Leaving Yosemite National Park and traveling west along California State Route 140, you’ll wind down out of the Sierras, into the rolling foothills, and eventually cross the table-flat Central Valley. If you were driving that route on August 12, as I was, you would have been stopped in traffic Merced River by a fairly dramatic operation.
Buzzing above my family and me in our rental car, helicopters were ferrying workers and concrete to pour the foundations for new power transmission lines hundreds of feet up the eastern mountainside. Pacific Gas & Electric, the utility in the area, has 18,466 miles of transmission lines from Eureka to Bakersfield. Much of that network is like this: remote, embedded in challenging terrain, at risk from extreme weather, and a fire risk in its own right. Most importantly, this network—and so many others—are in need of a massive rebuilding and scaling to confront today’s climate.
I say “today’s climate” because after my two-week vacation in hot, dry, environmentally stressed California, “climate change” no longer seems appropriate. Whether we move to arrest future changes or merely adapt to them as they arrive, we already live in a climate that’s changed.
For instance: The 1991-2020 average August temperature in Yosemite Valley is a warm-but-manageable 89º Fahrenheit (jokes about dry heat aside, it is indeed very low in humidity). During my family’s visit, the high peaked above 106ºF. At no point in the first three weeks of August did daytime temperatures fail to exceed the average.
Much of Yosemite is forest, as indeed is much of Northern California. Forests, no matter how established and resilient they might be, do not fare well in this sort of heat. Nor do they fare well with low precipitation. By the end of what was supposed to be the 2021 wet season, the Sierra snowpack was still 41% below average. The result is as predictable as it is terrifying: fires.
While we were in Yosemite, the Dixie Fire was raging several hundred miles to the north. On the day we left Yosemite, it had spread across 515,000 acres of forest. As I write, Dixie has now consumed more than 735,000 acres, an affected area nearly the size of the park—and it’s only 45% contained.
Fires have seasons, and California’s fire season has been starting earlier (in June) and running longer (through November) than in years past. Last year, more than 4 million acres burned in the state. We’re not yet in the heart of this year’s fire season, but more than 1.5 million acres have burned so far, meaning that 2021 is already the second-worst fire season this millennium.
Things that burn emit carbon dioxide. In 2020, California wildfire emissions exceeded 100 million tons. Given that emissions are highly correlated with area burned, if this year’s is already the second-worst fire season, it’s likely no stretch to assume that it’s the second-highest CO?-emitting fire season, as well.
Drought and heat feed those fires, but they impact California in other ways, too. Shortly before my visit, the Department of Water Resources took the Hyatt Power Plant offline for the first time ever due to falling water levels at Lake Oroville. It was only four years ago that the Oroville Dam nearly failed because of excessively high water levels, when California’s snowpack was 180% of its average for the year.
My family and I saw and pondered drought, fires, memories of floods, and thoughts of what more a changing climate might cause throughout our trip. This, too, is a glimpse of the future, as more frequent, more extreme extreme weather forces us into climatological hyper-awareness. What’s the temperature? How dry is it? What’s the air quality? How far away is the nearest big fire? Which way is the wind blowing?
Of course, planning around a changing climate requires looking beyond next week. Doing something about it requires even more, involving some quick wins but also heavy lifts—the equivalent, at trillion-times scale, of helicopters flying workers and concrete up a remote and bone-dry mountain to build low- and zero-carbon infrastructure.
Finally, it requires learning from places that are already doing the work to change the future, as hard and challenging as that work is today. California is one of those places. The state is planning for zero-emissions power and transport. It’s a laboratory for the world, on the leading edge of what it means to live in our changed climate, but also the thin end of the wedge of what we can do about that change.
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