‘One climate disaster after another’: North America’s long hot summer

Thousands of people are scrambling to evacuate the northern Canadian city of Yellowknife as flames from another blaze in the country’s record-breaking wildfire season bear down on people’s homes, threatening North America’s second fire disaster in as many weeks.

Many hours south of Yellowknife, intense wildfires on Friday were also threatening the western Canadian city of Kelowna, a thriving tourist hub of 130,000 people. Evacuations have been ordered there too, while fire fighters battle to save homes.

Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau convened an incident response group on Thursday, and said his government would continue to “urgently mobilise” resources.

The evacuations in Canada follow the death of more than 110 people in the tourist town of Lahaina on the Hawaiian island of Maui, where people were forced to leap into the ocean to escape a wildfire fanned by the high winds of a Pacific hurricane.

And they come as another hurricane bears down on California and Mexico, threatening catastrophic flooding along the Pacific coast.

The incidents are part of a broader pattern of extreme weather and disasters that have unfolded across North America this summer, as climate change supercharges storms, rainfall, heat and drought, and produces weather patterns with the potential to cause devastation.

In New York, conferences were cancelled and construction sites closed due to wildfire smoke. In Hawaii, Hawaiian Electric, the state’s biggest power utility, has entered talks with restructuring firms after the disaster in Maui. In Texas, an unrelenting heatwave put pressure on the grid. Shops, restaurants and businesses in the town of Montpelier, Vermont, were shuttered after extreme flooding in July.

“This summer has brought one climate disaster after another,” said John Podesta, President Joe Biden’s clean energy adviser, on Wednesday, while the wildfires in Maui marked “the toll of extreme weather fuelled by climate change that is being felt across the country”.

Map showing wildfires around Yellowknife in the Northwest Territories, Canada. The whole town of 20,000 has been ordered to evacuate

The disasters have fuelled debate about global warming across the US, with climate scientists increasingly stressing the links between climate change and extreme weather events, even as most Republican voters consider it a “minor threat”, or no threat, according to polling.

“I’ve stopped calling them wildfires because there’s such a human fingerprint in the increase of these fires, that they’re not wild anymore,” said Jennifer Francis, senior scientist at Woodwell Climate Research Center.

Heatwaves, drought, flooding and more intense storms were all “directly” linked to climate change, she said, which was also creating the conditions for more frequent wildfires of longer duration.

The smoke from the Canadian wildfires, which have burnt a record-breaking 14mn hectares of forest this year — an area the size of Greece — drifted into New York and other US cities earlier this summer, an experience of dire and dangerous air quality to millions of people hundreds of miles from the blazes.

Across the south of the US, millions more people were scorched under the so-called heat dome that settled over the gulf and pushed temperatures to about 40C in parts of Texas, Tennessee and Arkansas.

As Texans cranked up their air conditioners, demand for electricity in the state hit a record high of almost 83 gigawatt-hours at one hour in late July, according to the Energy Information Administration.

An aerial image shows destroyed homes and vehicles after this months wildfires in Lahaina, Hawaii
More than 110 people died in the wildfire that ravaged the Lahaina, on the Hawaiian island of Maui, this month © Patrick T Fallon/AFP/Getty Images

The extremes across the country have been varied. The north-eastern US state of Vermont was hit with flash-flooding and extreme rainfall earlier this summer, while the country’s south-west has been experiencing the worst drought to affect the region for 1,200 years.

But with federal elections on the horizon next year, many political leaders have been quiet about the summer’s events — including Biden as he tours the country touting the benefits of the sweeping clean energy subsidies he signed into law last year.

“It’s been frustrating to realise the human and economic toll of extreme weather events related to climate change, and yet have it not be part of the political conversation,” said Paul Bledsoe, a former White House climate adviser under president Bill Clinton. “There is a disconnect.”

He urged the Biden administration to talk about climate in terms of public safety, national security and the mounting economic cost. “Those are the frames most people talk about,” Bledsoe said.

Students in a New York high school look outside the windows of their classroom onto an orange-hued smoky landscape
Canadian wildfire smoke engulfed New York and other US east coast cities in June, triggering air quality alerts © Will Zammit-Miller/AP

But the Biden administration has also been concerned about keeping fossil fuel prices low, fearing voter backlash if petrol and heating costs rise — as they did last year after Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine — fuelling economy-wide inflation.

David Watkins, the director of government affairs at the Union of Concerned Scientists, said many US politicians held views on fossil fuels and their role in the economy that “haven’t changed in more than a century”.

“We would have thought we’d already reached that tipping point, and as the exact things people predicted started happening, exactly as they predicted, the needle of the political discourse would move — but it does not seem to be moving,” Watkins said.

Podesta was asked by reporters on Wednesday if he thought the American public “understand” the links between climate change and the various extreme weather events unfolding across the country.

A Nasa satellite image from this week shows wildfires burning northeast of Yellowknife, Northwest Territories, Canada
People have been ordered to evacuate Yellowknife, in Canada’s Northwest Territories, in recent days to escape fast-approaching wildfires © Nasa Earth Observatory/AFP/Getty Images

“I think the public not only gets it, I think they’re feeling it,” Podesta said. “If you’re experiencing temperatures above 110 degrees for 31 straight days in Phoenix, you know something’s amiss.”

Philip Rossetti, a senior fellow at R Street, a free-market think-tank, said that climate would enter the US political discourse when political parties realised that younger voters cared about the issue.

Earlier this month, youth activists won a court case in Montana establishing that they had a right to a “clean and healthful environment”.

“I do think that things are reaching a point where things are much harder to ignore, and younger voters, including Republican ones, want solutions from politicians,” said Rossetti.

Cartography by Steven Bernard

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