A while ago I wrote the following on Reddit:
I used to think people would “figure it out” when they see the effect. But what happens in reality is that as the effects get worse, the pain from admitting you were wrong becomes greater, as the implications become more clear. Most people will go into their graves denying it. We’ll see endless theories about elites using HAARP, climate activists starting forest fires, wind turbines changing the weather and killing the birds, etc.
And I want to revisit this, considering the United States has now had its highest death toll from forest fire in over a century. The official death toll in Maui stands at 114 right now, but it seems likely hundreds more have perished.
The immediate gut instinct of low status white males is to blame their favorite pet peeves: Diversity, corruption, bureaucracy, laziness, incompetence. And I’m sure corruption and incompetence play a role. But in this sense, the whole thing is similar to COVID. Yes, this virus mostly kills the elderly. But the dice are now loaded. It’s like your lungs are playing against a DM who now rerolls his dice whenever he has a bad roll.
COVID kills people who are already sickly. But the problem is, that it turns healthy people into sickly people. And similarly, climate change first tends to kill in places that are already fragile. But the problem is, that it also makes places fragile.
The general pattern you see with most big disasters that happen to people is that there is a chronically escalating problem and then direct factors that reveal the chronically escalating problem. Some people are eager to look at the direct factors that triggered the acute crisis, others are more eager to address the chronically escalating problems simmering underneath.
Imagine your grandmother falls on a crooked pavement and breaks her hip. You can blame the city for not properly maintaining the pavement. But the underlying chronically escalating problem is that your grandmother’s bones are thinning due to old age. And had the city fixed its pavement, the underlying problem would have revealed itself in a different time and place.
You can actually see this illustrated in Maui. The most direct factor would be the warning sirens that did not work. Had the warning sirens worked, we may have treated the Maui disaster the way we treat the ongoing fires in Canada that require tens of thousands to evacuate: As just another climate-change fueled background disaster in our lives.
But before the massive fires killed hundreds of people, Maui was already dealing with the consequences of the changing climate. The fires could spread so rapidly, because of invasive grass. This invasive grass could take over the island, because people abandoned their agricultural fields.
Maui was once home to food forests, before colonization. With many different edible plants growing together, you prevent soil erosion and maintain moisture in the soil and vegetation. The problem with food forests is that they require a lot of human physical labor to harvest the crops. They are incompatible with the logic of capitalism.
Once the island was taken over by colonizers, they replaced the food forests with cattle ranches and monocultures. These methods of food production then erode and degrade the soil on a volcanic island with steep hills. So eventually, you have to abandon the land, as the harvests will fall short.
With the land abandoned, the invasive grasses can then take over. These grasses are optimized for modern climatic conditions: They are able to use brief moments of extreme rainfall for rapid growth and know how to survive through periods of severe drought. That’s the globally emerging pattern: Rain continues to fall, but when it falls, it now falls all at once. And these invasive grasses love that.
Unfortunately, the native vegetation of the Hawaiian islands doesn’t. The grasses spread fire to the remaining native forests, which perish in the fires. Then the grasses take over those once forested lands. These fires that the grasses cause, allow them to take over the entire landscape. The result is this:
The fire in Maui did not emerge from nothing. It’s part of a pattern seen across the Hawaiian islands, of increasingly large burned areas. Africa has areas like that too, of wild grasslands that just have regular fires. These fires are becoming less common now in Africa, as the land is increasingly used for agriculture. But as these grasses spread to other places, where they now have an advantage because of changing rainfall patterns, they bring those fires with them.
As a result of these problems, we’re seeing large fires emerge in ecosystems that are not used to them, like the Canadian boreal forests and the islands of Hawaii. The Canadian forest fires in particular are a huge problem, because the trees serve to protect the peat underneath from drying out. Once Canada loses its trees, the peat beneath will become vulnerable to fire too. We have only just seen the start of the nightmare.
When a peat fire burns, you can’t really extinguish it. These fires can burn for months underground, meaning that people will have to leave their homes and can’t return for months, because the air will just be too dangerous to breathe in. And of course, they release massive amounts of greenhouse gasses.
Canada has 384 billion ton of carbon stored in its peatlands and other soils. Humans have released 425 billion ton of carbon through fossil fuels up to 2017. In other words, natural ecosystems have plenty of carbon stored, that they can start releasing once humans run out of fossil fuels to burn. And worst of all, it won’t necessarily be released as CO2. A lot of this carbon will be released as black carbon, which sticks to snow and absorbs sunlight, leading to 1000 times as much global warming per unit of mass as CO2.
Considering it takes thousands of years for peat to accumulate, there won’t be some other part of the world that will compensate these natural emissions for us once the peat starts burning. This is the sort of stuff the climate models by economists like Nordhaus never take into consideration: Positive feedback.
Any proper consideration of positive feedback turns climate change from an economic problem to throw into a model, into a civilization ending event. It also reveals the absurdity of the 2 degree target Nordhaus came up with that began to dictate global climate policy, which is not based on an understanding of the climate system, but based on conservative assumptions from economic models. By the time policymakers realized the danger they moved to a new target of 1.5 degree, but by then it was already too late.
To stabilize the climate system, it won’t be enough to stay below 1.5 degree Celsius. You can already see in Canada today, that at current temperatures severe droughts emerge that cause natural ecosystems to collapse that contain vast amounts of carbon. Stabilizing the climate system and preserving the Holocene conditions that enabled civilization would require reducing atmospheric CO2 to at most 350 parts per million, perhaps even less.
But thanks to Nordhaus and his ilk, this is what we were left with: