Mary Nichols has been part of the struggle to prevent catastrophic climate change for about as long as anyone in American life. For years, she’s directed California’s pathbreaking efforts to reduce carbon emissions as the chair of the California Air Resources Board—a position she held first in the 1970s before taking it up again in 2007. Nichols has also served at the federal level, working as the chief regulator for air pollution at the Environmental Protection Agency under President Bill Clinton in the 1990s. And yet even Nichols has never seen anything that crystallizes the dangers of climate change more clearly than the historic outbreak of wildfires scorching California and other western states this year.
“Yes, absolutely,” she told me earlier this week, when I asked her whether this year’s fires are the most tangible danger to California that she’s seen from climate change. “It’s not suddenly going to reverse itself … to years when there’s no fire season, or it’s not going to happen until October. The changes are going to be real, and they are going to be long-lasting.”
Carol Browner served as the EPA administrator for both of Clinton’s presidential terms and later worked as President Barack Obama’s first White House adviser on climate. When she looks at the confluence of extreme-weather events battering the United States in recent years—not only the wildfires, but also the Gulf Coast hurricanes, Midwest flooding, and the Southwest’s extreme heat—Browner likewise sees stark evidence that climate change is disrupting American life earlier and more powerfully than almost anyone expected when the debate over these issues seriously began about three decades ago.