We pause now in our ongoing coverage of the end of Western democracy for a brief consideration of the end of the world. Along with Robert Frost, we can say that the question of fire versus ice as the agent of destruction has been settled in favor of fire, and we even know where the fire is likely to start: above the Arctic Circle, where an unprecedented heat wave has sent temperatures in the far north of Sweden as high as 86 F. The Washington Post’s climate writer, Jason Samenow, recently reported that the temperature (calculated by extrapolation) in a part of northern Siberia reached 90 degrees earlier this month, 40 degrees above normal. “It is absolutely incredible and really one of the most intense heat events I’ve ever seen for so far north,” wrote meteorologist Nick Humphrey. And after years of increasingly hot, dry summers, the great forests in the far north, all around the globe, are starting to burn.
A forest fire, like virtually all fires, releases carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, accelerating the greenhouse effect that drives global warming. This is especially true of wildfires at high latitudes, where trees grow back slowly, and where there are the additional risks of carbon-dense peat bogs drying and burning, and also of melting permafrost releasing huge quantities of methane. This illustrates one of the perverse facts about climate change, that almost all the feedback effects are positive (in the technical sense of self-reinforcing, not as in “good.”) As one example, global warming melts ice and snow cover, which tends to reflect the sun’s radiation out to space, while bare earth and seawater absorb it.