Biden is the obvious ‘climate choice’ candidate in the current race
In the western U.S., each fire season has surpassed the prior as states set new records for the “largest” and “most destructive” wildfires. In California, the Tubbs Fire in 2017 became the most destructive wildfire on state record after claiming over 5,600 structures and 22 lives. Two months later, the Thomas Fire became the state’s largest wildfire, scorching some 281,000 acres. In just three months that year, California saw five of its 20 most destructive wildfires while Oregon experienced a similar fate.
In 2018, on the same day that I embarked on a national outreach effort to raise awareness on the connection between wildfires and climate change, among other climate-related impacts, the Mendocino Complex Fire ignited to become the new “largest wildfire” on record in California. The smoke from that fire contributed to air pollution felt several states over.
By the year’s end, yet another inferno became the new “most destructive” on record, as the tragedy unfolded in the city of Paradise, where over 18,000 structures burned and 85 people lost their lives. Stories by wildfire survivors, including a resident I interviewed who lost his home, speak to the physical and emotional detriment that such events leave behind.
While the wildfire season has yet to conclude in 2020, it is no secret that the west has already set new records. However, the extent to which these records dwarf those of prior years is sobering. The August Complex Fire, California’s new “largest wildfire,” more than doubled the burn area of the former 2018 record-holder, the Mendocino Complex Fire, and nearly quintupled the burn area of the 2017 record-holder.
Of the top 20 largest wildfires ever recorded in California, half occurred in the last decade alone, with five of the six largest occurring in August and September of this year. The situation hasn’t been better for Oregon and Washington as historic fires similarly destroyed towns and forests this year, producing dense and hazardous smoke that affected millions for weeks.
As such wildfires erupt, President Trump’s recurring reaction has been to ignore the role of climate change and instead blame state governments for poor forest management. To address the latter point using California as an example, let us ask the question, “who owns and manages the forestland?”
As the University of California’s Agriculture and Natural Resources Department points out, the majority (57 percent) of California forestland owned and managed by the fed governmental government, not the state government, and another 40 percent is privately owned. The state owns just 3 percent. So, while forest management is an important part of fire prevention, the federal government overwhelmingly bears this responsibility. Meanwhile, the elephant in the room is the steady increase in global average temperatures.
As I explained in a prior article, increases in fire activity arise from four interrelated factors linked to climate change — earlier snowmelt, higher summer temperatures, a longer fire season, and an increase in vulnerable areas such as high-elevation forests. As climate change causes temperatures to rise in the West, snow melts earlier in the season, allowing vegetation to dry sooner and become more flammable over time.
According to research, recent decades in the western U.S. have seen a four-fold increase in major wildfires and a six-fold increase in the area burned by such fires, relative to earlier years, with an overall growth wildfire season of 78 days.
While such statistics are compelling, it might be tempting to dismiss these population gro products’ trends and expand the wildland-urban interface. However, a critical distinction is that it’s not the number of wildfires that has increased, but rather the number of major wildfires.
That’s because wildfires are constantly being ignited thanks to human and natural ignition sources that have long been abundant, including power lines, cigarette butts and lightning strikes. The question is not, “why are there more fires?” but rather, “why are existing fires suddenly becoming so massive, fast-spreading, and destructive?”
While it’s impossible to know exactly how much climate change is contributing to wildfire trends, research reported in the most recent U.S. National Climate Assessment suggests that roughly half of the cumulative forest area burned in the U.S. as of 2018 would not have caught fire were it not for climate change.
While the physical and emotional damage that comes with wildfire is devastating, so are the economic impacts, totaling to well over $50 billion across the U.S. indirect costs over the last five years, not counting the destructive 2020 wildfire season nor the indirect costs associated with hazardous air pollution exposure among other impacts.
While the recently televised U.S. presidential debate was widely considered a failure for interruption and name-calling, a more unforgivable failure was pervasive in the last debate. Still, there was a lack of airtime given to the existential threat of climate change in the debates. With that said, Trump’s rejection of climate science, his affinity for coal, and his action to withdraw the U.S. from the Paris Climate Accord have drawn a clear line in the sand between himself and Biden on the issue of climate change — Biden being the obvious “climate choice” in the current race.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has identified this decade as our last serious chance to curb greenhouse gas emissions enough to keep Earth under 1.5 degrees Celsius of warming. With the U.S. playing a crucial role not only as a greenhouse gas emitter but as an influencer of global policy, there can be little doubt as to the importance of the November election in determining the long term suitability of our climate for future civilization. The extent to which this reality will weigh in as Americans cast their vote remains to be seen. To date, over three million have already voted early by mail.
Shahir Masri, Sc.D., is the author of “Beyond Debate: Answers to 50 Misconceptions on Climate Change.” He is an air pollution scientist at the University of California at Irvine and teaches at the Schmid College of Science and Technology at Chapman University. Follow him on Twitter at @ShahirMasri.
The Hill has removed its comment section, as there are many other forums for readers to participate in the conversation. We invite you to join the discussion on Facebook and Twitter.