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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

It is no longer possible to escape what we have done to ourselves

By Serge Schmemann

On the drive to our cottage here in June, my wife and I collided with the dense wall of Canadian wildfire smoke. The clear spring air began turning a sickly orange in the Adirondack Mountains, the sun was reduced to a red spot, and by the time we reached Montreal the skyline was barely visible from across the St. Lawrence River. On that day, June 25, Montreal had the worst air quality in the world.

Up at our lake, we soon learned to track the sheets of smoke online as they swept across Canada, down into the United States and even across the Atlantic Ocean. Some days we stayed indoors; like many others, we bought an air purifier.

We were not alone, of course. Millions have suffered this summer from scratchy throats, teary eyes and worse, and thousands have been forced to evacuate homes in endangered areas, especially in the Western provinces, where huge fires are still wreaking havoc. Only last week, wildfires approaching West Kelowna, a city in British Columbia, and Yellowknife, the capital of the Northwest Territories, forced evacuation of homes in both cities, and British Columbia declared a state of emergency.

On Lac Labelle, we were never in direct danger, but the acrid smoke and the unfamiliar drumbeat of crisis from the vast Canadian wilderness hit home. After decades of being told that we humans were knowingly, fundamentally and radically altering the climate of our planet, the eerie orange haze had invaded the zone in which my family had always thought we could take refuge.

This was not another report of melting ice caps, rising oceans, blistering heat or unusual tornadoes somewhere far away; this was a horizon-to-horizon pall over us, rising from infernos across the great Canadian north that had been ignited by record temperatures, record drought and ceaseless lightning storms. Nothing like it had ever happened before — these wildfires began far earlier and spread far faster than usual, and they have burned far more boreal forest than any fire in Canada’s modern history.

And as the summer unfolded, it became evident that it’s not just smoke, and not just Canada. This has been the summer from climate hell all across Earth, when it ceased being possible to escape or deny what we have done to our planet and ourselves. “Even I am surprised by this year,” said Michael Flannigan, a professor at Thompson Rivers University in Kamloops, British Columbia, who has been studying the interaction of fire and climate for over 35 years. “Temperatures are rising at the rate we thought they would, but the effects are more severe, more frequent, more critical. It’s crazy and getting crazier.”

The planet had its hottest week ever in July and, is entering “uncharted territory,” the World Meteorological Organization declared. Maui, the loveliest of Hawaii islands, was savaged by a wildfire that killed more than 100 people and destroyed the picturesque town of Lahaina. Floods battered New England; a reading of 101.1 degrees F. (the ideal temperature for a hot tub) was recorded in the waters of Manatee Bay in South Florida. China had its heaviest rains in 140 years; record wildfires devastated Greek islands, and the list goes on. None of it is normal.

And there will be consequences that we cannot yet imagine: If a forest burns too often, for example, trees cease being able to propagate and eventually give way to grasses, which could lead to a fundamental change of the Canadian north and its wildlife. In its latest report, the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change found that fire-inducing temperatures in southern Europe will increase by 14% if the planet heats by 2.5 degrees Celsius, toward which the Earth is headed.

One problem, suggested Nikita Lopoukhine, a neighbor on the lake, lifelong environmentalist and former director of Canada’s national parks, is that most people just don’t know what to do. People have always built their lives, homes and settlements on the presumption that the climate will forever remain largely stable. For decades they’ve been told this is no longer so, but even if they believed it, they found it hard to adapt their ways.

“Those of us who do the science have been shouting ‘1.5 or die’ for years, trying to warn people,” he said, referring to an increase in global temperature of 1.5 degrees Celsius that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change established several years ago as the limit the world should strive for. That target no longer seems possible, “but for most people it was always something that wasn’t happening to me, that they couldn’t do anything about.”

Might this cataclysmic summer be the turning point?

Here on the lake, things have quieted down, and the air is mostly clear. It’s still beautiful; the temperatures are mild; and the above-average rainfalls have painted the hills a deep green. Deer are growing fat on plentiful apples; chokecherries and mountain ash berries are plump and dark red; the chanterelles and saffron milk-cap mushroom are abundant.

In the news, other tensions and anxieties are again taking precedence over climate change — the war in Ukraine, indictments of a former president, tensions with China, a new COVID variant.

But it’s hard, very hard, to look out on the familiar lake and forests the way we used to, before the sun was reduced to a murky red dot in an orange sky and an orange pall descended on the children playing on the beach.

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