Congress cannot ignore climate change as California burns

Congress cannot ignore climate change as California burns
© UPI Photo

It was only a year ago that California experienced its most intense wildfire season in the state’s history. In October came the TUBBS Fire, which became the state’s most destructive wildfire, claiming some 5,600 structures. It was followed shortly by the Thomas Fire, scorching over 280,000 acres and becoming California’s largest wildfire on record. Though a devastating year, 2018 has proven even worse. With summer came the state’s new “largest” wildfire — The Mendocino Complex Fire — which out-burned the Thomas Fire by over 180,000 acres. And just this month we saw the Camp Fire become California’s new “most destructive” wildfire — destroying 2,000 more homes and structures than the TUBBS Fire, and taking almost twice as many lives. What’s going on with the Golden State?

Climate scientists will tell you that what we’re witnessing is unusual, but not unexpected. That is, scientists have predicted these disasters — wildfires — to become more rampant in the West as global temperatures rise. Based on the U.S. National Climatic Data Center, average temperatures in California have been steadily increasing since the early 1900s. As drought conditions become more frequent and vegetation drier, the risk of major wildfires has grown.

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What about the notion that California has always been a fire-prone state? While true, the severity of recent fires is extreme, even by California standards. Within a single three-month period last year, California experienced five of its 20 most destructive wildfires on record. In fact, if you look at the 10 largest wildfires in the state’s history, the list is not a mixed bag of infernos dating back to the 1950s and 1960s. Far from it. Nine of the state’s 10 largest wildfires occurred in just the last two decades. This is not your ordinary California. To the contrary, it’s something new. Frighteningly, it may also be the “new normal,” to echo California Gov. Jerry Brown’s words in the wake of last years Thomas Fire.

In a recent tweet, President TrumpDonald John TrumpWHCA calls on Trump to denounce video depicting him shooting media outlets Video of fake Trump shooting members of media shown at his Miami resort: report Trump hits Fox News's Chris Wallace over Ukraine coverage MORE blamed California’s growing wildfire epidemic on “poor” forest management. “Remedy now, or no more Fed payments,” he threatened. Never mind the fact that most of the state’s forestland is federally owned, and therefore not managed by state or local agencies, Trump’s statement was misguided and even ironic. In 2015, the U.S. Forest Service published a report, which acknowledged its reduced attention to programs that “help prevent catastrophic fires.” However, this lack of attention has not been by choice, or due to negligence. Rather, the agency’s resources have become increasingly consumed by one single activity — fighting wildfires.

In just a 20-year period from 1995 to 2015, the fraction of the agency’s budget that is spent fighting wildfires has grown from 16 to 52 percent. Since the agency’s budget has not seen a proportionate increase from the federal government, this shift has been accompanied by a 39 percent reduction in all non-fire personnel — some of whom would otherwise work on forest restoration projects that help prevent wildfires.

The report goes on to describe the effects and costs of wildfires as being amplified by “changing climatic conditions” that are “driving increased temperatures” and “unpredictability in precipitation.” 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 period from 1970 to 1986. The area burned by such fires has increased a staggering six-fold. The study implicates four climate-related factors to the increased fire activity: earlier snowmelt, higher summer temperatures, a longer fire season, and an increase in vulnerable areas such as high-elevation forests.

To address the growing threat of U.S. wildfires, Congress recently passed a budget that will help the U.S. Forest Service contend with catastrophic wildfires — treating them as other natural disasters are treated, such as tornadoes and hurricanes. While we must applaud this necessary action, it’s important to realize that this step only places a Band-Aid on a much deeper problem: the growing problem of global warming.

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To remedy the longer-term threat posed by rising global temperatures, Congress must pass meaningful legislation to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Such policies should put a price on carbon emissions and reduce subsidies offered to fossil fuel companies. This would level the playing field so that non-polluting renewable energy technologies can compete more fairly in the marketplace, and would give rise to new entrepreneurs who benefit society and the planet.

In recent years, Democrats in Congress have pointed to their colleagues across the aisle when explaining the absence of important congressional climate action. With a Democratic House majority now moving in, a new opportunity may be at hand. Whether this will translate to meaningful climate policy, however, remains to be seen. One thing can be assured. Congress will not act if Americans don’t ask them to. Thus, the role of constituents in demanding climate action will remain essential if we’re to see the right kind of change take place and further disasters averted.

Shahir Masri is the 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 recently launched “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. Follow Masri on Twitter at @shahirmasri.