When the Flames Hit the Christmas Tree…

[Confession: This is actually not an article about house fires.]

My house has been on fire twice. I’m not talking about the house I live in now in Green Bay’s Olde Preble neighborhood. I mean the house in Astor neighborhood where Tom and I raised our kids. That one’s in Green Bay’s historic district; the plaque from the National Register of Historic Places says it was built in 1917. Yeah, that one – twice on fire.

The first fire occurred on Christmas Eve, 1984. Scott was 11, Summer nearly 4, and our overnight guest, my niece, Gina, was 12. Our collie Leah was there. Tom was stationed in South Korea. I was expecting 25 people for Christmas dinner the next day.

Wishing to make Christmas Eve as special as possible for the kids, I’d arranged a lovely Bethlehem scene on top of our large round coffee table in the living room. For a real “winter” effect, I’d laid down a thick, fluffy layer of cotton batting beneath it all: snow! 

We had launched into our “Baby Jesus arrives” ceremony: Scott and Gina each had a role to play, and then little Summer was to follow, placing tiny Baby Jesus in the manger. She clutched the little icon in her hand as I said, “Here, let me first light these candles to represent the stars.” Scott asked if he might light them instead, so I handed him the matches and turned my back to grab my camera.

“Oh, my God! FIRE!” That fast! Scott had dropped a flaming match on the cotton batting. By the time I turned around, the entire coffee table, more than three feet in diameter, was engulfed in flames 12 inches high. My Army-wife-alone-with-kids brain immediately kicked in: “I’ll get a bucket of water. Scott, take off your bathrobe and beat the flames with it.” I ran to the mud porch for a bucket – I’d rehearsed this moment in my mind since Tom had left to serve a year overseas.

Do you have any idea how long it takes a bucket of water to fill when your house is burning? As I stood at the kitchen sink, willing the water to run faster, I heard Scott and Gina arguing about the best way to manage the flames, and I’m sure Gina said, “But it’s on the carpet now.” When I finally made my way back to the living room with my bucket heavy and full, I saw Summer curled into a tight ball in a rocking chair, clutching Baby Jesus, eyes as big as saucers. She uttered not a sound. Beside her sat a confounded collie. 

As I doused the flames, splashing water well beyond the coffee table and taking note of dark, smoldering patches of wool carpet, I thought of something no one else in that room had, at their tender ages, even considered: Ten feet away is a huge, natural evergreen tree that would willingly draw those flames in and suck every molecule of oxygen out of the air. And I knew something else: A week ago, when that tree sat in our garage, one of us (Scott? Me?) had accidentally spilled gasoline on it while filling the snow blower. I’d left the tree outside, per the neighbor man’s advice, to allow the gasoline to evaporate, but, still…

We quickly squelched the fire. As it turns out, the table top was slate – solid rock. It couldn’t have burned. However, its base was wood, and the carpet and other furniture were flammable, and there was that gasoline-soaked Christmas tree. 

The carpet was a total loss, ultimately replaced by the insurance company. In the meantime, I covered the burned section with a small area rug Scott helped me muscle into the living room. Twenty-five people enjoyed Christmas dinner, and we had a fine holiday with the scent of burned wool carpet hanging in the air. Almost miraculously, nothing on that table burned except the cotton! Only the Virgin Mary suffered the loss of the fingers of her left hand. And, of course, Baby Jesus was safe in Summer’s little paw. But, still, it takes my breath away to tell that story.

The second fire was in 1990. Now Tom was recently retired from the Army and in Green Bay with us. On a lovely late Saturday morning, Scott, age 17, was stocking shelves at the neighborhood grocery on Webster Avenue, and Summer had gone around the block to play with Nellie or Mary. I was in our first-floor office where Tom and I had matching desks and computers. Tom was in the basement, doing whatever it is husbands do in the basement on Saturdays. 

Leah strolled around the small office and then followed her nose behind Tom’s desk, sniffing as dogs do. She took one deep, inquiring sniff, and I turned to her. The faint smell of smoke was in the air, and I heard Tom making a ruckus right below us. I headed down the basement stairs to find Tom standing in my sewing room, a basket of dirty laundry at his feet, swinging madly at flames emerging from an opening in the wall. “Call the fire department,” he yelled. As I turned to the phone on the wall just inches away (yes, phones hung on the wall then), my brain registered what he held in his hand: one of my precious Irish linen napkins. (Who knows why we think the way we do, right?) 

I called 911, glad the kids were not home and just as glad that Tom was. The dispatcher said the firemen were on their way: “Get everyone out of the house immediately,” she instructed. “Tom, come on, we have to go,” I said, and Tom turned to join me, dropping a badly singed linen napkin to the floor where, I now noticed, several of its mates lay in a brown and ragged little heap. “I think it’s out,” he said. With our confused collie we waited on the front porch. Within seconds we heard the welcome sound of the siren. 

The firefighters discovered that the electrical fire in the wall was, indeed out, but they spent a lot of time examining our electrical system. They found a few unorthodox wires that needed correction. The next day we had a licensed electrician making our wiring right, and I faced the fact that my lovely Irish linen tablecloth-and-napkin set, which had been a gift from Tom’s mother, would forever be three napkins short. That was the extent of the damage.

Two fires that could have been catastrophic – a “historic” home still standing. But it occurs to me how differently things could have gone. On that fateful Christmas Eve, what if we – one or all of us – had reacted differently? What if:

  • … Scott hadn’t sounded the alarm, afraid he’d be in trouble?

  • … I’d been content to watch it burn, knowing the table top was solid stone?

  • … Scott had tried to blame Gina for the fire and so started a quarrel instead of helping?

  • … I’d wasted precious time remonstrating about fire safety when emergency response was the requirement?

As for the electrical fire in the wall, what if:

  • … Tom had been too embarrassed to ask for help and tried to manage it all himself? (We’d never have learned about the faulty wiring and got it fixed.)

  • … I’d been too busy to investigate the smoke I thought I smelled?

  • … I’d blamed Tom for the fire and refused to call 911?

  • … the 911 dispatcher had not answered or the firefighters refused to come?

Any of those scenarios might have yielded a very different result. The 1984 fire might have made it impossible to even have a 1990 fire: If we were all dead and the house burned down, well, 1990 would have looked very different for our extended family.

When I recall those two fires, with catastrophic danger so near at hand, and reflect on the critical importance of response – immediate response – I can’t help but think of the need of the human race as a whole to respond immediately to the climate crisis. Like the fire on our coffee tabletop, climate change is a fact now, not something coming down the pike someday, perhaps. 

Unlike our responses to those two fires that kept our historic old house standing, the response of the human race to climate change has been sluggish, marked by procrastination, finger-pointing and nay-saying. We’ve soothed ourselves with recycling programs to “save the earth” and efforts to get the plastic out of the ocean and workshops on “carbon footprint,” but we’ve not, as a whole, really looked at the “conflagration” right before our eyes.

Recently I read David Wallace-Wells’s The Uninhabitable Earth. That is to say, I struggled through it. This is not, in my opinion, an easy book to read or a particularly pleasant one. It’s a thoughtfully organized compendium of all the studies and statistical models (duly attributed, each one) explaining global warming and its effect – now and to come – on the earth and all living things. Flung about here and there are stinging comments about liberalism and capitalism and liberal capitalism. It’s tough reading, but I think you ought to read it, because the “fire” of climate catastrophe is already ignited, and it simply will not be denied, no matter the official position of any government or religion or individual.

Wallace-Wells jumps right in with his opening line: “It is worse, much worse, than you think.” That climate change will come slowly – or even that it is to come in some not-yet-arrived future – is dead wrong, he tells us. And the change that has already begun, the warming of the earth, will consistently wreak harm on every aspect of life – not just the coastlines or the polar ice cap, not just the southern hemisphere, not just the outdoors. Lives will be lost or dramatically altered beyond anything we can actually imagine. 

Furthermore, we can no longer kid ourselves that this is just a “natural cycle” that will right itself eventually. The earth might continue to exist, but it will never, ever be the earth we know now. How horribly changed it will be 50 or 100 years from now is still within our grasp, but it will never be the world as we know it today. “You might hope to simply reverse climate change; you can’t. It will outrun all of us,” Wallace-Wells writes. And that was my first devastating realization: that the fire of destruction is already lit, and our grandchildren will never have the “home” in which we have lived.

However, our current experience of more vicious hurricanes in greater number, epic rainfall, daytime temperatures actually reaching beyond 120 degrees Fahrenheit, deadly fires in California, do not suggest that climate change has arrived in its final form, ushering in the “new normal,” the author explains. “The truth is actually much scarier. That is, the end of normal; never normal again… We have not, at all, arrived at a new equilibrium. It is more like we’ve taken one step out on the plank off a pirate ship…

“There is nothing to learn from global warming, because we do not have the time, or the distance, to contemplate its lessons; we are after all not merely telling the story but living it…

“[G]lobal warming…is a function that gets worse over time as long as we continue to produce greenhouse gas… we are only just entering our brave new world, one that collapses below us as soon as we set foot on it.” To make matters worse, the author explains that “Global warming is not a perpetrator; it’s a conspiracy.” No matter the exact cause of each wildfire, for example, “each is burning faster, bigger and longer because of global warming, which gives no reprieve to fire season.” Calling climate change a war machine that might destroy us, he says, “Each day we arm it more.”

The assaults, Wallace-Wells explains, will produce “a new kind of cascading violence, waterfalls and avalanches of destruction, the planet pummeled again and again, with increasing intensity and in ways that build on each other and undermine our ability to respond… subverting the promise that the world we have engineered and built for ourselves, out of nature, will also protect us against it.” That point – the cascading violence that will undermine our ability to respond – that’s the second point of The Uninhabitable Earth that drove me to read on, suspecting I’d eventually be begging you to read the book too.

Here is an example of a “cascading effect” explained in the book:

  • Higher temperatures cause more forest fires

  • More forest fires mean fewer trees

  • With fewer trees, less carbon is absorbed

  • More carbon left in the atmosphere makes the planet hotter

  • Which means more forest fires, fewer trees, and so on

  • A warmer planet means more water vapor (a greenhouse gas) in the atmosphere

  • More greenhouse gas in the atmosphere makes the planet even hotter

  • The oceans warm, and now they absorb less heat and contain less oxygen

  • Phytoplankton, which eat carbon and produce oxygen in the oceans, die

  • And so, more carbon, less oxygen, and the planet gets even hotter

I’d never considered such cascades of destruction. Here’s another one:

  • Climate-driven water shortages cause crop failures, creating “climate refugees”

  • Such refugees emigrate to nearby regions already struggling with scarce resources

  • Rising sea levels…

    • Push saltwater onto croplands, rendering them unable to produce food

    • Flood power plants, knocking out electricity

    • Cripple chemical and nuclear plants which now breathe out toxic plumes

    • And amid all of that, climate refugees continue moving in where there is no electricity, a shortage of food, desperately limited housing…

We will experience a “climate caste system,” Wallace-Wells explains, “an unwitting environmental apartheid… countries with lower GDPs will warm the most.” The threat will be everywhere, in some fashion, he says, “overwhelming, and total.” He laments today’s rising nationalism around the world that ill prepares us to cooperate in the face of this global threat: “That collapse of trust is a cascade too.”

In case you still view this devastation as something to come, possibly something to be averted or pushed off onto someone else’s plate, Wallace-Wells states: “Eight-hundred million in South Asia alone, the World Bank says, would see their living conditions sharply diminished by 2050 on the current emissions track.” And where do you suppose those 800,000,000 people will go?

If the planet warms by 3.7 degrees Celsius, the cost of damages would be twice the total wealth of today’s world. “Our current emissions trajectory takes us over 4 degrees by 2100.”  At that point we will completely retreat from economics and growth as “orienting beacons.”

Skeptics like to believe that the causes of global warming are unclear, or that the changes we see now are simply the result of a natural cycle – therefore warming is beyond our control. But Wallace-Wells shoots back: “We found a way to engineer devastation, and we can find a way to engineer our way out of it.” He is actually optimistic! If we can hold global warming to less than four degrees Celsius, he says, there is hope. Devastation and suffering will be beyond anything we can imagine, but there is still hope. We could get to “merely grim, rather than apocalyptic,” he says, if we change inaction into action. 

The author gives us until 2040 (little more than twenty years!) to unplug the entire industrialized world from fossil fuels, and he says “avenues are open.” Two-thirds of American energy is wasted, Wallace-Wells claims. Mining bitcoin, he says, “consumes more electricity than is generated by all the world’s solar panels combined… Seventy percent of the energy produced by the planet, it’s estimated, is lost as waste heat.” But, he says, individual lifestyle choices must be “scaled by politics” to make a meaningful difference. The author believes we could build a revolution in the way we generate power, electric or political. “How much hotter will it get? … the answer is almost entirely human – which is to say, political… Three-quarters of a century since global warming was first recognized as a problem, we have made no meaningful adjustment to our production or consumption of energy to account for it and protect ourselves.”

And yet this author, who clearly has studied climate change from every angle, has reason to be optimistic. That’s why I want everyone to read The Uninhabitable Earth, so we can, collectively, understand how bad it could get and, recognize what we can do collectively to mitigate the damage and suffering for the generations of our loved ones to come. 

Remember in 1984 when I thought a spark reaching a gasoline-soaked Christmas tree would mean utter devastation? Global warming had already begun by then. It was already on the agenda at some conferences and symposia and in a few volumes on library shelves. But I couldn’t see past the flames on my own little coffee table. Now I can. Read The Uninhabitable Earth, and your eyes, too, will be open to the disaster (of our own making) hurtling toward us and, possibly, to the solutions we might engineer, should we choose to collaborate as a human race.