossed the Columbia River and set off new fires in Washington.

In late August and September, offshore winds created by high pressure inland pulled in more smoke to the Seattle area, now from Washington’s own wildfires. Ash fell from the sky, reminding people of the volcanic explosions from Mt. St. Helens in 1980.

Health Impacts of Wildfire Smoke

The smoke didn’t just make life miserable at times this summer for the millions of people throughout the West; it was downright unhealthy.

Joshua Benditt, a pulmonologist with the University of Washington Medical Center in Seattle, said he was getting many calls from his patients with lung problems due to the wildfire smoke. Benditt said the poor quality of air from the smoke meant, “It’s very difficult for patients with asthma or Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD), and even some other kinds of lung diseases. It’s quite irritating to them and it can cause coughing and wheezing and actually even respiratory failure.”

Bonnie Henry, a deputy provincial health officer in BC, told the Vancouver Sun in August that emergency calls and hospital visits had increased 20 to 50 percent among people with respiratory and other health conditions.

In the inland regions closer to the fires, the air was worse than on the coast. Sarah Coefield, an air quality specialist with the Missoula City-County Health Department, described how desperate the situation was becoming for people in Seeley Lake, Montana where elderly, children and sick people were choking on smoke.

These types of conditions existed to varying degrees for weeks throughout the West. Air quality values ranged from “unhealthy for sensitive groups” to “very unhealthy” and worse. In early September in Spokane, Washington, air quality reached hazardous levels for several days.

satellite image from NASA on September 5 showed smoke being blown across the US by the jet stream. NASA said, “Smoke from wildfires can be very dangerous. A 2017 Georgia Tech study showed the smoke from wildfires spew methanol, benzene, ozone and other noxious chemicals into the atmosphere.” This study directly measured the amount of emissions from several Western wildfires of some of these potentially dangerous gases, as well as particulate matter pollution that is a mix of microscopic solids and liquid droplets. The study found that the particulate pollution from wildfires, already known to be a large source of particulate pollution in the West, was actually three times worse than previously thought.

A 2016 study, called a “Critical Review of Health Impacts of Wildfire Smoke Exposure” found that globally, the estimated premature mortality caused by wildfire smoke is 339,000 people yearly. High levels of particulate matter in the air from wildfire smoke have led to increases in deaths in Malaysia, Russia and Australia. The study drew a clear connection between wildfire smoke exposure and increased morbidity for people with asthma, COPD and general respiratory problems.

The Georgia Tech study cites other scientific studies that have linked particulate matter (PM) from wildfires to increased respiratory and cardiovascular diseases. While more research is required to fully resolve the whole picture of health impacts of PM in humans, the health impacts from fire smoke is clearly cause for real concern, when literally millions of people are living for weeks at a time in regions choked with wildfire smoke.

Climate Change and Increasing Forest Fires

Wildfires have been a natural occurrence in the history of forests over many, many millennia. In many ways, fires have played a crucial role in helping regulate and regenerate the health of the forest. Natural variation in weather patterns is one factor in creating conditions for wildfires. But what has been happening over the last several decades is far from normal.

Mike Flannigan, director of the Western Partnership for Wildland Fire Service at the University of Alberta, says the “evidence is becoming more and more overwhelming” of the link between climate change and increasing fires globally. The length of fire seasons worldwide increased by 19 percent from 1978 to 2013, due to longer periods of warm and dry weather in a quarter of the world’s forests. While the pattern is not uniform, various parts of the world are seeing clear changes over the last decades, according to Flannigan, including Alaska, Siberia, the boreal forests of Canada and elsewhere.

In the Western US, the length of the wildfire season has increased from five months long in the 1970s, to seven months today with 2015 being the worst wildfire season in the West on record as tracked by the National Interagency Fire Center, with over 10 million acres burned. As of October 15, the amount of land burned in 2017 would rank third highest. According to the EPA, of the 10 years with the largest acreage burned, nine have occurred since 2000.

In the Pacific Northwest as a whole, temperatures have risen 1.5°F since 1920. Extremely warm temperatures and drought mix with historically low amounts of winter snowpack to create conditions setting the table for fire.

The connection of climate change and a warming planet to increasing forest fires isn’t just confirmed by observational statistics. Scientific studies have started quantifying the contributions of a warmer planet to increasing fires. A 2016 study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences demonstrated that over half of the increases in “fuel aridity” (metrics that measure the degree of lack of moisture in fuels) since the 1970s, and a doubling of the amount of forest area burned since 1984 were due to human-caused climate change. A 2017 study in the same journal concluded global warming was responsible for increasing the severity and probability of the hottest monthly and daily events in 80 percent of the globe that they were able to study.

In a sense, the relationship isn’t rocket science, but it is basic science. Warming temperatures means warmer air, and warmer air holds more moisture, sucking it out of plants and trees making them drier and more likely to ignite and readily burn. When this happens over whole regions of millions of acres, these conditions predispose regions to burn more readily. When the warmth and dryness lasts for longer periods of time, the time when wildfires happen also lengthens.

There are other ways in which climate change is contributing to increasing fires in the West. Lightning strikes are increased by warmer temperatures. It’s estimated that for every degree Celsius of warming, strikes increase by about 12 percent.

Furthermore, bark beetle infestation of forests is spreading northward and to higher elevations throughout the West as the planet warms. As winters become warmer and spring comes earlier, conditions for beetle survival increases. Drought-induced stress severely weakens trees’ ability to fend off beetles. Beetles interfere with a tree’s nutrient delivery and this can kill trees, providing more raw fuel for fires. The beetle infestation has killed tens of millions of acres of forest in North America, and is the largest known insect infestation in North American history.

Human-caused activity is contributing in other ways to forest changes and fire increases.

Forest and other natural habitat continues to be eaten up by new housing and sprawl, driven by the inability of capitalism to restrict development and protect natural areas. Forest Service policy over many years has been to suppress fires, and this has contributed to a build-up of large amounts of fuel on public lands. As human habitation continues to encroach on forests, more fires are sparked. The US Forest Service is also increasingly pushed to try to fight fires to protect houses and towns, in some cases further adding to build-up of fuel. Many foresters are advocating that more scientific criteria be used to differentiate when and which fires should be fought, and which should be allowed to burn up accumulated fuel and return the forests to a more natural fire cycle.

The 2017 Fires and the Larger Picture of a Changing Climate

The smoke and fires this summer were a wake-up call about how quickly things can change in the natural environment and how large the stakes are. But is this devastating summer just the beginning of much worse things to come? And if this is the harbinger of the future, what will this mean for the health of humans and ecosystems?

This summer has been one of truly devastating “natural” disasters overall. Intriguing and important scientific debates emerged from this hurricane season, including over whether global warming was causing more extreme and long-lasting weather events, such as Hurricane Harvey’s stall over Houston that caused record rainfalls.

Jennifer Francis, a research professor at Rutgers University, has been studying the relation between the warming of the Arctic, the loss of sea ice and changes that are being observed in weather patterns in the Northern hemisphere, particularly at certain times of the year.

She has advanced a theory that the warming of the Arctic is causing the jet stream to wobble at certain times, creating big waves that draw warmer air up into the Arctic from the southern latitudes. Francis believes that with these big waves, which have been observed, the jet stream is also weakened in its flow from west to east. The jet stream then becomes more susceptible to any obstacles in its path — physical ones, such as mountain ranges, but also areas of warm temperature, for example. The weakened, wavy jet stream leads to weather patterns that are more persistent. The main cause of this phenomenon is the way in which global warming is occurring more rapidly in the Arctic, lessening the temperature difference between the Artic, and the mid-latitudes.

These phenomena are also further warming the Arctic and melting more sea ice via a number of feedback loops.

Truthout asked Francis via email if this Arctic warming may also be responsible for hot, dry weather patterns that have occurred more frequently in the West over the last several years in summer, contributing to such massive wildfires.

She replied, “There are several new papers that connect Arctic warming and sea-ice loss in the Pacific sector of the Arctic with a strengthened Pacific ridge in the jet stream (large northward bulge), but the mechanism is not simple.”

“It appears that there are two factors that need to happen simultaneously to create the strong, persistent ridge that has been so prevalent in recent years along the western coast of North America. One factor is the natural occurrence of a ridge in this location, owing usually to warmer-than-normal ocean temperatures along the west coast — e.g., a pattern known as a positive Pacific Decadal Oscillation. If there is also substantial ice loss/warming in the Pacific Arctic sector, that ridge tends to be strengthened, which makes it more persistent. This favors the conditions conducive to wild fires: dry and hot.”

This link is alluring, if not yet definitively proven. Truthout also spoke with Nick Bond, research meteorologist with the Joint Institute for the Study of the Atmosphere and Ocean at the University of Washington. He said that the weather pattern we saw on the west coast this summer with the persistent ridge of high pressure was very unusual, but, “There’s plenty of internal variability in the system — I’m kind of reluctant, one particular weird year, to ascribe too much to that, but on the other hand, this weather we’re having, is the kind of weather we expect to be more common in future decades … in the long term maybe this is something we better get used to.”

So, whether this summer’s pattern of persistent high-pressure ridges and abnormally hot, dry weather is already a result of climate change enhancing natural variation, or if it’s a harbinger of what’s to come, these are important things to watch. Regardless, it’s clear that the West, along with the planet, is warming overall, and that this is contributing to the conditions leading to larger wildfires right now. The impact of increasing wildfires on people’s health and ecosystems will keep rising, unless serious and emergency measures are taken to counter climate change and its effects.