Not enough of us have grasped what we are living with now – a new normal that is not normal – as California experiences the largest blackout in its history. PG&E is a convenient target for public scorn as 500,000 people had their electricity turned off because a massive utility dreaded live power lines tumbling in high winds and igniting cataclysmic wild fires more than it did having huge swaths of the north state go dark for days.
And as a result: In Placerville, everything was closed save for a few stores. Intersections lights throughout the foothills were out. Folsom stores were packed with shoppers from El Dorado County who had no place else to buy essentials. People were readily paying $400 to $700 for generators to turn their lights back on. And these details, mirrored in the San Francisco Bay Area, became grist for countless media stories about everyday life disrupted in ways big and small.
But do we fully understand what is amiss here? If your answer stops at PG&E then the answer is “no. “ We don’t get it.
Too many of us –myself included – have viewed climate change as a tomorrow problem. Or as a partisan argument.
But that’s where we’ve been wrong – terribly, frighteningly, mortally wrong. Climate change isn’t tomorrow. Climate change is now. This is it. We’re living it now. And if that sounds like stating the obvious, well, then it’s still worth repeating because not enough people believe the obvious.
What better metaphor for climate change can there be but California going dark because the weather is dry and the winds are high?
We’ll be consumed with blackouts to prevent wildfires until the rains come. So everyday life now means fearing October and high winds. Mid- to late-fall rains used to be a prelude to winter. Now they save us from destruction?
Fire and darkness
I drove to Paradise last year a week after the town was wiped out and was struck by scenes of people scattered and shaken.
The lucky ones were living in their cars while camped in Chico parking lots. The unlucky ones slept on shelter cots and were restricted by curfews enforced by battalions of cops and rangers. I saw desperate people arrested for trying to return to their property to see if they had anything left.
But then the rains came, the media went home, and life went on until the power was turned off.
These were not disconnected moments. They were part of a continuum, a new normal, a phrase we have used for drought, heat and fires. Now we use it for going dark, to prevent the fires that consume chunks of the state.
Don’t take my word for it: Earlier this year, the journal Earth’s Future laid it out: “Since the early 1970s, California’s annual wildfire extent increased five fold, punctuated by extremely large and destructive wildfires in 2017 and 2018....This trend was mainly due to an eight-fold increase in summertime forest‐fire area and was very likely driven by drying of fuels promoted by human‐induced warming.”
Just weeks ago, the federal government released similar findings that human-caused warming has led to increased wildfires: “Particularly by drying forests and making them more susceptible to burning.”
Winds of climate change
Now, I live in Sacramento, so therefore my lights have been on because we don’t get our electricity from PG&E. And, as a Sacramento resident, I’m surrounded by political takes centered on what will become of PG&E. It’s not that I don’t care, but that’s just part of the story.
We have a new normal in which our lives are disrupted by climate change. The science is irrefutable and the impacts are being felt by Californians today. They are sitting in darkened houses. They are stuck at intersections where the signal lights are off. They are paying through the nose for generators. They are frightened by high winds, praying for rain.
Wednesday was Yom Kippur, Day of Atonement for Jewish people. But really, it was a day of atonement – and reckoning – for all of us. Climate change is here, even if we still haven’t woken up to it.