Drought, plague, fire: the apocalypse feels nigh. Yet we have tools to stop it.
In climate change, the Four Horsemen have a perfect force of destruction. Maybe these fires and floods will be a wake-up call to stop stalling.
As the west coast burns into an orange hellscape you have to wonder if those preaching the end of time aren’t on to something. The people smart enough to make a cellphone have been warning that we have no more than a decade to tamp down the climate crisis. Other wise men and women think we don’t even have that much time. We should listen.
People have been preaching the end of time since the beginning of time. The whole story got laid down in the Book of Revelation. Being raised Catholic, we did not read the Bible that much and were casually advised by the nuns to not wade too deep in that chapter. Concentrate on Love Thy Neighbor because Ye Shall Not Know the Hour or Day.
I heard about pestilence and plague, drought and disaster, epic conflict between good and evil, something about an antichrist, and that this will lead us to make a choice.
So far, my choice has been to drive an electric car, and enthuse about wind turbines plugged into a smart grid that does not exist but could in five years. I have my eye out for the antichrist in the meantime.
Monsignor Ivis warned us in the 1960s that the good folks who fled the midwest would be coming back to lay in a few goats in South Dakota once California succumbed to fire and fell into the ocean. What was he reading back then?
Along about the 1980s a prophet named Dr James Hansen emerged from the Boyer River Valley near Denison to deliver a truth to the world from Nasa’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies at Columbia University: the climate is warming because of human activity, and it is time to reverse course. He was treated as a heretic for many years. But everything he saw has been realized.
His disciples divined through science and reported last spring that the south-west and Great Plains are entering a multi-decade drought worse than any recorded. Smoke is a foretaste of more to come, no doubt. So many fled for the Golden State from the likes of Iowa that it grew metropolises throbbing with heat and feeding the fire from sheer population and everything it brings – concrete, encroachment on old woodlands, air conditioners and cars.
The people flee small places like Paradise, California, for larger, nearby places. But then they burn, too. Millions are forced to make urgent choices – jump in the lake and wait for a helicopter that might not make it, or try to dash the fireline? When your home burns down twice, do you bet on a third time? Even when the fires die down, the shortage of water will persist, sparking yet more conflict over what remains of the Colorado River. North Dakota looks more attractive. Some say Duluth and Buffalo are the places to be in the near future.
Although not as apocalyptic, the drought is having an impact in western Iowa. Corn yields will be down. Nobody actually knows how much that derecho cost us, a strip of straight-wind destruction 50-70 miles wide that ripped across the state and into Indiana. And how do you assess the loss of an entire town like Hamburg, Iowa, to Missouri River flooding wrought by climate change in 2019? It should make us take pause and wonder.
You could stock up on canned goods and chainsaw oil and hunker down near the lakeshore. I think Msgr Ivis told us that God gave us a brain and we should use it. I know my mother did. I think that is the choice we’re asked to make.
We won’t get off so easy as moving the embassy to Jerusalem to bring about the Rapture, when I get to meet my great grandparents in Kilkenny – no doubt, the life of the party when the earth heaves. Instead, I like to believe that the Good Lord helps people like Dr Hansen figure out that the answers are at hand: more solar and wind power, adroit use of agriculture, the end of the internal combustion engine and fewer people screwing things up can help Earth heal itself. We just have to cut it some slack.
Whether you draw your clues from scripture or science, the writing is in the skies over the Golden Gate Bridge. The Four Horsemen are mounted, I suppose. Yet we can control the waves of locusts through integrated pest management, and resist drought by restoring wetlands and native grass, and defeat plagues through cooperative research. We can bring to heel the greenhouse gases that drive the fires and winds and droughts by coming together and using our heads.
Perhaps contemplating the end of it all from the smoke cloud over San Francisco will shock us into the actions that, in retrospect, will prove fairly easy and fortunate for everyone. These aren’t the end times, but you can see them from here unless we do something other than pray.
Art Cullen is editor of the Storm Lake Times in north-west Iowa, where he won the Pulitzer prize for editorial writing on agriculture and the environment. He is a Guardian US columnist and author of the book Storm Lake: Change, Resilience, and Hope in America’s Heartland
15 September 2020