A dystopian scene is unfolding across California. Charred car skeletons sit idle on the side of roads in the working-class town of Paradise, Calif. In one video, a camera pans to reveal what looks like an apocalyptic movie set — passing the remains of an abandoned school bus, begging us to ask what happened to those who were inside.
The wildfire ignited a week ago. It is still roaring across Northern California. The fire, known as the “Camp Fire,” is the most destructive in the state’s history, surpassing a record set only last year. With over 50 people confirmed dead and many still missing, it is the deadliest fire in modern American history. It’s also not alone. Two other fires are ravaging the opposite side of the state, burning through the dry hills of Southern California.
Fifteen of the 20 largest fires in California’s recorded history have occurred since 2000. This is not normal. This is not supposed to happen.
What we are experiencing is a strange new world, full of disasters driven and intensified by the realities of climate change. These fires, floods, and hurricanes — 1,000-year “natural” disasters — are turning into perennial events.
Denying the science of climate change is not just handy politics — it is deadly.
On Saturday, President Trump tweeted an utterly wrong and dangerous assessment of the fires, claiming that the fires were caused by forest mismanagement and threatening to revoke federal funding. This shortsighted response not only puts at risk millions of people whose lives are protected by that funding, but it also perpetuates the lie that the consuming fires we’re experiencing are the result of something other than climate change.
Here’s what we know about wildfires: They are a natural part of our ecosystem. The nature of post-wildfire ecosystems is poetic — regular blazes cultivate new life. The heat cracks dormant seeds and burned-down plants fertilize the soil, creating the perfect foundation for new growth. From the ashes, a new generation of life is resurrected.
Climate change, however, changes the ingredients for a healthy wildfire.
Here’s what we know about climate change and wildfires: The conditions created by climate change fuel wildfires in western states. The climate pollution in the atmosphere knocks the well-balanced ecology off its fulcrum. As the atmosphere warms, the frequency and intensity of heat waves increase. This creates droughts, like the unprecedented 358-week drought in California, which has a threefold effect: Hotter temperatures, dead plants, and drier air. With higher temperatures, desiccated plants, and no humidity, naturally-occurring fires burst into uncontainable blazes, moving with uncontrollable speed and intensity.
While climate change is not causing wildfires, it is transforming what should be natural, manageable fires into deadly disasters.
The falsehoods spread about climate change and wildfires do not only have scientific and political implications, but they also threaten our understanding of justice. With over 50,000 people displaced from California fires, many of whom with no home to return to, a mandatory evacuation has turned into a refugee crisis. Over 90 percent of the houses in Paradise have been destroyed. In a state with a severe lack of available and affordable housing, many people may be without homes for months. These people are among some of the first climate refugees in the U.S.; the first several thousand of an expected 13 million by the end of the century.
It is critical that, in the face of misnomers and lies, we as people of faith speak with a prophetic voice — naming the tragedies for what they are: climate disasters. These fires are not “natural disasters” or “acts of God.” Wildfires are not caused by forest mismanagement. This is human-caused climate change.
The disasters of climate change do not fall equally upon all creation. Our neighbors who experience the impacts of climate change are precisely those who did the least to contribute and who have the fewest resources to adapt. To bring God’s kingdom to earth in the Anthropocene requires a new vision of our world — economically, ecologically, and culturally. The most recent climate report by UN scientists states that to prevent catastrophic warming, we must make “far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society.”
As people of faith, our role is to envision and build a world of justice and peace. May we speak truth in the face of lies, naming climate disasters for what they are. As we labor toward a better future, let us not lose hope.