Commentary: We need to treat the world like it’s a house on fire

FILE - In this Tuesday, Oct. 10, 2017 file photo, people walk past a fallen transformer and downed power lines on Parker Hill Road in Santa Rosa, Calif. State fire officials blamed power lines coming into contact with trees for sparking four Northern California wildfires last October that incinerated more than 130 buildings. In a statement released Friday, May 25, 2018, officials indicated three of the fires could have been prevented if Pacific Gas & Electric Co. had made more efforts to keep trees clear of its power lines. PG&E says it is reviewing those conclusions. (Nhat V. Meyer/San Jose Mercury News via AP, File)

A house is burning while the children play inside. The kids don’t want to stop their game. It’s an ancient story with a riddle: How to lure them out?

We can take that story as a metaphor. The house is the whole earth, and we’re the grownups who will need to stop the game.

Let’s think first about the recent California fires, in an extended drought, where houses literally burned.

In 2015, after a tree hit a Pacific Gas & Electric power line, not far from Sacramento, 70,000 forest acres burned, and 2 people died. In 2017, another tree fell on a PG&E power line near Napa, burning 100,000 acres and 1,475 structures. Then, last year, a live wire broke off a PG&E tower. This time 14,000 homes, including a whole town, were lost, and 85 people died, unable to escape. Facing up to $30 billion in liabilities, PG&E prepared recently to file for bankruptcy.

Is our power infrastructure safe enough and well enough maintained? Further, on a human scale, how best redress the harm?

Warming air becomes more turbulent. It can also hold more water. As the climate warms, we’ll see not only longer, hotter droughts, as in California, but also fiercer, truly catastrophic storms. Storms, for instance, like this month’s “bomb cyclone” that flooded much of the Missouri River basin. Submerged fields, ice chunks the size of cars, hundreds of dead calves, farm after farm. Deep personal and economic trauma for farm families and communities across the region.

Let’s be clear: Global warming didn’t cause this storm directly, but it raised the odds that storms like that, and bigger ones, will happen more and more. It also leads, both here and as in California, to harsher, longer droughts.

It’s not just about infrastructure. Or the urgent need to cut greenhouse emissions. When homes, towns, livelihoods and precious lands are wrecked, are we committed, as a society, to help redress the many kinds of loss? The victims, specifically, didn’t bring this trouble on themselves, but the harm they face goes very deep.

In the short term, we need to rethink, and rebuild, the infrastructure that produces and distributes energy. Safe power lines in forests. Flood preparation on key rivers. Watershed protection. Better snowmelt capture. Renewable electric power. It’s not enough to say we need, as soon as possible, to cut greenhouse emissions. We need, as a society, to think about each other, and the impacts we all face.

What kind of world will our children have to live in? It’s our world, too. Let’s not forget the student demonstrations two Fridays ago, here and all around the world. Climate impacts like the ones I write about affect us now, in our short lifetimes, but more, much more, will come.

As the old expression goes, we need to get along — get moving — like a house on fire. Let’s not distract ourselves by thinking it’s impossible. We need to bring it off.

Robert Speiser, Millcreek, is a retired mathematician and educator.

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