For more than a century, the Mount Wilson Observatory has looked down on Los Angeles from a peak five thousand seven hundred and fifteen feet above sea level, a height that once lifted it above the city’s smog. The clear air allowed Edwin Hubble, in 1924, to discover that what was then called the Andromeda nebula was not a smudge of stars in the Milky Way but a galaxy of its own, and, later, to find proof that the universe was expanding, leading to the formulation of the Hubble constant, which describes its rate of motion. The observatory is a cherished monument and a site of ongoing research and discovery. Last week, though, the sky above it was a sickly orange, as firefighters fought to save it, along with an array of television and communications towers that also sit on Mount Wilson, from the Bobcat Fire. On Friday, they were struggling to hold the flames back with only a few hundred feet to spare.
The Bobcat Fire has raked across more than sixty thousand acres in the San Gabriel Mountains and triggered evacuation warnings for residents of the foothill communities. But it is only one of forty-one major fire complexes causing havoc in California, Oregon, and Washington. More than five million acres have burned. Some thirty people have died, and dozens are missing. Breathing the air of Los Angeles, San Francisco, Portland, and Seattle has been not only unhealthy but, on some days, hazardous. The threat to Mount Wilson is a single scene in that larger disaster, but it encapsulates a moment in which both science and the everyday rhythms of American life seem to be under assault.
Part of the attack is being led by Donald J. Trump. The wildfire crisis is an aspect of the climate crisis: hotter temperatures and changing rainfall patterns have turned swaths of the West into a tinderbox. But last Monday, in California, Trump told people to trust him that it will “start getting cooler,” and added, “I don’t think science knows, actually.” He used the trip to bestow the Distinguished Flying Cross on two military-helicopter crews that had been deployed to fight the Creek Fire, which had scorched a quarter of a million acres in Fresno, Madera, and Mariposa Counties and, at the end of last week, was still mostly uncontained. The crew members deserve the honor—they risked their lives to save more than two hundred people trapped by the fire—but the event was also a reminder of how, for Trump, pomp serves as a substitute for policy. Of course, the policies he does pursue, such as renouncing the Paris climate accord, do real harm. (The contrast between Trump and Joe Biden, who spoke about the California fires on the same day, but with reason and urgency, was stark.) The question is whether, in November, Trump and the Republican Party, which has long blocked action on the climate, will be held to account.
The signals are mixed. Polls show that addressing the climate crisis remains a partisan issue. That is a tragedy, particularly since Americans no longer have to guess whether climate change will affect them: they can see it in the tracts of burnt-out homes and in the smoke rising in the West, which, last week, drifted far enough to turn skies in New England hazy. They can register it in the length of time that Hurricane Sally lolled in the Gulf of Mexico before inundating Pensacola and other communities, while, at one point, four other named storms spun alongside it. Last Friday, with more than two months to go in the storm season, the National Hurricane Center used up the last name (Wilfred) on its alphabetized list. Greek letters come next, and Subtropical Storm Alpha was identified by early afternoon; Beta followed within hours. Now every year may be another 2020, in terms of a pileup of calamities.
The Economist, in a survey of the climate factors contributing to the wildfires, concluded that “people on America’s west coast will have to learn to coëxist with more, and more frequent, fires.” Or they can move, and, indeed, many may be forced to do so. According to a joint project by ProPublica and the Times, if emissions are not cut drastically by mid-century—and, to an extent, even if they are—for an increasing number of days each year, some heavily populated areas of the country will be too hot or too humid, or both, for residents to venture safely outdoors. These include parts of Texas and Arizona, but also of North Carolina, Missouri, and Illinois.
Meanwhile, cities and towns on the Eastern Seaboard and the Gulf Coast will confront rising sea levels that may make living in all but the wealthiest places miserable or unsustainable. Eventually, not even government-backed flood-insurance programs will be enough to keep people on land that is being lost to the sea. Farm communities will face a reckoning as well, with many crop yields projected to fall. As for the wildfires, models show them consuming ground not only in the West but in such disparate states as Florida and Minnesota. Climate migrants will not only be leaving homes in the Global South; they will include Americans crisscrossing the country.
In short, the climate crisis is, at last, poised to change the map of American politics, because it will change the map of America. Comparisons have been drawn to the Great Migration, when, from the nineteen-twenties to the nineteen-sixties, more than six million Black Americans settled in Northern states, a shift that reshaped urban politics and culture and gave support to the civil-rights movement. But that analogy is inadequate. Projections about the demographics of various states may be upended in ways that are impossible to predict. People forced out of their homes in a red state, or a blue one, will not necessarily become green voters. Mass dislocation might lead to an environmentalist awakening, or even mobilize Americans to confront issues of inequality, but it could also contribute to a politics of resentment. One can too easily imagine a future demagogue—Trump may not be the last—exploiting domestic climate migrants’ sense of betrayal and fear.
Yet the polls show, too, that voters who do care about the climate, including a majority of younger people, tend to be passionate about the issue. They have the potential to be an ever more powerful electoral force. As with the battle to save the Mount Wilson Observatory, the climate crisis involves choices about what we value. Politics and leadership, not to mention science, will matter, perhaps as never before, because of how very wrong things could go in the next decades, and how much upheaval there is likely to be. As Edwin Hubble might have observed, everything is in motion. There are few constants left. ♦