Wildfires underscore urgency to rein in climate change

Prescribed fire in the Sierra Nevada. Resource managers with the U.S. Forest Service and other management agencies use controlled fires to clear dead vegetation and low-lying brush from a forest, lowering the risk that future wildfires will have enough fuel to grow to dangerous sizes - photo: Eric Knapp/US Forest Service

Opinion

The alerts on my cell phone were jarring. The news kept rolling in, each more alarming as the Poeville wildfire got closer to our house. By evening it was clear we should pack up in case we had to evacuate quickly. My spouse backed the car into the garage. We loaded it up, then made sure we knew how to open the garage door manually just in case we lost power. The sky was dark, except for Peavine Mountain. There was an eerie glow behind it, and I could see a massive plume of smoke billowing into the air. You could smell the smoke. It was frightening. I saw a few people evacuating. My neighbor was up on his roof hosing it down. The neighborhood was on the border of the evacuation zone. I didn’t know if I’d be able to sleep that night or how to explain things to my teen. Don’t panic. Get ready to evacuate. It’ll be OK. But would it be OK?

Fortunately, we didn’t have to evacuate. But the Poeville fire marked the start of wildfire season for me. Since then, smoke from the California wildfires has poured over the Sierra Nevada, resulting in poor to downright hazardous air quality.

The hazardous air quality in Oregon caused my elderly in-laws to delay their plans to move to Eugene where they will have easier access to healthcare services. My spouse was planning to drive to Oregon to help them, but there were so many wildfires raging, no route was safe enough to travel. I-5 was closed along the Oregon-California border because of the fires. There were wildfires north and west of Klamath Falls. It seemed best to delay the move until things improved. But when will that be?

The fall fire season hasn’t even started, and already we’ve seen an astonishing amount of destruction. In California, 2.6 million acres have gone up in smoke, exceeding the 2 million acres burned in 2018. That year, the damage and economic loss from wildfires, according to AccuWeather, came to $400 billion. At the end of August, nearly 4,000 homes and other structures had been consumed by wildfires this year in California. By early September, social media feeds were filled with photos of orange, smoky skies.

The explanation for the increasing intensity and frequency of wildfires is pretty straightforward: Climate change is making forests drier and weather hotter, conditions in which a lightning strike can ignite a fire that quickly destroys thousands of acres. Climate scientist Park Williams of Columbia University told the New York Times, “Behind the scenes of all of this, you’ve got temperatures that are about two to three degrees Fahrenheit warmer now than they would have been without global warming.” 

On our current trajectory, temperatures will continue to climb, bringing more fires and greater destruction. These wildfires also create a feedback loop that exacerbates climate change by releasing massive amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

Unforeseen crises are also made worse by climate change. As we struggle to persevere through the coronavirus pandemic, for example, smoke from fires causes respiratory problems that can make the virus more deadly. People fleeing fires may also contend with crowded shelters that can spread the disease.

With the impact of climate change being felt here and now, we find ourselves running out of time to bring down the heat-trapping pollution that is warming our world. We must therefore use all the tools at our disposal to curtail those emissions.

One of the most effective tools is an ambitious price on carbon that will speed up the transition to a low- or zero-carbon economy. A tax or fee on carbon can have a positive impact on low-and middle-income families, too. How? Take the revenue from a carbon fee and distribute it to all households.

Legislation to implement an effective carbon price while protecting the economic well-being of people has been introduced in the U.S. House as the Energy Innovation and Carbon Dividend Act (H.R. 763). The carbon fee is expected to drive down carbon emissions 40% in the first 12 years and 90% by 2050. A household impact study released in August found that among households in the lowest fifth economically, 96% would receive “carbon dividends” that exceed their carbon costs. I am urging Rep. Mark Amodei, Sen. Jacky Rosen and Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto to join the 82 House members who currently cosponsor the bill.

Our smoke-filled skies should serve as a warning that our climate could one day be unbearable if we fail to take the actions necessary to rein in climate change. An effective price on carbon with money given to households can put us on the path to preserving a livable world.


Michelle Hamilton is a volunteer with the Reno/Sparks chapter of Citizens’ Climate Lobby. Mark Reynolds is the executive director of Citizens’ Climate Lobby.


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