Maui fires show climate change’s ugly reach
Bloomberg Businessweek and Bloomberg Green published a cool infographic a few weeks ago showing how many billion-dollar climate disasters had struck each US state and territory since 1980. Of the 52 locales in the graphic, only one had avoided any such catastrophe for the past 30 years: Hawaii.
It was enough to make you daydream about riding out the climate emergency in an untouched tropical paradise. But that was an illusion, one the deadly wildfires tearing through Maui this week have shattered. It’s the latest of many reminders in this year of record-breaking heat that no place on Earth will be untouched by an increasingly chaotic global climate.
As of this writing, we still don’t know exactly what sparked Maui’s fires. They have taken at least 99 lives, razed much of historic Lahaina and forced desperate survivors to jump into the ocean to escape the flames.
But we do know the conditions fuelling the blazes included prolonged drought and high winds from Hurricane Dora far offshore to the south. Neither of those particular weather events has yet been tied directly to climate change. But we do know warmer water makes hurricanes more intense; Dora passed Hawaii as a Category 4, its high winds spreading havoc on land despite being hundreds of miles out to sea.
And a relentlessly heating planet has made Hawaii drier; 90 per cent of the state gets less rain than it did 100 years ago. When the fires began, most of the state’s islands were abnormally dry, and half of Maui was experiencing moderate to severe drought.
Parched years have hurt Hawaiian farmers and cattle ranchers and sparked resentment towards tourists, whom locals say have not been asked to sacrifice as much to conserve water. When it does rain in Hawaii, it increasingly falls in torrential deluges that lead to floods and landslides, like the “rain bomb” that hit Kauai in April 2018, dropping a mind-blowing 50 inches of rain in 24 hours.
California is more strongly identified with droughts, floods and wildfires than Hawaii. Its timeline in the Bloomberg Businessweek graphic is much, much uglier than Hawaii’s. But the tropical-island chain has suffered, too, only more quietly. And a steadily warming planet makes such suffering ever more likely.
It’s a recurring theme in this sweltering year: the long arm of global heating will find you, no matter where you are. Massive out-of-control wildfires in the would-be climate refuge of Canada caused hazardous smoke conditions hundreds of miles away in New York, Chicago and other US cities. Vermont, often called one of the world’s surest havens from global warming, suffered a mini rain bomb of its own last month, triggering floods that killed two people and destroyed thousands of homes and businesses.
So Hawaii, like California and every other state in the union, must be better prepared for disasters made more likely by global heating. This means flood-proofing infrastructure, updating water and fire management for a changing climate, and making homes and other buildings more resilient, for starters.
Most important, we must do everything we can to break our fossil-fuel addiction and stop pumping out the carbon that makes these disasters both more likely and more destructive. There is no hiding from this truth or its consequences.
• Mark Gongloff is a Bloomberg Opinion editor and columnist covering climate change. A former managing editor of Fortune.com, he ran the HuffPost’s business and technology coverage and was a reporter and editor for the Wall Street Journal