Hurricane Harvey, Hurricane Irma, flash fires, droughts: all of them tell us one thing we need to stand up to the fossil fuel the enterprises and fast, says Bill McKibben, a novelist and the founder of the climate campaign 350. org

For the sake of maintaining things manageable, let’s restrict the discussion to a single continent and a single week: Northern america over the last seven days.

In Houston they got down to the hard and unromantic work of recovery from what economists announced was likely the most expensive storm in US history, and which weather analysts supported was surely the greatest rainfall event ever measured in the two countries- across much of its spread it was a once-in-2 5,000 -years cyclone, entailing 12 times past the birth of Christ; in isolated spots it was a once-in-5 00,000 -years storm, which means back when we lived in trees. Meanwhile, San Francisco not only beat its all-time high temperature record, it crushed it by 3F, which should be pretty much statistically impossible in a place with 150 years( that’s 55,000 periods) of record-keeping.

That same hot weather broke records up and down the west coast, except in those the locations where a pall of smoke from immense forest flames maintained the sunshine shaded- after a forest flame somehow managed to jump-start the mighty Columbia river from Oregon into Washington, residents of the Pacific Northwest reported that the ash was falling so thickly from the skies that it reminded them of the day Mount St Helens erupted in 1980.

That same heat, simply a little farther inland, was making a” flash drought” across the country’s wheat belt of North Dakota and Montana- the evaporation from record temperatures had withered grain on the stalk to the point where some farmers weren’t bothering to harvest at all. In the Atlantic, of course, Irma was barrelling across the islands of the Caribbean (” It’s like someone with a lawnmower from the sky has gone over small island developing ,” said one astounded occupant of St Maarten ). The storm, the first category five to reach Cuba in a hundred years, is currently battering the west coast of Floridaafter defining a record for the lowest barometric pressure ever measured in the Keys, and could easily break the 10 -day-old record for economic calamity to be prepared by Harvey; it’s definitely changed the psychology of life in Florida for decades to come.

Oh, and while Irma spun, Hurricane Jose followed in its aftermath as a major hurricane, while in the Gulf of Mexico, Katia spun up into a frightening storm of her own, before crashing into the Mexican mainland almost directly across the peninsula from the place where the strongest earthquake in 100 years had taken dozens of lives.

Leaving aside the earthquake, every one of these events jibes with what scientists and environmentalists have invested 30 fruitless times telling us to expect from global warming.( There’s actually reasonably persuading evidence that climate change is triggering more seismic activity, but there’s no need to egg the dessert .)

That one long screed of news from one continent in one week( which could be written about many other continents and many other weeks- just check out the recent flooding in south Asia for instance) is a precise, pixelated portrait of a heating world. Because “were having” burned so much oil and gas and coal, we have set huge cloud of CO 2 and methane in the air; because the structure of those molecules traps heat countries around the world has warmed; because the planet has warmed we can get heavier rainfalls, stronger gales, drier forests and fields. It’s not mysterious , not in any way. It’s not a running of bad luck. It’s not Donald Trump( though he’s obviously not helping ). It’s not hellfire sent to punish us. It’s physics.

Maybe it was too much to expect that scientists’ admonishings would really move people.( I intend, I wrote The End of Nature, the first book about all this 28 years ago this week, when I was 28- and when my theory was still:” People will read my volume, and then they will change .”) Maybe it’s like all the health warnings that you should feed fewer microchips and booze less soda, which, to judge by belt-size , not many of us pay much mind. Until, maybe, you go to the doctor and he says:” Whoa, you’re in trouble .” Not” maintain eating junk and some day you’ll be in trouble”, but:” You’re in trouble right now, today. As in, it appears to me like you’ve already had a small stroke or two .” Hurricanes Harvey and Irma are the equivalent of one of those transient ischaemic attacks– yeah, your face is lolling strangely on the left, but you can continue. Maybe. If “youre starting” taking your capsules, eating right, exerting, getting your act together.

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1:48 Hurricane Irma’s path of destruction – video report

That’s the stage we’re at now- not the warning on the side of the pack, but the hacking cough that brings up blood. But what happens if you continue smoking? You get worse, till past a certain level you’re not continuing. We’ve increased the temperature of the Earth a little more than 1C so far, which has been enough extra heat to account for the frights we’re currently witnessing. And with the momentum built into the system, we’re going to go somewhere near 2C , no matter what we do. That will be considerably worse than where we are now, but maybe it will be expensively endurable.

The problem is, our current business-as-usual trajectory takes us to a world that’s about 3.5 C warmer. That is to say, even if we maintained the promises we made at Paris( which Trump has already, of course, disowned) we’re going to build a planet so hot that we can’t have civilisations. We have to seize the moment we’re in right now- the moment when we’re scared and vulnerable- and use it to dramatically reorient ourselves. The last three years have each broken the record for the hottest time ever measured- they’re a cherry-red flashing sign that says:” Snap out of it .” Not bend the trajectory somewhat, as the Paris accords imagined, but simultaneously jam on the fossil fuel brakes and stand on the solar accelerator( and likewise find some metaphors that don’t rely on internal combustion ).

We could do it. It’s not technologically impossible- analyze after study has shown we can get to 100% renewables at a manageable expenditure, more manageable all the time, since the cost of solar panel and windmills maintains plummeting. Elon Musk is showing you can churn out electric cars with ever-lower sticker surprise. In remote corners of Africa and Asia, peasants have begun leapfrogging past fossil fuel and moving straight to the sunlight. The Danes just sold their last petroleum company and used the money to build more windmills. There are just enough examples to make despair seem like the cowardly dodge it is. But everyone everywhere would have to move with similar speed, because this is in fact a race against time. Global warming be the first time that crisis that comes with a limit- resolve it soon or don’t solve it. Winning slowly is just a different way of losing.

Winning fast enough to thing would signify, above all, standing up to the fossil fuel industry, so far the stronger force on Earth. It would entail postponing other human enterprises and diverting other spending. That is, it would signify going on a war-like footing: not shooting at opponents, but focusing in the way that peoples and nations typically simply concentrate when someone’s shooting at them. And something is. What do you think it intends when your woodlands are on fire, your streets are underwater, and your houses are collapsing?

* Bill McKibben is a writer and the founder of the climate campaign 350. org

Such articles was revised on 11 September 2017. An earlier version said that San Francisco’s record-breaking temperature was 3C higher. This has been corrected to say 3F.