When I was shopping for a deadstock, surplus Russian gas mask to go with my Halloween costume, I didn’t think it would matter if it was functional or not. How wrong I was, when not even two weeks later, the air here in San Francisco would be the worst in the world, more dangerous and full of particulate matter than the air in any other city. Back when I came across this picture of a Post-Apocalyptic Captain Planet on Reddit and decided to make this my costume, I didn’t know that breathing the air in the city for 24 hours would be the equivalent of smoking 11 cigarettes.
For those of you who aren’t 80s or 90s kids, Captain Planet was a cartoon where the bad guys were always polluters, poachers or some other climate villain. The protagonists were a group of young people who were climate protectors, and each had a ring that gave them a power: Earth, Fire, Wind, Water or Heart.
When their powers combined, they create Captain Planet. He’s a hero, who is gonna take pollution down to zero. He’s their powers magnified, and he’s fighting on the planet’s side. (lol that was actually the theme song):
What was so sad about this post-apocalyptic version of Captain Planet to me was the commentary on him having given up. He was the most optimistic climate change fighter and so his dejection and the “I HATE HUMANS” kind of hit me right in the feels. If the planet got so bad that even the greatest climate optimist and defender had given up, that is one of the scariest things I could imagine, hence why it then became my Halloween costume. A world which is undesirable to live in is pretty much is my greatest fear.
A world which is undesirable to live in is pretty much is my greatest fear.
And that’s how I found myself in the middle of the night, up late watching youtube video reviews and tests of Cold War era gas masks. I looked up pictures of old gas masks until I found the type that seemed to match the one in the picture. It turns out that there is a fairly large subculture that is pretty into gas masks. As you can see in the picture below, the guy tests different ones by detecting if he can smell air freshener while wearing it. He had a particular (and funny) disdain reserved for the GP-7, which is the model I found that most resembles the design in the picture.
Knowing from his review that this particular mask would not protect me from a toxic air, I had to make a determination if I wanted to be closer to the visual aesthetic of the picture or to go with something that was actually functional in case of an emergency. At the time, I considered the odds of an actual toxic gas attack to be pretty low, but I did not consider the potential of toxic air from wildfires. So thinking I would never need to use it aside for Halloween, I went with the ineffective, but aesthetically accurate model instead. I could not have been more wrong. As I look out my windows today, I can’t see the buildings downtown which are normally visible all day and night. In fact, San Francisco in 2018 looks closer to Blade Runner 2049’s dystopian climate than I am comfortable with (and yes I know it takes place LA though). See the comparison for yourself:
This goes to show that a dystopian climate can come on quickly and so we need to be vigilant of the changes going on in the world around us. I am upset by this entire situation, but I know it is a lot worse for those who were directly affected by the fire, including those who lost their lives. I have a friend who lost her home and all of her art creations, and she is considered a lucky one. These fires are a travesty and their occurrence is becoming worse due to a marked shift in decreased rainfall.
In order for the “fire season” to end, the region needs 4-5 inches of rain. Climate scientist Daniel Swain explained that the region received around 20%-30% of the amount of rain it should have over the year. It was a tinderbox waiting for a spark, as this graphic showing the potential fire risk as a “Burning Index Percentile” illustrates. The regions that burned were right in that darkest area:
And then look where the powerful winds take the smoke, right over the Bay Area:
This goes to remind us that weather and pollution are a global issue, it is not a matter of one city, or one state, or one country working to prevent pollution, it is about the entire world working together. Pollution doesn’t stop at the imaginary boundaries we call borders, it spreads far and wide, affecting us as a globally interconnected unit. For example, a study that checked for the Asian-isotope of lead in air pollution particles in San Francisco found that 29% of the lead was of Asian origin. We are all breathing each other’s pollution, and the particles from these California wildfires will spread well beyond our borders. The repercussions of regional issues are global, and the more we recognize this unity, the better we will be able to solve the problem.
While we need to work on the macro-problem of climate change, we should also work on solutions to prevent or mitigate these fires in the first place, no matter how dry it is. It looks like there is “pretty overwhelming evidence” that this fire was caused by a downed power line, as well as at least a dozen fires from last year.
Some of the short-term solutions that could have prevented these fires in the first place are technological and should be implemented immediately, regardless of cost. Right now the sensors on that report minor “arc faults” only report every few seconds or minutes. This means that the equipment is missing many brief “arc fault” events caused by tree branches or animal contact with wires. The technology exists to upgrade these sensors to detect these events at the level of multiple times per second. There is no excuse for PG&E not to upgrade their equipment immediately. Ideally, they would even apply some sort of machine learning to detect faults and shut down the line before they can become a fire, similar to how the Japanese Subway artificial intelligence agent dispatches repairmen before issues occur.
During high wind periods, the utilities monitor the conditions and can shut transmissions lines down as needed. PG&E was monitoring the winds and even sent a warning that they may shut them down in the area where the fire occurred, but they did not. They are likely hesitant to shut the power off because it is a big hassle and can be dangerous for critical infrastructure like hospitals and traffic signals and for vulnerable populations like the elderly or infirm. One solution is to encourage cities (or force utilities) to build out localized battery storage of electricity.
As Alexandra von Meier of Berkeley’s Ecoblock project points out, neighborhoods can become self-sufficient with battery powered microgrids supplied by the utilities and topped off with local solar. This would make the power grid more resilient and allow the utility to more easily make the call to temporarily shut the power off during winds or other extreme events. This means having uninterruptible power supply backups for entire neighborhoods, and at the very minimum for the vulnerable customers and critical infrastructure. Then the utility can make it through disturbances without disrupting life (or causing the loss of it).
These suggestions are for immediate fixes to our infrastructure that can help prevent this in the short term, but they completely ignore the greater climate change problem. That is a much more complicated and global problem. Eventually, the many tons of carbon dioxide that have gone into the atmosphere from these fires and others will have to be sequestered to prevent even worse fires from occurring in the future. I am working on a solution to sequester carbon in rock, called Project Vesta, but right now my heart and mind are with those who have lost their lives in this tragedy and it hurts knowing that no solution to climate change can bring them back. I only hope we can prevent the situation that enables these fires to occur in the first place.
While sequestering gigatons of carbon will not immediately make the rain come back to California, in the long run, it would hopefully restore the natural cycle so that in the future, the need for having a functioning gas mask is not a reality (like it is today). Let’s let the sadness, anger and dystopian vibes make us work to ensure that the post-apocalyptic Captain Planet vision of the future never comes to fruition. With our powers combined (Captain Planet reference), we can stop climate change.