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Droughts and wildfires destroying the West don't have to be the 'new normal'

Droughts and wildfires destroying the West don't have to be the 'new normal'
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As last year’s record-breaking wildfires ripped across the West, California Gov. Jerry Brown (D) called it the “new normal.” He was echoing the words of climate scientists who forecast extreme weather as a consequence of climate change.

Last year’s infernos arrived after three back-to-back hurricanes battered the Gulf, record blizzards descended on the East, and Hawaii all but drowned in the heaviest 24-hour downpour in our country’s history. As we arrive now full circle to summer, it looks as though we’re in for yet another round of Armageddon-like catastrophe, this time with Colorado front and center.

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For nearly two months, the Rocky Mountain state has been engulfed in what has already become an historic wildfire season. Its largest active fire, the Spring Creek fire, is one of four wildfires this year to have made the “20 largest wildfires” list for Colorado, according to The Denver Post. Having scorched 108,000 acres, the fire is just shy of becoming the state’s second largest wildfire on record, after the Hayman fire over 15 years ago.

 

Fortunately, the region has been afforded some desperately needed relief as monsoon rains joined forces with fire-fighters yesterday to quell some of the flames. The Spring Creek Fire is now 91 percent contained.

Before we ring the victory bells, we mustn’t forget that the legacy of this year’s unusually low snowpack is still very real.

At the end of May, Westword reported on the drought in Colorado that “began with an absolutely horrendous winter.” Many ski resorts saw less than half of their average snowfall, such as Purgatory Ski Resort which saw only 125 of its typical 260 inches of snow, and Crested Butte which saw less than 150 inches of its normal 300 inches of snowfall.

With 14 active wildfires, Colorado takes the cake in terms of present fire alert. However, dry conditions across the entire Four Corners region have not left other states unscathed.

In Arizona, six wildfires are currently active, while a combined 12 fires are underway in New Mexico and Utah. Even in California, where the drought is less severe, eight wildfires exist. Many Californians are still in shellshock after last year brought both the most destructive and the largest wildfire in the state’s history, scorching a combined 317,000 acres.

According to a 2006 study of wildfires in the western U.S., recent decades have seen a four-fold increase in major wildfires, compared to the 1970 to 1986 period. The average burn duration of such fires has grown from one week to five weeks, with an average burn area that has increased six-fold.

Similarly, the Union of Concerned Scientists notes that the average length of the western wildfire season is over two months longer today than it was four decades ago.

Turning back to Colorado, 19 of the state’s 20 largest wildfires on record have occurred since 2000. For California, the number is 14.

In trying to wrap our heads around the increased incidence of droughts and wildfire in the region, it would be imprudent to disregard the impacts of climate change. The Union of Concerned Scientists notes “climate change affects a variety of factors associated with drought” and that increased temperatures will lead to “earlier snow melt, and increased evaporation and transpiration. Thus the risk of hydrological and agricultural drought increases as temperatures rise.” And drought, of course, leaves landscapes vulnerable to wildfire.

The underlying reason for global warming is no mystery to scientists. Burning fossils fuels, deforestation, and other activities release greenhouse gases that trap heat in the atmosphere. If we wish to address wildfires and natural disasters so as to ensure safety for our nation over the long-term, as opposed to simply offering another quick-fix disaster relief package, then we need to address the cause of warming at its source.

While critics argue that reducing greenhouse gas emissions is costly, we should bear in mind that climate-related natural disasters also come with a price tag, and one that has grown dramatically.

In 2016, the number of such disasters was three times the long-term average, causing $46 billion in damage. In 2017, even more disasters (16) led to a new annual cost record of over $300 billion in the U.S.

With each passing year that Congress decides to ignore climate change, the public gets left to deal with its ramifications — larger wildfires, more intense hurricanes, longer droughts, etc. This is insensitive and not sustainable for the nation in the long run.

One policy option — carbon pricing — is widely supported by economists and represents our best chance at stabilizing the climate in a meaningful timeframe. If kept revenue-neutral, such a plan would tax carbon dioxide emissions at their source and redistribute the money to the public.

If this sounds like a pipedream, it’s not. The Carbon Fee and Dividend and the Carbon Dividends Plan are two such proposals that have been endorsed by prominent Republicans and Democrats alike, and which some states are already moving to adopt.

Massachusetts just had a revenue-neutral carbon pricing bill pass the state Senate, marking the first passage of such a plan by a U.S. legislative body. The bill not only passed with bipartisan support, but with unanimous support.

Similarly, this November voters in Washington State get to vote on Initiative 1631, which would enact the country’s first state-level carbon tax. While such news in great, pricing carbon at the federal level remains the golden ticket.

By asking Congress to support such a federal plan, the public can have an influential role in moving climate policy forward and securing a safe and stable climate for the future — in which droughts and wildfires aren’t the “new normal.”

Shahir Masri, Sc.D., is author of “Beyond Debate: Answers to 50 Misconceptions on Climate Change.” He is an assistant specialist in air pollution exposure assessment at the University of California at Irvine, and also teaches at Chapman University. Masri is soon launching “On the Road for Climate Action,” a public outreach project to communicate the crucial message of climate science and solutions in over 35 different states.