The end of the world was a fire

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The fires raging through California, like those in Australia in December, indicate that the devastating effects of climate change belong to the present, not just the future

The final hour it was an Australian science fiction film from 1959, released in the middle of the Cold War when the possibility of an atomic confrontation between the great powers that would plunge the world into nuclear winter was far from being a fantasy. The film, which recounted the story of a group of survivors who were stranded on a beach after the destruction of the planet by the radioactive cloud, was often quoted last year, when a devastating fire wave burned 11 million hectares in Australia and caused 33 deaths. Like in The final hour4,000 inhabitants of the coastal city of Mallacoota, in the State of Victoria, ended up spending New Year’s Eve on a beach, cornered between the sea and the fire.

The fires in Oceania last southern summer and those in California and Oregon today have many points in common. There are the same red skies and the smell of smoke, the apocalyptic gloom at noon in cities like San Francisco and Sydney. Some fires, moreover, are too big and powerful to be extinguished by many fire crews and air assets that are mobilized. High temperatures were also decisive in both cases: Los Angeles has been around 50 degrees for a week, while on August 17 the Death Valley, between California and Nevada, reached what is surely the highest temperature recorded in the ground: 54.4 degrees.

American journalist David Wallace-Wells described these types of fires in his recent book The inhospitable planet (Debate). His thesis is that the disasters caused by global warming do not belong to the future, but are already happening. California, Oregon and Australia prove that he is right. “The fires are among the best and most horrible propagandists of climate change: terrifying and immediate, no matter how far you live from an area, they offer scars that read as harbingers of future nightmares, even if they document current horrors”, wrote in the magazine New York Magazine when the fires started in California.

That New Year’s Eve, when thousands of people were sheltering on a beach, cases of pneumonia of unknown origin multiplied in Wuhan. And it is a tragic coincidence because all the scientists warn that the pandemic is related to the increase in human pressure on nature, which favors the jump of pathogens between species. The same happens with the fires in the American West and Australia: these are areas where fire is part of nature, as a seasonal regulation of the forest. However, demographic pressure puts human beings where they shouldn’t be and are trapped by fire. The reddish skies of San Francisco speak of a terrifying future, but also of an increasingly threatening present.

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