COLUMN: The brutally clear climate math of 2020

There’s a joke about a new pastor who keeps repeating the same sermon, week after week. Finally, one of the church elders pulls him aside and says, “Pastor, that’s a great sermon, but how ‘bout we move on to a new one?”

The pastor digs in his heels, and replies, “When I feel like y’all have heard it, I will move on to something new.”

I am certain some readers are tired of me writing about climate change. Well, as the good pastor said, “when I feel like y’all have heard it …”

Unfortunately, Americans, particularly those enamored with our current president, have not heard, and steadfastly refuse to hear, any amount of scientific evidence warning of dire outcomes, even as those outcomes play out in real time, at the cost of real lives and livelihoods, before their eyes.

But, if you want to see climate change in action, you need look no further than California over the last week or so.

More than 650 wildfires have burned more than 1.6 million acres, claiming seven lives and damaging more than 2,200 structures, according to Cal Fire, as of Thursday. The fires are part of a conflagration of 93 large fires burning in western states, including California, Arizona, Oregon, Colorado and Alaska.

Is it new for western states, and California in particular, to suffer annual wildfires? Absolutely not. But those fires now are starting earlier, burning longer and causing significantly more damage.

According to California fire records, which go back to 1932, the state’s 10 largest fires have been since 2000 — one of those 10 was the 2018 Mendocino Complex Fire, the largest fire to date, and two are currently burning.

Why would the 10 largest fires in an 88-year period occur within the last 20 years, and why would three of the largest in history be in the last two years? Gosh, it’s impossible to know. It is what it is, I guess. Or, it would be, if scientists weren’t constantly using the good brains God gave them to tell us exactly why this is happening.

A study by Stanford University, published this April in Scientific American, found temperatures rose about 1.8 degrees Fahrenheit across California, while precipitation dropped 30%, since 1980. And, the five warmest years on record in the Golden State were in 2014 to 2018.

That seemingly miniscule increase in temperature “doubled the number of autumn days — when fire risk is highest — with extreme conditions for the ignition of wildfires,” according to the SA article.

What we see in California and across the west today is merely a taste of what’s ahead, if we do not make drastic changes.

These outcomes were painstakingly outlined in the 2018 National Climate Assessment. Within the next 80 years, we’ll experience chronic flooding in 670 U.S. communities, mass extinctions of wildlife, immense wildfire outbreaks and persistent drought where we grow our food (think summer 2011 in Oklahoma). These are the outcomes our nation’s best scientists see in our future.

Those outcomes don’t happen overnight, but the action — or inaction — we take now will decide how things play out for our children. And our time to make drastic changes — because the window for incremental change already has been frittered away — is running out.

In 2018, the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reported that to avert catastrophic outcomes, we must cut CO2 emissions by 45% by 2030.

Others say the window already is closing — or has closed. In 2017 Hans Joachim Schellnhuber, founder of the Potsdam Climate Institute said, “The climate math is brutally clear.”

“While the world can’t be healed within the next few years,” Schellnhuber said, “it may be fatally wounded by negligence until 2020.”

And, much to Herr Schellnhuber’s dismay, fatally negligent is exactly what we have been.

Our chances to turn this around have been squandered by a president who has reversed more than 80 environmental regulations, especially those dealing with fossil fuels; who has withdrawn our nation from the Paris climate agreement; who has suppressed, ignored, refuted and lied about science during a pandemic, countering with whackadoodle snake oil cures; and who this year killed a six-year study of flooding risks in our most at-risk cities due to climate change, in New York and New Jersey.

To borrow from Schellnhuber’s verbiage, the policy math is brutally clear in 2020.

We can continue to follow a willfully inept and negligent president who has dedicated the last four years to worsening the climate crisis. Or, we can elect a very imperfect, and to many, unlikeable, candidate, who will at least open the door to actions that might — if we act decisively — preserve this fragile blue orb for our children.

It is up to us, this year, to determine if our children will reap the fallout of our folly, or the benefits of us having decided to live up to this moment.

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Neal is health, military affairs and religion reporter and columnist for the Enid News & Eagle. Follow him on Twitter, @jamesnealwriter, and online at

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