Opinion

Death of the ancients

Even 2,000-year-old sequoias can’t survive a changed climate

This is the editor's letter in the current issue of The Week magazine.

For centuries, sequoias were largely invulnerable to fire. The world's most massive trees, sequoias have insulating bark up to 3 feet thick and canopies 200 to 300 feet above the forest floor, so that flames from wildfires could only lick at their trunks. Perfectly adapted to their environment, these majestic trees thrived in their own Eden in the Sierra Nevada, with some reaching the age of more than 2,000 years. Then mankind intervened. Climate change caused by the burning of fossil fuels brought in hotter weather, prolonged droughts, and more-intense wildfires. In 2020, the huge Castle Fire incinerated an estimated 10,000 mature sequoias — wiping out up to 14 percent of the tree's population. This year, as more fires raged, parks officials resorted to wrapping some sequoia trunks in protective foil. People are making bucket-list pilgrimages to the groves as sequoias join a list of endangered natural wonders: the Great Barrier Reef, glaciers from Montana to the Himalayas, the Amazon rain forest, and on and on.

In Glasgow, world leaders have signed more proclamations to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. After another year of startling weather extremes, the rhetoric of leaders has become more urgent. But averting a global temperature increase of 2 degrees C (3.6 degrees F) would require determined efforts of a kind not yet in evidence. In a recent poll by Nature, most climate scientists think we're headed for 5 degrees F — nearly triple what we've already experienced. President Xi Jinping of China, the world's largest emitter, didn't even bother to show up in Glasgow. In the U.S., Sen. Joe Manchin, owner of a coal company that's made him at least $4.5 million, vetoed a proposal to reward power plants for weaning themselves off fossil fuels. Why not, asks Senator Joe, wait a few more years? This week, hundreds of sequoias perished in another high-intensity wildfire. If you want to see a sequoia, you'd better go soon.

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