Will wildfire smoke be the moment climate change becomes real? – The Washington Post


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When I ask people about the moment climate change became real for them, the answer, often, is: a natural disaster.

For me, it was Sept. 9, 2020, when I woke up to a day without dawn. The sun never seemed to rise above choking smoke from hundreds of fires burning from Seattle to Mexico.

It’s one thing to live for decades with the scientific understanding of climate change. It’s another to look up at the sky at noon, as I did, and see only black smoke stretching across the horizon.

That’s when I really felt a knot of visceral fear.

This week, that moment came for millions of people living on the East Coast. On Wednesday, I began to get calls and texts from friends and family experiencing the same fear and worry I did that day in 2020.

“It’s a cloudless day here in New York,” my father-in-law said on the phone as he walked under a blanket of wildfire smoke blotting out the sky, “and I can’t see the sun.”

No one can predict exactly when extreme weather and natural disasters will strike. But in many ways, this will become the new normal.

We know many places on Earth will burn hotter and more ferociously than they have during any living person’s lifetime. Growing up, our children will have to be reminded that their world is different from the one we knew. The snow once fell each winter, we’ll say, and stuck around. The floods weren’t so frequent. It never burned like this.

On the West Coast, we’ve been living this reality for years. The West remains trapped in a 23-year “megadrought,” the region’s most extreme in nearly two millennia. Nearly half of the forest area burned between 1986 and 2021 in the western United States and southwestern Canada is attributable to emissions from major fossil fuel producers and cement manufacturers, according to researchers in the journal Environmental Research Letters.

Even after this year’s miraculous wet winter, climate models predict brutal fire seasons for decades to come.

Like many of us in the West, you may soon find you need to keep air filters, masks and contingency plans around for when the smoke returns. You’ll know ER visits will spike. You’ll see thousands of people die as fine particles from wildfire smoke work their way from the lungs into the bloodstream, causing heart attacks, strokes and asthma.

It has been a scene repeated in Australia, Europe and China. And now, D.C.

There is a hotly debated link between extreme weather and climate action. Does personal experience with climate disasters alter people’s attitudes? We’re about to find out.

What’s your moment? Write me at climatecoach@washpost.com.


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