The photographs from the fire catastrophe in the smoke-choked western United States are eerie, scary, dramatic and familiar.
We have seen those hazy yellow, orange and red filters before, most recently in the disastrous Australian bushfires. Instead of Sydney with a burned backdrop, it's San Francisco.
Nearly 100 wildfires are burning across the US west coast and at least 31 people have died in California, Washington state and Oregon. Nevada and Colorado are also affected.
The smoke is a health hazard to millions and tens of thousands of people have had to be evacuated. The air quality index reading on Sunday in Salem, Oregon, was 512. The scale normally ends at 500.
Unusually, a high-pressure area has shifted strong winds from east to west.
Greg Jones, a climatologist at Linfield University in Oregon, told AP that while it is unclear if global warming caused the weather conditions, a heating world increases the likelihood of extreme events and contributes to their severity.
Speaking amid blackened stumps and on ash-coated ground in Oroville, California Governor Gavin Newsom warned: "This is a climate damn emergency … California, folks, is America fast-forward. What we're experiencing right here is coming to a community all across the US unless we get our act together on climate change."
Data suggests the frequency and intensity of extreme weather events have increased in recent years and so have the costs.
According to Our World in Data, the costs of global damage from natural disasters have risen markedly since 2004. That includes extreme weather and temperatures, drought, floods, landslides, wildfires, volcanic activity, and earthquakes.
In the 23 years between 1980 and 2003, in only two years - 1995 and 1999 - did costs exceed $100 billion in adjusted US dollars.
In the 14 years between 2004 and 2018 that has happened 10 times: 2004 ($136b); 2005 ($214b); 2008 ($190b); 2010 ($132b); 2011 ($364b); 2012 ($156b); 2013 ($119b); 2016 ($147b); 2017 ($144b) and 2018 ($107b).
"What can be done?" The California fires are now almost twice as destructive as those of 2018, which set records. The fire season is far from over. This is climate change, but climate action isn't enough to stop it. We must adapt, too. A thread (1/x). https://t.co/QzUaP2cOMe— David Wallace-Wells (@dwallacewells) September 12, 2020
According to NOAA, the US has had 273 weather and climate disasters from 1980 to 2019 where overall costs reached or exceeded $1b. The total cost exceeds $1.8 trillion.
In the 1980s there were 29 events with a total cost of $177b. In the 2010s there were 119 with a cost of $807b.
Existential anxiety is a growing phenomenon in 2020. Studies regularly point out negative human impacts on the planet and how worse it is going to get. Some regions could eventually become uninhabitable.
Last week the Institute for Economics and Peace think-tank predicted that population growth, insufficient food and water and natural disasters would mean more than a billion people faced being displaced by 2050.
And a report from the WWF and Zoological Society of London said global populations of mammals, birds, fish, amphibians, and reptiles had fallen by 68 per cent between 1970 and 2016. Two years ago, the estimate was 60 per cent.
The major question is not whether the climate and environments are worsening but whether there is any will to do much about the situation.
Cal Fire's graphic is already scary, but adding the years of occurrence helps to show the trend, which reveals how bad things truly are.— Robert Rohde (@RARohde) September 11, 2020
6 of the 20 largest fires are happening now.
9 of the 10 largest fires since 2012.
17 of the 20 largest fires since 2003. pic.twitter.com/iK6VQTjaq9
During the Australian bushfires, hundreds of thousands of animals perished. Images of injured and orphaned koalas went around the world.
And yet a plan to help protect the iconic marsupials and their habitat nearly brought down the New South Wales state government last week as one party in the coalition objected to guidelines on tree-clearing.
On the one hand, the idea of "koala wars" is funny. On the other, the idea that politicians cannot even step up to help koalas is a bad sign of the times.