On Wednesday morning, R.L. Miller woke up and went to Starbucks, where she and her neighbors stared at a bright orange sky and wondered whether it was safe to breathe. Usually, the Southern California native spends her days advocating for climate action as the president of Climate Hawks Vote, a grassroots super PAC. But on Wednesday, as catastrophic wildfires roared about 20 miles away from her home in Ventura County, she was a potential victim of climate change, too. “I’m scared,” she said, adding that one of the blazes north of her was moving south. “This is real.”
There have been many victims of the ongoing wildfires in Southern California, the largest of which is the Thomas Fire, a 101-square-mile monster blaze north of Los Angeles. The L.A. Times reports that the fire jumped the 101 freeway and was stopped only by the Pacific Ocean, along the way burning 50,500 acres, destroying 150 structures, and forcing 27,000 people to evacuate. Californians are used to wildfires, but Miller says these ones are unseasonable. “We usually get crazy wildfires in October, and then the first rains come in November, and ground stays wet and more rains come, and there’s no wildfire threat,” she said. “It’s early December .... This is happening because there is no more winter rain. There’s not enough winter rain, ever.”
Climate science backs up Miller’s observation. The state’s wildfire seasons are lasting longer and burning stronger due to human-caused climate change, as rising temperatures make vegetation drier and causes states like California to whip between very dry and very wet seasons. These current fires are so bad because of a mixture of dry foliage and low humidity, but also because of hot, dry winds blowing up to 70 miles per hour. This seasonal high wind, known as the Santa Ana winds, is not unusual for this time of year, climate scientist Daniel Swain told the Verge. But some scientists believe climate change “may be making these strong winds drier,” according to the New York Times.
These observations are nothing new to most Californians, who have known for a while that many of global climate change’s worst impacts affect their state. The news keeps getting worse: Just this week, a new study in the journal Nature Communications found that a persistent atmospheric high-pressure ridge in the Pacific Ocean could occur more often with climate change, causing more frequent and more dangerous droughts in the state. Jennifer Francis, a research professor at Rutgers University’s Institute of Marine and Coastal Sciences, told me this has implications for the Santa Ana winds as well. “The [high-pressure ridge] not only causes hot, dry weather in CA, but also tends to create offshore winds—known as Santa Ana winds—that often fan wildfires,” she said.
These fearsome trends are precisely why California is the most aggressive state on climate policy in the country. State Governor Jerry Brown led the coalition of U.S. states who went to France this year to tell the world that they would meet the terms of the Paris agreement to fight climate change, despite President Donald Trump’s pledge to pull the country out. The state has the toughest fuel-economy standards in the nation, and some of the toughest emissions regulations on the fossil fuel industry. The state government even has a Climate Action Team that works to coordinate various emissions reductions programs across the state.
California is uniquely aggressive in fighting climate change, but it’s not uniquely a victim. Eventually everywhere in the United States, not just the coastal regions, will suffer from severe climate impacts. Climate scientists have documented how global warming stands will hit the rest of America, whether it be through more extreme precipitation in the northeast or crop failure in the heartland. But reality has shown it to us, too. Hurricane Harvey brought Houston, Texas, its worst rainfall and flooding in recorded history. The risks of sea-level rise in Florida was made more apparent by Hurricane Irma, which flooded city streets and destroyed sea-walls. In Oklahoma, the temperature reached 100 degrees in the dead of winter.
This year’s mind-boggling extreme weather has shown us that climate change will leave few Americans untouched. And yet, so many states refuse to do much about it. That angers climate scientist Michael Mann, director of the Earth System Science Center at Pennsylvania State University. “The other states—Florida, Texas, Oklahoma—are under the control of climate change-denying politicians who continue to bury their head in the sand about climate change as they do the bidding of the fossil fuel interests who fund them, with the people they are supposed to be representing paying the cost in the form of devastating climate change-aggravated damage,” he said.
But for some, even California’s actions haven’t been enough. Miller, of Climate Hawks Vote, is one of climate crusader Jerry Brown’s strongest critics, urging him to stop the controversial practice of fracking in the state and to end his friendly relationship with the state’s oil industry. Now, the wildfire threat to her friends and family has upped the ante. “I am more determined than ever to fight and to speak out,” she said. “Never giving up, never backing down.”