The BC Wildfires and Smoke Choking the Northwest

A couple links and commentary featured here. The first link, on  situation in Seattle, puts its finger on how awful this has been. The air quality has been worse than Beijing. And as she says, it really “feels wrong”. The thing you love Seattle for in the summer, the generally clean air (at least outside the I5 corridor and downtown) , fresh feeling and natural beauty-has been choked off since Aug. 1st. You can’t really go outside for very long and any vigorous activities are not advised, if not downright unhealthy. I have heard, at least in one case, of an ER being full of people with respiratory problems. For those with these kinds of problems-the smoke is doing real harm. (I may write more on this coming up if I am able)

The bigger underlying point and question, is this the new normal? Wildfires have already  been increasing with global temperature rises (this year, worst ever in recorded history in  BC, two years ago-worst ever in Washington state, etc., etc.),  and are predicted to get much worse as climate change goes forward.

The Northwest today poses a smoggy, hazy, and disturbing picture of how quickly things can go from good to horrible. This should make people reflect on how this future of climate change and overall environmental degradation-and the refusal by the powers that be, and notably Trump, to do anything except make the situation worse-is completely untenable and illegitimate. And the consequences, needless to say, are and will be much worse for the majority of impoverished people all over the planet.

I’m posting for context,  a piece that I wrote in 2015- a previous, hot dry, wildfire-filled summer in the west:



Wildfires in the West and the Threat of Climate Change’s “New Normal”

Wildfires this summer have swept the west . Massive amounts of forest, brush and grasslands and hundreds of homes and buildings have been burned.  Tens of thousands of people have been evacuated from towns and rural areas in the fire zones, and whole towns evacuated.  All over the west people have had to abandon homes and at some times even escape through active burn zones.

Smoke has at times blanketed large parts of the west, including major cities like Seattle, Portland and Vancouver, and has been detected as far away as the Atlantic Ocean. Health alerts have been issued in various areas because of the smoke. People with health issues have been warned to stay inside at certain times and areas, depending on wind direction.

The fires have been ferocious and widespread. Fires have raged from Northern Mexico to Alaska, from Washington State east to Montana. As of Sept 3rd there were still 58 large fires (more than 100 acres in timber or 300 acres in grassland/rangelands) burning in 6 western U.S. states. Dozens of fires continue to burn in British Columbia. More than 5 million acres burned in Alaska  ( )  alone- where over 700 fires were burning at one time earlier in the summer. Washington State ( ) has seen its worst wildfires in recorded history, with the massive Okanogan complex fire now the largest in state history, surpassing the previous largest fire which was just last year.  This fire at one point covered more than 403 square miles, which “if it were a city, would be the 10th largest in the continental U.S. by area” according to NBC. Three firefighters were killed in this fire near Twisp Washington, when their vehicle crashed off an embankment and they were caught in the fire. Wildfires in Washington as a whole have burned an area larger than the state of Rhode Island.

This fire season is smashing all records.  8.4 million acres have burned. This is the largest acreage burned in any January-September period in history. It’s almost sure that by the end of the wildfire season- sometime this fall or early winter- the amount of land burned will easily surpass the previous record of 9.7million acres in 2006.

Causes of the Fires, the Changing Climate and Ecosystem Disruption

Forest fires have been a natural phenomenon for millions of years. But the extremity, frequency, and impact of what is going on now aren’t due just to natural causes, but also human activity. This year the west has been gripped by record-breaking hot temperatures and drought. In Seattle in June for example the average high temperature was 3 degrees Farenheit higher than the previous record highs. And the hot temperatures in the west are part of what has already been the warmest Jan-July in recorded history worldwide. A main cause of the increasingly hot temperatures this year, and the predominant cause of the trend of warming temperatures over the past couple decades, is human-induced global warming. Global warming is caused by the continual build-up of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere from the relentless burning of fossil fuels and other destructive practices of the system of capitalism-imperialism.

Record temperatures have interacted with a deep drought to cause tinder dry conditions in the west. California has been in extreme drought for 4 straight years. But now drought has enveloped the entire Pacific Northwest up to Alaska- and spread inland. This past winter saw snow-packs in the mountains way below normal, 16% of average in Washington and 5% in California. The summer has also been very dry, until August, when luckily there was some much-needed rainfall.

One apparent cause of the drought has been a blob of warm water that has stretched from California up to Alaska. Ocean temperatures in these waters have been 2 to 7 degrees F higher than normal.  The blob is connected to a very persistent ridge of high pressure that has repeatedly formed off the west coast. All the causes and features of this ridge and the blob are beyond what can be gone into here- but essentially this has caused storms being pushed to the north and warmer, dryer conditions in the west. The scientists who discovered the blob say it is a natural phenomena. Its full interactions with climate change are not totally understood yet. But the drought and warming temperatures in the west appear to be a combination of human caused climate change with these other natural phenomena. And the changes happening now are also an indication of what the future likely holds as climate change worsens.

The drought and warmer temperatures have caused huge and frightening disruptions in the ecosystem of the pacific coast. The lack of snow melting because of the very low snow pack has had many affects. Snowpack in the mountains allows a release of water into rivers, lakes, soils and forests even into the  summer months which are always drier than spring. So the melting snow normally allows things to stay somewhat more hydrated in summer. But not this year.

The lack of snow to melt this year has caused rivers to be extremely warm. Rivers warmed so much in July and early August that sockeye salmon trying to migrate upriver to spawn in the Columbia River were dying by the thousands. Fisheries officials predicted fully 80% of the over 500,000 sockeye running into the Columbia would die. This situation was spread up and down the coast, forcing shut downs of many fisheries. Luckily there has been some mitigating of the high temperatures with cooler temperatures and rain that has come in mid-August when other salmon began running.

A team of scientists who have studied glaciers in the North Cascades mountains in Washington for decades said this year as much of 5-10% of these glaciers melted this year alone, due to lack of insulating snow and record temperatures. They called the situation “disastrous”, and warned of a future when these beautiful and much needed glaciers may entirely melt away.

The warm waters along the coastal ocean have also caused a steep decline in nutrients in the water, causing starvation conditions for many species. This has led to the deaths of possibly tens of thousands of young sea lions in California and Oregon, and some sea birds. The warmer ocean has also been linked to a massive bloom of toxic algae, contaminating shellfish in large areas along the coast.

The coastal ecosystem has been shaken and disrupted. Many scientists are predicting that whether the current warm conditions in the eastern Pacific are naturally caused or not, they are a clear harbinger of what is to come with climate change. The great danger is that these changes may well represent a “new normal” that climate change is bringing.

Fires in the western forests and rangelands are a normal feature of these lands throughout history. And in many important ways fires can play a regenerating role, clearing away fuel and making room for new growth and diversity of species. Some trees even rely on fire in order to open up cones to spread new seeds. So in a general sense, fire is a needed and normal feature that can contribute to building healthy forests and lands. But what is being seen now are much more widespread fires that are beyond “normal”.

The National Wildlife Federation says when you look at the number of major wildfires and area burned in the Western U.S. from the period 1970-86 compared to 1986 to 2003,  the number of major wildfires has increased 4 fold, and the area of forest burned increased 6 fold. The fire season also lasts 78 days longer.  Nine out of the 10 worst fire seasons in history have occurred since the year 2000. So this increase in fires is clearly linked to the rising temperature, drying conditions, spreading infestation of pests like bark beetles, and more lightning being brought by climate change.

Another problem is the sprawl of new housing, cities and towns eating into natural areas driven by a system that sees the environment as a non-factor. This has led to fragmentation of forests and more susceptibility to fires being sparked.

 Climate Change Threatens the Northwest Temperate Rainforest

The rainforest on the Olympic peninsula in Washington is one of the richest remaining temperate rainforests on the planet. It’s a central part of Olympic national park which is nearly 1 million acres of preserved wilderness so rich in animal and plant life that it has been declared a world heritage site. The park is really a natural wonder, a place of immense beauty- huge conifer trees draped in moss and lichens, high mountains capped with snow and glaciers, alpine meadows filled with wildflowers in summer, stunning river valleys that are home to elk and bear and cascading rivers that provide habitat for many runs of salmon.

The rainforest here gets an average of about 200 inches of rain a year. But this year even the rainforest on the Olympic peninsula in Washington has caught on fire.  Because of low winter snowpack and an abnormally warm and dry spring and early summer, a fire was sparked in the Queets river valley rainforest that has burned all summer. The Queets valley is a place of indescribable richness. It’s magical- and now the upper regions are on fire. The fire up the Queets is the largest since Olympic national Park was established. Fire on this wet side of the Olympic mountains is exceedingly rare, happening only every several hundred years. But now predictions are that with climate change bringing higher temperatures, less snowfall and possibly more droughts in spring and summer, fire could become a more regular feature of the rainforest.

Climate change threatens the future of the Olympic rainforest as well as temperate rainforests up and down the west coast, particularly the magnificent redwoods Northern California.  A study by scientists from the Geos Institute in Feb. 2015 concluded, “International climate change and rainforest experts warned that without drastic and immediate cuts to greenhouse gas emissions and new forest protections, the world’s most expansive stretch of temperate rainforests from Alaska to the coast redwoods will experience irreparable losses.” This study also said that it is not too late to preserve these rainforest ecosystems-but what is needed are quick efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and protect vegetation.

The future is unwritten. Whether these wondrous lands, and the rest of our world and humanity is defended and protected, depends on what we do. And specifically whether we fight this system that is bringing immense destruction to the natural world, to save these lands and bring into being a new system through revolution that can protect the natural world.

Oppose Trump’s Threats of Nuclear War on North Korea

Trump has threatened  North Korea that any further “threats” to the U.S. would result in the U.S. unleashing “fire and fury” greater than “anything the world has ever seen”, on them. This threat from Trump is clearly evoking nuclear war, and was made on the anniversary of the nuclear devastation of Nagasaki by the U.S. and 3 days after the anniversary of the Hiroshima bombing. Now, Trump threatens destruction on a scale even worse than the dropping of those nuclear weapons which incinerated and killed by radiation poisoning, hundreds of thousands of people.

This is outrageous. It’s a very dangerous moment-a moment when it’s very important that people speak up and step out in broad numbers to oppose these threats,  and prevent this fascist regime and Trump, the fascist madman,  from escalating further.

See this article on “What everyone ‘knows’ about North Korea”- interview with professor Bruce Cumings.

Scott Pruitt’s Climate “Debates” Are Another Assault on Climate Research and the Scientific Method


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Superstorms are additional evidence of climate change. (Photo: Mike Trenchard)

On June 30, Climatewire reported that Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) head Scott Pruitt had launched a government initiative “to challenge mainstream climate science” using military inspired “red-team, blue-team debates” on climate change.

According to a senior administration official,

The administrator (Pruitt) believes that we will be able to recruit the best in the fields which study climate and will organize a specific process in which these individuals … provide back-and-forth critique of specific new reports on climate science

We are in fact very excited about this initiative…. Climate science, like other fields of science, is constantly changing. A new, fresh and transparent evaluation is something everyone should support doing.

Pruitt said he was moved to call for such debates after reading published articles by physicist Steve Koonin in the Wall Street Journal and climate change “skeptic” Brett Stephens in The New York Times, advocating more debate on climate. In an interview with Breitbart, Pruitt said, “The American people need to have that type of honest, open discussion, and it’s something we hope to provide as part of our leadership.” Pruitt told Reuters that it would be good to hold the debate on TV so it’s “open to the world” and that the American people “deserve it.”

Well, let’s assess Pruitt’s call for “open debate and discussion” on climate science. First of all, what’s the context, and what has Pruitt been doing? Already, Trump — with Pruitt’s help — has pulled the US out of the Paris climate accords, moved against the Clean Power Plan, proposed huge slashes to climate change research, let go of EPA science advisers and proposed eliminating positions and departments carrying on crucial research, etc. If Pruitt is so interested in open and honest debate, why has he been the front man for an assault on climate science and scientists, and an attempt to eliminate information garnered by climatologists from reaching people via government websites?

Pruitt has built his whole career on attacking environmental regulations as a toady for large fossil fuel interests, and has “questioned” human-caused climate change, saying he doesn’t believe carbon dioxide is a prime contributor to it. Now we are supposed to believe he and his science-gutted EPA should be trusted to host hard-hitting scientific debates revealing climate truths.

But two things need to be said.

First, there is no actual scientific debate over the existence of climate change and the fact that human activity is a primary driver of it.

Thousands of scientific studies have been done over decades and have documented not just that climate change is occurring, but how it is occurring, and why greenhouse gas buildup in the atmosphere as a result of human activity is a main cause. Mountains of evidence have been accumulated on how climate is changing — from temperature records and measurements, to glacial and polar ice melt changes, to the rise in sea level and increase in incidence of powerful storms. Much remains to be learned about many aspects of how climate change is unfolding and affecting various natural systems, the pace of it and how it will develop as things go forward. There is uncertainty and great scientific debate over many topics related to this, but there is no actual scientific debate over whether it’s occurring or whether human activity is largely the cause of it. On this, there is scientific consensus. As has been stated many times, 97 percent of actual climate scientists who study and have published on the matter agree human activity is causing global warming.

Trying to sponsor debate over something that mountains of evidence, multiple lines of inquiry, and established scientific consensus has already settled the question on, is not real scientific debate. It’s an attempt to introduce doubt about cause into a situation where the cause has already been established.

Imagine if at the time of the 1918 global flu pandemic, some doctors had come forward to argue against the germ theory of disease, and said, “Whether germs cause disease is uncertain. We think there should be a grand debate over whether germs are the cause of this pandemic, or whether it is ‘miasma’” (bad air arising from rotting organic matter, the disproved and previously dominant view). And therefore, they argued, maybe it wasn’t necessary to take measures to keep people from interacting in large crowds or schools where the disease was present, only to keep them from sniffing air around rotting organic piles.

It’s not hard to see fostering “debate” over scientific truths already proven by experiment and evidence to be true, is not only bad science, it can do great harm, as well as undermining the process of getting at the truth. This is certainly no less true about climate change — which is impacting the entire future of life on Earth — than the 1918 flu.

To take the analogy further, one might argue, too, that in Pruitt’s case, given his subservience for years to fossil fuel interests, it would be like if these miasma doctors not only were quacks, but also had ties with business interests peddling chambers to put over organic matter to contain the “bad air.”

Secondly, Pruitt’s debate call just hides ulterior political motive seeking the cover of science. The actual political motive here is not about hosting honest scientific debate, but further attacking climate research and the scientific method. Pruitt’s actual purpose is an attempt to sow more confusion about whether climate change is dangerous and human-caused, and whether anything should be done about it. It is part of laying further justification for the Trumpian assault on Paris and rules limiting fossil fuel emissions. It’s also part of trying to establish a greater legal framework for destruction of limits on fossil fuel expansions — such as Trump’s opening the way for exploitation of the Atlantic and Arctic Oceans, and a possible attack on the endangerment finding — an EPA ruling in 2009 that greenhouse gases are a pollutant and endanger public health, used under Obama to put certain modest limits on greenhouse emissions.

Even more, this initiative would try to undermine science’s peer-review process through which studies are examined and vetted by actual scientists with knowledge in the fields that are being researched. Pruitt would delegitimize the peer-review process in favor of a political process where the views of a few (frankly bone-headed climate deniers or “skeptics”) are made equivalent with the views of actual experts in climate — and subjected to a TV debate run by a fascist regime that is antithetical to protecting the environment, humans and science.

And as mentioned, this planned “debate” Pruitt hopes to sponsor is simultaneous and connected with real suppression by Trump’s government on climate research, as well as an attempt to gut environmental regulations of all kinds. Kind of like if the Inquisition had launched debates on an Earth-centric vs. heliocentric solar system to undermine Galileo, while sanctioning him for heresy.

There is a process here, too, that can get going with the Trump regime, where denying certain proven truths and attacking the scientific method and science on climate change opens the way for further absurdities and horrors.

The Pruitt “climate debate initiative” should be seen for what it is: an assault on truth and the scientific method. And it’s in sync with both an attempt to open up unparalleled plunder and assault on the natural world to expand gluttonous profit-making for big oil interests, and also to move to implementing a fascist shut-down of people’s ability to have a method to really learn about and understand reality.

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. His blog is

New Graph Shows, “We’re really in a very different Arctic”

See this article detailing that arctic sea ice right now is below the mean of ice extent for even the 2000’s, (not to mention previous decades), with 53 days to go before the minimum for the year will be reached. Another wake up call in a long series of them.


The Controversy Over “The Uninhabitable Earth”

David Wallace-Well’s article on the danger of runaway climate change, (here I post the annotated edition because it fleshes out more of the scientific evidence Wells based his story on), has apparently become the most read article in New York magazine’s history. I found the piece insightful. I thought it was mainly on-track in terms of laying out what  worst-case scenarios of climate change would look like, (from what  I understand at least),  if business as usual use of fossil fuels continues over the rest of the century.

Some climatologists and science journalists have criticized the article for being incorrect on some points of climate science, but mainly because it offers up a “doomsday scenario” that they think will do more harm than good when it comes to efforts to deal with climate change.

Michael Mann, for example- a climate scientist who has done very important work and also taken on climate denial very publicly, and faced threats and attack for it, (and who I respect a lot), said of the Wells article:

“”I have to say that I am not a fan of this sort of doomist framing…. It is important to be up front about the risks of unmitigated climate change, and I frequently criticize those who understate the risks. But there is also a danger in overstating the science in a way that presents the problem as unsolvable, and feeds a sense of doom, inevitability and hopelessness.”.

Read a fuller rebuttal by Mann here.

Mann points out scientific mistakes in the Wells piece related to the pace of methane release, what he calls a mischaracterization by Wells of a recent study updating satellite warming data sets, etc.

I’m not a climatologist. I take Mann at his word on the criticisms of the science. But to me his arguments, as well as those of others who I’ve read, are mainly not really refuting Wells scientific claims, as much as they are making a political argument that popularizing such extreme views of what could come to pass (Wells clearly says this could happen, not that it will happen), do more harm than good because they frighten people into inaction.

Other’s have commented well in mainly upholding the Wells piece and responding to these criticisms, for instance see this funny and provocative  piece on Vox by David Roberts, and this piece by Susan Mathews of Slate.

(I do also have to say as an aside,  that Wells, who interviewed dozens of climate scientists in laying the groundwork for writing his story and who’s arguments seem to flow from this science, vs. something else-also published his full interview with Mann here, which hews more closely I think,  to what Well’s is actually advancing in his article. Mann agrees in the interview, on the importance of considering nightmare scenarios that are possible, if unlikely, and what these might look like.)

I encourage everyone to read the pieces linked here, and others,  and jump into the controversy!

I can’t go into depth right now on all of this, but to comment in basic terms.  Either Wells piece is mainly representing scenarios that are possible based on the actual science of what we understand at this point, or it isn’t, first of all. And I think it is. If this is the case, a political argument that says the piece “isn’t helpful” in convincing people of the need for action on climate change is just that-a political argument. It shouldn’t be fuzzy that its criticism of the article is political mainly, and not on what is wrong with the piece scientifically.

Also, much of this political criticism comes from a certain view that itself I believe  fails to understand the political situation and depth of the problem we face in dealing fundamentally with the climate crisis.

The views behind some of these criticisms, I believe at least,  see the lack of action on climate change as largely coming from the right wing, denialists, skeptics and “authoritarian” types like Trump, combined with a lack of knowledge generally in society about science and climate change. And I believe they see much greater hope to deal with climate with the Obamas and Merkels of the world in power, as well as economic trends toward use of green energy in the world as it is, etc.

There are clearly real differences in strategy between the Obamas and Trumps, and I’m not arguing there is completely no difference between the two when it comes to combating climate change, or in terms of where things will end up for the planet. But I think the problem is not just climate denialism or Trumpism or even anti-science thinking. That is a huge problem we face, a very real threat right now that needs to be recognized and combated. In fact, Trump and Pence-the whole fascist cabal, needs to be driven out of power by us for many reasons, including because of the tremendous danger they represent to the planet’s environment.

But a deeper problem, and the basic source of  the fascist anti-science Trumpian nonsense itself, is the system of capitalism itself. Anyone who wants to argue against the fact that the leading mainstream figures over the last decades of western civilization and “democracy”, (including Al Gore and Bill Clinton),  have not brought us the climate and overall environmental crisis, has their head in the sand.

And more deeply, it’s not just a matter of what any of these leaders will personally want or not want to do, or what their “legacy” will compel their desires to do, but what the underlying dynamics of the capitalist system, driven by ruthless competition and ruled by profit-in command, will allow them to do. This is why despite Obama’s clear understanding that climate change is a great threat, he could only make goals to limit emissions in very modest amounts, and then these goals were not even met. This is also why the Paris accords don’t do nearly enough in taking the kinds of dramatic efforts needed to really save the planet. Even though it is completely monstrous that Trump pulled the U.S. out of these accords.

Again, I’m not arguing , “they’re all the same”. I am arguing, given the scope and pace of the climate crisis, (and adding to that, not just the climate crisis, but the overall environmental and biological crisis-including the advancing sixth extinction – or what a recent PNAS piece terms the “biological annihilation” taking place on earth-see next article on blog)-to base approaches on simply convincing this system and its representatives to do the right thing and save the planet, is complete folly. We actually need massive resistance by millions to force change, and in my thinking, a revolution and a new system that is not based on the competitive, expand or die drive that is inherent in capitalism.

So arguments criticizing Wells for “doomsday” thinking, I think are based on, and seriously misassess even what we are up against in truly dealing with the climate crisis, not to mention the overall environmental crisis. And beyond that, they don’t have a grasp that those in power will never, and fundamentally can never, deal with these crises from the viewpoint of the interests of all of humanity, and especially the poorest of humanity, who their whole rule rests on exploiting and oppressing.

This is the case even when there are real differences among them on how seriously to take climate change and what actions to take to combat it.

I can’t go further on this now, but those are some basic thoughts.


Important new scientific study on “biological annihilation via the on-going sixth mass extinction”

A new study in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) has come out authored by Gerardo Ceballos, Paul R. Erlich and Rodolfo Dirzo.

This is a really important piece of work investigating how the “sixth mass extinction” of species is proceeding and further raising the alarm about the great danger.

The study’s significance page says,

“The strong focus on species extinctions, a critical aspect of the contemporary pulse of biological extinction, leads to a common misimpression that Earth’s biota is not immediately threatened, just slowly entering an episode of major biodiversity loss. This view overlooks the current trends of population declines and extinctions. Using a sample of 27,600 terrestrial vertebrate species, and a more detailed analysis of 177 mammal species, we show the extremely high degree of population decay in vertebrates, even in common “species of low concern.” Dwindling population sizes and range shrinkages amount to a massive anthropogenic erosion of biodiversity and of the ecosystem services essential to civilization. This ‘biological annihilation’ underlines the seriousness for humanity of Earth’s ongoing sixth mass extinction event.”

Further, the abstract states, “humanity needs to address anthropogenic population extirpation and decimation immediately”.

The study has been somewhat, at least, controversial, with some saying it overstates the danger, (other right-wing and fascist forces just attacking its supposed “alarmism”)  but I think it makes a strong case that the danger is very real and lies not just in extinctions-(for example 200 species of vertebrates going extinct in last century)- but also the vast decline in numbers of individuals of species and populations of species, and their ranges, that is rapidly advancing today.

There is debate over the study’s “strong language” and especially its use of the term, “biological annihilation”. According to the UK Guardian’s popular piece on the study, Ceballos, who led the work told them, “The situation has become so bad it would not be ethical not to use strong language.”

Actually “biological annihilation” I think is quite accurate and entirely appropriate to describe what’s happening. This is a very worrisome wake-up call about the need to address this, as well as understand and move against the causes of this-which I view as a capitalist system and resulting world culture unable to control continual expansion and annihilation of nature.

It’s up to us to save the planet, its species and its people.



Fresh Air Interview with Paul Nicklen

Check out this riveting interview by Terry Gross on Fresh Air with nature photographer Paul Nicklen-on his amazing experiences with polar wildlife and commentary on polar ecosystems in peril. It very vividly brings home the stakes of climate change and habitat destruction, from a deeply personal angle.