The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The world is burning and drowning. We have to vote for the planet’s future.

President Trump listens as California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) speaks during a briefing in McClellan Park, Calif., on Monday. (Andrew Harnik/AP)

The sky over the San Francisco Bay area glowed red-orange last week, as though the region had been transplanted to Mars. People along much of the West Coast sheltered indoors because the air was filled with smoke from unprecedented, hellish wildfires that so far have claimed dozens of lives. More than 10 percent of all Oregon residents were told to evacuate their homes, and the state's chief emergency management planner warned of a possible "mass fatality incident."

Fire wasn't the only element turning against us. For only the second time on record, five tropical cyclones are swirling in the Atlantic Ocean at the same time — including Hurricane Sally, which is gathering strength in the Gulf of Mexico and aiming at vulnerable New Orleans and Mississippi. 

These catastrophes horribly illustrate the stakes in the coming election: at risk is the future of our beautiful, fragile planet. The choice facing voters who care about that future could not be more stark. Democratic nominee Joe Biden accepts the scientific consensus about climate change and wants the United States to lead the world in a transition to clean energy. President Trump has called climate change a "hoax" and encouraged greater production and burning of "beautiful, clean coal."

All of these "natural" disasters were foreseen decades ago by scientists who warned of the unnatural consequences of releasing massive quantities of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. They told us the West would become warmer, drier and more susceptible to fire. They told us that tropical storms would become less predictable and more frequent, and that rising sea levels would put coastal cities at greater risk. And they told us that if we don't take coordinated global action to limit carbon emissions, these life-threatening impacts will get much, much worse.

Despite this reality, one of Trump's most consequential acts as president was to withdraw from the landmark Paris agreement committing all the nations of the world to limit global warming to a manageable level. It was a horrendous decision, given how little time we have to act, and how much damage we have to contend with.

Are you a resident of California, Oregon or another state afflicted by wildfires? Tell us how the fires have affected you.

Since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, humans have boosted the concentration of heat-trapping carbon dioxide in the atmosphere by an incredible 47 percent. Even if countries around the world rapidly reduced their emissions, we would still have to deal with the consequences of the carbon we have already spewed — and the warming that is already taking place.

Heavily populated areas along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts need to be fortified against storm surges at levels once thought unimaginable. Some cities — such as Phoenix, which just recorded its hottest summer ever — will have to prepare to cope with deadly heat; other areas will have to deal with much more rain than they're used to having, or perhaps much less. California, Oregon and Washington may have to rethink their approaches to forest management.

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One of the most tragic impacts of the Trump presidency has been to undermine trust in science, and thus in the best tools we have to fight the warming of our world; witness the thousands of people who attended his indoor campaign rally in Nevada on Sunday without wearing masks. Trump has given his supporters permission to believe wild, paranoid, completely untrue rumors about the West Coast fires — including that some of the Oregon blazes were deliberately started by members of antifa. Inventing scapegoats is always much easier than accepting responsibility.

Trump made a quick stop in California on Monday, and Wade Crowfoot, the state's secretary for natural resources, told him about the record-high temperatures the state has seen this year. "It'll start getting cooler, you just watch," Trump said. When Crowfoot said he wished the science agreed with Trump's prediction, the president said with a smirk, "Okay, well, I don't think science knows, actually."

Trump also has a dangerous tendency to forfeit American leadership. China is now by far the biggest emitter of carbon dioxide, with the United States an increasingly distant second. Pulling the United States out of efforts to fight climate change eliminates another point of distinction between it and one of its chief geopolitical rivals — and denies the world a champion for the idea that you can have an economy that is both vibrant and clean.

America, and the world, desperately need a president of the United States who fully acknowledges the crisis and chooses to address it. A vote for Trump is a vote for ignorance and environmental ruin. A vote for Biden, who has pledged to rejoin the Paris agreement immediately if he is elected, is a vote for Planet Earth.

I understand it is difficult to focus on a slow-moving crisis such as climate change with so many immediate crises — the covid-19 pandemic, the economic meltdown, the protests over systemic racism — dominating the headlines and buffeting our lives. But the urgent cannot be allowed to obscure the existential. Our sky is not supposed to look Martian. Hurricanes and tropical storms are supposed to come one or two at a time, not in platoons. Climate change is not some future threat. It is here right now — and steadily getting worse.

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