The massive fires on the West Coast are unprecedented in both their size and impact. An area larger than the size of New Jersey is now burning in California, Oregon, and Washington. Those fires continue to rage and the death toll continues to rise. Hundreds of thousands of Americans are poised to flee their homes as the dangers grow.
At least 24 people have been killed, with dozens more missing and more than 3,000 homes destroyed since the most recent fires began. In the state of Oregon, half a million people were under evacuation orders as out-of-control fires advanced toward Salem and Portland's suburbs.
California's wildfires, driven by extreme blazes in August and September, have already burned more acres than any year on record. There are now blazes burning in at least ten western states.
The air quality over the West Coast is now the most polluted on the planet and the toxic nature of the nation’s politics further clouds the public discussion around the fires. Social media platforms are abuzz with false claims that the fires were intentionally set by extremist groups. In reality, the fires burning across the Pacific Coast are the latest evidence of the harms from a rapidly heating planet, a heat that dries out forests and makes them more susceptible to fires. Like the huge fires in Australia and the Amazon, these infernos are the most recent examples of an atmosphere choking on greenhouse gases.
In January, vast areas of Australia burned. The skies turned orange, and smoke blanketed the country's largest cities. Entire cities were wiped out. Now, across the Pacific, it is the skies over San Francisco, Portland and Seattle that have turned red and orange, with smoke blocking out the sun.
There is no question that 2020 will be one of the hottest years on record for the planet; currently it is second. However, 2020 has been the hottest in certain parts of the world: including a large portion of northern Asia, parts of Europe, China, Mexico, northern South America, as well as the Atlantic, northern Indian and Pacific Oceans.
Those increased temperatures allow fires to burn more intensely and cause forests to dry out and burn more easily. These intense fires are not started by climate change, but they are exacerbated by the effects of global warming. Experts believe that fire conditions are now more dangerous than they were in the past, with longer bushfire seasons, drought, drier fuels and soils, and record-breaking heat.
The increased heat is diminishing mountain snow packs, leading to hotter and drier summers. Eighty percent of California, 95% of Oregon, and all of Colorado, Utah, Arizona, and New Mexico are currently in drought. Higher temperatures further dry out forest and rangeland soils. Stronger lightning storms are igniting multiple fires at a time, and we are seeing the consequences today.
And it is not just fires that result from global warming. Other climate-change impacts are accelerating too, in the form of more intense storms, melting glaciers, rising seas, and more.
The fact that our habitat is being destroyed by global warming has not, unfortunately, led to action by the Trump Administration. In fact, their actions over the past three and a half years will make things worse.
The Trump Administration has rolled back numerous environmental programs saying that they were unnecessary and burdensome to the fossil fuel industry and other businesses. The Administration has weakened Obama-era limits on planet-warming carbon dioxide emissions from power plants and from cars and trucks.
And the oil industry is fueling that political fire, even though they know it is wrong. According to reporting by The New York Times, last summer oil and gas-industry groups were lobbying to overturn federal rules on leaks of natural gas, a major contributor to climate change. Instead of concern about how methane leaks from fossil fuel production significantly contributes to the climate crisis, the oil and gas leaders were focused on the public relations damage to the industry’s reputation.
For years, researchers have warned that drilling for the gas also causes sizable leaks of methane directly into the atmosphere. Methane can trap more than 80 times more heat in the earth’s atmosphere than carbon dioxide. Research has shown that methane emissions from oil and gas production are far larger than previously estimated.
To address the issue, the Obama Administration had proposed new regulations that would have required, among other measures, that oil and gas companies install technology to detect and fix methane leaks from wells, pipelines, and storage facilities. That’s one of the programs weakened by the Trump Administration.
Dismantling environmental programs, pulling out of the Paris accords, and undermining climate science, have acted as an accelerant to the dangers from global warming.
Since 2008, the fourth week in September--next week--has been considered “Climate Week”: a focus on the worldwide movement to halt the planet’s headlong rush toward catastrophe. This year’s events will be more subdued due to concerns over the COVID-19 pandemic. But even if the events are restrained, the activism needed to respond to the burning of the West Coast cannot subside.
The West Coast fires are the latest unmistakable alarm sounding that the deadly consequences of global warming are real and happening now. We need a government that responds to the science. For that to happen, the planet needs to sustain an unprecedented level of citizen activism. If we collectively fail to respond today, what will be our excuse to future generations?
Blair Horner is executive director of the New York Public Interest Research Group.
The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors.They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.