Climate Dispatches: Wildfires underscore urgency to rein in climate change
The purpose of this ongoing series of “Climate Dispatches” is to share with our neighbors how climate change affects our community and how we can all make a meaningful difference.
We sleep with my cellphone at full volume on the bedside table, in case there’s an emergency NIXLE message during the night. Every morning we go to the back door and sniff the air, making sure it’s clean enough to let into the house.
Next to the car in the garage, there are three “Go” boxes, 8 gallons of water, an emergency kit and an evacuation checklist. Each day when we look at the news photos of infernos around California, we know that could be us and shudder.
Welcome to life in the high Sierra, late summer 2020.
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 2020, nearly 4,000 homes and other structures had already been consumed by wildfires 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.
The Town of Truckee, followed by the City of South Lake and Nevada City, has endorsed the Energy Innovation and Carbon Dividend Act — one of the 100 municipalities around the country that have done so. They wisely understand that a national price on carbon will support and accelerate their own climate actions. Scores of local businesses and nonprofits have endorsed the Act as well, knowing that our outdoor recreation economy and the special environment it depends on are endangered by climate change.
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.
Deirdre Henderson is a volunteer with the North Tahoe chapter of Citizens’ Climate Lobby. Mark Reynolds is the executive director of Citizens’ Climate Lobby.
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