This writing is about climate change, and if on hearing that you reflexively dismiss the subject, well, you are just the person I hope will come to a public forum Sept. 26 at the Mohawk Community Resource Center beginning at 6 p.m. It will focus on the relationship between warming temperatures and rising wildfire threat. I’m a Paradise resident who has lost three homes to wildfire in the past 10 years, also a former newspaper reporter, now a climate educator. I’ll be speaking with forum organizer Robbin Anderson of Portola, who has been working hard to increase public awareness of what rising temperatures are doing to our area and what we can do to reduce the risks.
The biggest climate hurdle we face isn’t technologic or economic. It’s ideologic. The subject has been shoved into a partisan box that makes rational, informed discussion difficult. We’ve been conditioned to assume that anyone who says climate change is a threat must be a Democratic, support tax increases and crippling businesses regulations. They’re probably an atheist and communist to boot. On the other side, those who doubt that burning fossil fuels leads to rising temperatures are pegged as pro-Trump, anti-environmental, gun-toting, Fox News fiends.
But ideologic and partisan caricatures have no place in this discussion. When we talk of climate change, we are talking about atmospheric chemistry. It’s complicated, but also remarkably understandable.
The world now consumes about 100 million barrels or 4.2 trillion gallons of oil a day. We also burn mountains of coal and trillions of cubic meters of natural gas. All of the carbon in those fuels had been locked away deep in the earth for millions of years. For more than a century now we’ve been digging and pumping these ancient stores of carbon out of the ground, burning them and spewing megatons of carbon into the atmosphere, where it persists for decades, absorbing evermore of the sun’s energy and warming the planet. Atmospheric CO2 levels have jumped from 280 ppm to 410 ppm in just the past few decades.
Those are facts, and they are hard to dismiss, though there has been immense effort to do so.
It’s also becoming increasingly difficult to ignore what’s happening to global weather patterns. July was the hottest month on record, breaking the record set just the previous July. Anchorage hit 90 degrees for the first time this summer and Paris topped out at 104, shattering its previous record high. Russia has struggled with fires above the Arctic circle this summer. The past five years globally were the warmest on record, and 2019 is expected to continue that trend. Globally we’ve suffered unprecedented flooding, droughts, heat waves, fires, storms of unimaginable fury and staggering losses. Extreme weather now costs the US about $90 billion annually, more than double in inflation adjusted dollars what storms costs us just a couple decades ago.
According to NOAA: “The past three years (2016-2018) have been historic, with the annual average number of billion-dollar disasters being more than double the long-term average.”
So far, this has been a mercifully mild fire season in the West, though conditions are worsening, and we could have a couple tough months ahead of us. There is no reason to believe the horrific blazes that took more than 160 lives, destroyed my hometown of Paradise, and burned to the ground more than 30,000 California homes and businesses in the previous two years won’t return. Keep in mind that two of those fires, Tubbs in Sonoma and Thomas further south, burned during the winter. That’s extraordinary.
The math is simple: the more carbon and other greenhouse gases we spew, the worse things will get. We must prepare. We must look squarely at the issue and take our partisan blinders off. We will have to do more to reduce fuel loads in our forests, beef up fire-fighting capabilities, improve evacuation plans, and strategically harden defenses for our communities and our homes.
We must also attack global warming at its roots – meaning we must wean ourselves from fossil fuels. I wish it weren’t so, but we owe it to our children and the generations to come to face facts.
I hope to see some of you, particularly those of you who doubt the issue is real or pressing, later this month.