The Politics of Climate Change and Wildfires

Some Evidence and Assessment

Bob Sheak, September 18, 2020

bsheak983@gmail.com

https://wordpress.com/posts/vitalissues-bobsheak.com

In this post, I return to one of the most existentially-threatening realities facing Americans and all humanity, that is, the human-caused (e.g., the burning of fossil fuels), accelerating, increasingly catastrophic climate change. I have written many times on this disturbing issue. You can see all 64 posts I have written over the past 3 ½ years, including quite a few dealing with climate change at https://wordpress.com/posts/vitalissues-bobsheak.com. In order to cope meaningfully with this vast and deepening problem our society and other societies must radically reduce in the next decade or two the amount of greenhouse gases emitted into the atmosphere (i.e. carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide). The position I have taken is based on scientific evidence and a progressive/leftist perspective. The post I sent out on December 28, 2019 it titled “The realty and challenges of the climate crisis.” The first paragraphs of that post, which follow, provide an appropriate introduction of how dire the problem of this unfolding crisis is. As you probably well know, Trump, the Republican Party and their allies essentially reject the realty of climate change or want to do very little to address the problem. 

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The climate crisis grows, leaving humanity very little time to avoid a terrifying outcome. Recent scientific findings based on systematic field observations, sophisticated computer modeling, meta-analyses of research continue to document how the effects of the climate crisis are accelerating and affecting all parts of the earth.

Bob Berwyn reports for Inside Climate News (12-18-19) that scientists are “confidently saying 2019 was Earth’s second-warmest recorded year on record, capping the warmest decade. Eight of the 10 warmest years since measurements began occurred this decade, and the other two were only a few years earlier” (https://insideclimatenews.org/news/18122019/decade-climate-heat-drought-extreme-storms-arctic-sea-ice-antarctica-greenland).

There were plenty of examples of this rapidly unfolding crisis in 2019. “Arctic sea ice melted faster and took longer to form again in the fall. Big swaths of ocean remained record-warm nearly all year, in some regions spawning horrifically damaging tropical storms that surprised experts with their rapid intensification. Densely populated parts of Europe shattered temperature records amid heat waves blamed for hundreds of deaths, and a huge section of the U.S. breadbasket region was swamped for months by floodwater.” And that wasn’t all. There were deadly heat waves, droughts, and wildfires in many parts of the world.

“…wildfires burned around the globe, starting unusually early in unexpected places like the UK. They blazed across country-size tracts of Siberia, fueled by record heat, flared up in the Arctic and devastated parts of California. Australia ended the decade with thick smoke and flames menacing Sydney and a record-breaking heat wave that sent the continent’s average temperature over 107 degrees Fahrenheit. Again and again, scientists completed near real-time attribution studies showing how global warming is making extremes—including wildfires—more likely.”

Leslie Hook cites evidence from a The UN’s World Meteriological Organization documenting that “global average concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere rose to 407.8 parts per million in 2018, up from 405.5 parts per million in 2017.” This particularly reflects how the biggest economies of the world continue on energy paths dependent on fossil fuels. Hook quotes Petteri Taalas, Secretary-general of the World Meteorological Organization: “There is no sign of a slowdown, let alone a decline, in greenhouse gases concentration in the atmosphere despite all the commitments under the Paris agreement,” [adding] “It is worth recalling that the last time the Earth experienced a comparable concentration of CO2 was 3 to 5 million years ago…. Back then, the temperature was 2 to 3°C warmer, and sea level was 10 to 20 meters higher than now.”(https://insideclimatenews.org/news/26112019/unep-emissions-gap-report-paris-climate-greenhouse-gas-peak-2030).

Jake Johnson brings our attention to a study issued by the UN Environmental Program (UNEP) on just the day after the report by the World Meteorological Organization was made public. The UNEP confirmed in its annual Emissions Gap report that levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere reached a record high in 2018.” Johnson also quotes from the report: “It is evident that incremental changes will not be enough and there is a need for rapid and transformational action….By necessity, this will see profound change in how energy, food, and other material-intensive services are demanded and provided by governments, businesses, and markets (https://www.commondreams.org/news/2019/11/26/science-screaming-un-report-warns-only-rapid-and-transformational-action-can-stave). The UNEP finding that only “profound change” is enough to curtail greenhouse gas emissions has relevance for the 2020 elections. In this context, Bernie Sanders calls for “revolutionary” change, which seems far more appropriate than Democratic candidates who want only incremental change.

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Recent evidence

The growing body of scientifically verifiable evidence on the climate crisis/disaster continues to accumulate.

National Aeronautics and Space Administration

NASA appears to be one government source that has not yet been corrupted by the Trump administration. The NASA site can be found at https://climate.nasa.gov/evidence, and is regularly updated, most recently on September 9, 2020. NASA includes pages on the evidence, causes, effects, scientific consensus, and vital signs. With respect to evidence, NASA reports on changes that are altering the earth’s fundamental ecological support systems, including rising temperatures, warming oceans, shrinking ice sheets, retreating glaciers, decreasing snow cover, rising sea levels, declining arctic ice, the increase in extreme weather events, and ocean acidification. According to NASA, “[t]he current warming trend is of particular significance because most of it is extremely likely (greater than 95 percent probability) to be the result of human activity since the mid-20th century and proceeding at a rate that is unprecedented over decades to millennia.1” The data come from earth-orbiting satellites and other technological advances, ice cores, tree rings, ocean sediments, coral reefs, and layers of sedimentary rocks. They show that the accumulation of carbon dioxide and other gases in the atmosphere, accelerating in the mid-20th Century, are the principal cause.

The Royal Society and US National Academy of Sciences

The Royal Society of England and the US National Academy of Sciences have also published a 2020 updated report of the evidence on global warming (https://royalsociety.org/-/media-Royal_Society_Content/policy/projects/climate-evidence-causes).  The following excerpts from this report captures the gist of their analysis.

“CLIMATE CHANGE IS ONE OF THE DEFINING ISSUES OF OUR TIME. It is now more certain than ever, based on many lines of evidence, that humans are changing Earth’s climate. The atmosphere and oceans have warmed, which has been accompanied by sea level rise, a strong decline in Arctic sea ice, and other climate-related changes. The impacts of climate change on people and nature are increasingly apparent. Unprecedented flooding, heat waves, and wildfires have cost billions in damages. Habitats are undergoing rapid shifts in response to changing temperatures and precipitation patterns. The Royal Society and the US National Academy of Sciences, with their similar missions to promote the use of science to benefit society and to inform critical policy debates, produced the original Climate Change: Evidence and Causes in 2014. It was written and reviewed by a UK-US team of leading climate scientists. This new edition, prepared by the same author team, has been updated with the most recent climate data and scientific analyses, all of which reinforce our understanding of human-caused climate change.”

Wikipedia

The online, open-source encyclopedia Wikipedia says this about “climate change”:

Climate change includes both the global warming driven by human emissions of greenhouse gases, and the resulting large-scale shifts in weather patterns.[1] Though there have been previous periods of climatic change, since the mid-20th century the rate of human impact on Earth’s climate system and the global scale of that impact have been unprecedented.[2]

Observed temperature from NASA[3] vs the 1850–1900 average as a pre-industrial baseline. The main driver for increased global temperatures in the industrial era is human activity, with natural forces adding variability.[4]

“That human activity has caused climate change is not disputed by any scientific body of national or international standing.[5] The largest driver has been the emission of greenhouse gases. Over 90% of these emissions are carbon dioxide (CO
2) and methane, with fossil-fuel burning being the main source, and secondary contributions from agriculture and deforestation. Temperature rise is accelerated or tempered by climate feedbacks, such as loss of sunlight-reflecting snow and ice cover, increased water vapour (a greenhouse gas itself), and changes to land and ocean carbon sinks.

“Because land surfaces heat faster than ocean surfaces, deserts are expanding and heat waves and wildfires are more common.[6] Surface temperature rise is greatest in the Arctic, where it has contributed to melting permafrost, and the retreat of glaciers and sea ice. Increasing atmospheric energy and rates of evaporation cause more intense storms and weather extremes, which damage infrastructure and agriculture.[7] Rising temperatures are limiting ocean productivity and harming fish stocks in most parts of the globe. Current and anticipated effects from undernutrition, heat stress and disease have led the World Health Organization to declare climate change the greatest threat to global health in the 21st century. Environmental effects include the extinction or relocation of many species as their ecosystems change, most immediately in coral reefsmountains, and the Arctic. Even if efforts to minimize future warming are successful, some effects will continue for centuries, including rising sea levels, rising ocean temperatures, and ocean acidification from elevated levels of CO.”
2.

The problem of climate change is steadily getting worse

Bill McKibben writes in The New Yorker on September 3, 2020 that the changes wrought by the climate change/disaster are so great that they are altering the “world each and every day” and “radically remaking the planet, [all] in the course of one lifetime” (https://www.newyorker.com/news/annals-of-a-warming-planet/how-fast-the-climate-changing-its-a-new-world-each-and-every-day). The greenhouse gas emissions from human activity, principally from the combustion of fossil fuels, captures heat in the atmosphere at a level equivalent to “exploding four Hiroshima-sized bombs each second.” And he points to another dramatic realty: “For almost all of human history, the atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide stuck at about two hundred and seventy-five parts per million, meaning that the planet’s energy balance was essentially unchanged. The physical world worked in predictable ways. But there’s around twenty-five parts per million more CO2 in the air now than there was a decade ago: That’s more change in ten years than over all the millennia from the invention of agriculture to the start of the Industrial Revolution. To think about it this way is to understand why this is a bigger predicament than any we’ve ever faced. Our other dramas—wars, revolutions—have played out against the backdrop of an essentially stable planet. But now that planet has become the main actor in our affairs, and more so every second.”

A majority of the US population takes the climate crisis seriously

Abrahm Lustgarten provides a quick summary of this evidence (https://popularresistance.org/climate-change-will-force-a-new-american-migration). He points to “signs that the message is breaking through” and gives some examples from polling data. “Half of Americans now rank climate as a top political priority, up from roughly one-third in 2016, and 3 out of 4 now describe climate change as either “a crisis” or “a major problem.” This year, Democratic caucus goers in Iowa, where tens of thousands of acres of farmland flooded in 2019, ranked climate second only to health care as an issue. A poll by researchers at Yale and George Mason universities found that even Republicans’ views are shifting: 1 in 3 now thinks climate change should be declared a national emergency.” We must wait to see whether this has an impact on the election. It’s hard to see how it benefits climate-denying Trump, his administration, and the Republican Party, perhaps the only major political party in the world that holds such a degenerate view.

A case study of one major effect of climate change– the western state wildfires

The scope of the wildfires

In an article published online at Inside Climate News, Michael Kodas gives us an idea of how extensive the wildfires are in “the hot, dry West” (https://insideclimatenews.org/news/09092020/wildfires-america-west-climate).

He reports on “80 large, uncontained wildfires” in the western regions of the US, in California, Colorado, Washington, Oregon, Montana, Utah, burning millions of acres of woodlands and thousands of homes and buildings. For example: “…on Tuesday evening [Sept. 8], the Glendower Fire, a brush fire that ignited that morning outside Ashland, Oregon, burned up the Interstate 5 corridor into the towns of Talent and Phoenix, where the wildfire turned into an urban firestorm that ripped into Medford,a city of nearly 85,000 residents.” And: “In a news briefing Tuesday, Gov. Jay Inslee of Washington reported that 330,000 acres burned across the state on Monday alone—more than in any of the previous 12 fire seasons.” The Creek fire in the Cascadel Woods area of unincorporated Madera County, California, “helped California break its annual record for the amount of land burning in one year of wildfires, with 2.2 million acres scorched by Labor Day [up to 2.8 million by some estimates]. But the state’s most deadly and destructive months for wildfires are still to come.” And the fires are likely to keep up. Kodas points out that “the Creek Fire is pushing into mountain forests where 163 million trees have died since 2010 due to drought and insect infestation, providing ample fuel for the new fires” and the usual peak fire season has yet to start.

The controversy over the causes

Climate change and/or forest management

President Trump, self-styled expert on everything, asserts that the fires are not due to global warming but rather to poor forest management by the impacted states. His version of appropriate forest management is to have the for-profit lumber companies cut down, or harvest, trees at will, thus, in his mind, a really good thing because it reduces the fuel for fires, generates profits for some, and pleases his plutocratic supporters.

Lindsay Whitehurst and Sara Kline, AP journalists, report on Trump’s first trip to the wildfire-devastated states, comparing the president’s explanation with the science-based explanation of the affected-state governors. On this difference, they write: “The Democratic governors say the fires are a consequence of climate change, while the Trump administration has blamed poor forest management for the flames that have raced through the region and made the air in places like Portland, Oregon, Seattle and San Francisco some of the worst in the world” (https://searchandnews.com/news/read/article/the_associated_press-fires_raise_fight_over_climate_change_before_trump_ap/category/news). “Scientists say,” the journalists point out, “that the wildfires are all but inevitable, but that the main drivers are plants and trees drying out due to climate change and more people living closer to areas that burn. Forest thinning and controlled burns have proven challenging to implement on the scale needed to combat those threats.” They refer to a statement by Greg Jones, a professor and research climatologist at Linfield University in McMinnville, Oregon, who says that it “isn’t clear if global warming caused the dry, windy conditions that have fed the fires in the Pacific Northwest, but a warmer world can increase the likelihood of extreme events and contribute to their severity.”

Sonali Kolhatkar points that lightning, in the context of the conditions created by climate change, is another proximate cause of the wildfires. She writes: “In California’s Bay area, more than 10,000 lightning strikes triggered hundreds of fires in August” (https://www.counterpunch.org/2020/09/17/fighting-fire-with-fire-what-tribal-people-know-about-forest-ecosystems).

Climate change must be addressed

Democracy Now devoted a major part of their online program on Sept. 15 to the wildfires, focusing on the causes (https://www.democracynow.org/2020/9/15/california_wildfires_indegenous_land_stewardship).

Hosts Amy Goodman and Juan Gonzalez quote California Governor Gavin Newsom, who addressed Trump’s persistence in blaming the fires on poor forest management. The governor makes two points about the wildfires. (1) “We obviously feel very strongly that the hots are getting hotter, the dries are getting drier. When we’re having heat domes the likes of which we’ve never seen in our history, the hottest August ever in the history of the state, the ferocity of these fires, the drought five-plus years, losing 163 million trees to that drought, something has happened to the plumbing of the world. And we come from a perspective, humbly, where we submit the science is in, and observed evidence is self-evident, that climate change is real, and that is exacerbating this.” (2) The federal government and private owners have much more responsibility for the lack of forest management than the states: “57% of California’s forests are on federal land, compared to just 3% that is owned by California, the rest privately owned.”

In an article published in The Washington Post on Sept. 16, Sarah Kaplan and Juliet Eilperin consider the argument that climate change is the fundamental cause of the increasing frequency and lethality of wildfires (https://www.washingtonpost.com/climate-environment/2020/09/16/fires-climate-change).

In this case, they report, fires and climate are linked by basic physics. The describe the link as follows. “Human greenhouse gas emissions have warmed the planet. Higher temperatures trap more water in the atmosphere, drying out vegetation and making it more likely to ignite. In the American West — where temperatures are already as much as 4 degrees Fahrenheit hotter than in the preindustrial era — landscapes are burning in fundamentally different and more destructive ways.” The wildfire problem grows as the temperature rises, but even scientists underestimated how rapidly the fires would increase and become so destructive. They write: “A study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that human-caused climate change doubled the amount of forest burned between 1984 and 2015. California’s own climate assessment in 2018 predicted that higher temperatures would cause 2.5 million acres to burn annually — the models just did not expect it to happen until 2050….The scale of this year’s fires have horrified even those who saw them coming. As of Tuesday, 3.2 million acres in California have been incinerated — almost double the previous record of 1.9 million, set in 2018. In Oregon, blazes have erupted in parts of the wet Western Cascades that have not burned in years. On a single day last week, red-flag warnings on fire weather stretched along the entire West Coast from the U.S. border with Mexico to Canada.” They add: “The intensity of the blazes creates towering plumes of heat called pyrocumulus clouds, which in turn trigger lightning storms and swirling fire tornadoes. Powerful winds push fires farther and faster than firefighters are used to. Embers carried far ahead of the main front enable fires to travel dozens of miles in a single day.”

Forest management – little being done

Kaplan and Eilperin report that as temperatures rise and wildfires multiply, “the federal government is supporting less research into the issue. The budget for the Joint Fire Science Program, which is funded through the Interior and Agriculture departments and produces research on the best practices for fire prevention and management, has steadily declined since the mid-2000s. In a 2017 budget deal approved before the current administration, the program’s funding was reduced from $12.9 million to $8.9 million. In 2018 and 2019, the White House sought to eliminate it entirely. The program now receives $6 million a year.”

Forest management ala Trump focus on logging that has exacerbated the problem. Trump signed “a 2019 executive order,” calling “on the secretaries of Agriculture and Interior to consider harvesting 4.4. million board feet of timber from public lands as a means to reduce wildfire risk,” which would be up from 3 billion board feet annually. But, unlike the helter-skelter logging by the for-profit logging companies, the thinning of forests must be nuanced, taking into account the types of trees, topography, ecology, and wildlife. Even then, however, Kaplan and Eilperin refer to research by Chris Dunn, a forester at Oregon State University who worked as a firefighter for eight years. He “found the most intensively managed industrial forests experienced more severe fire than untouched old growth — even when huge amounts of debris had accumulated on the ‘untreated’ forest floor. This is because younger trees planted for harvest are less resilient and fire spreads easily between them.”

But unfortunately, the rising temperatures accompanying uncontrolled climate change may stifle any approach. The journalists quote Monica Turner, fire ecologist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, who told Kaplan and Eilperin that (paraphrasing her) “[r]esearch also shows that climate change is making forests so hot and dry that almost no intervention can keep them from igniting. Just look at this year’s fires. They are burning through tree plantations and wild forests. They have consumed fire breaks and jumped rivers.

“When the climate conditions are as extreme as they are now, it doesn’t matter how you’re managing it,” she said. “The fires will burn across anything.” Turner also said we can reduce the risk of wildfires by “stopping greenhouse gas emissions. According to Turner, “United Nation scientists reported that the world would need to start cutting emissions 7.6 percent annually to limit warming to a ‘tolerable’ 1.5 degrees Celsius. At that point, fires would likely be even worse than they are now – but not nearly as bad as they might otherwise become.”

Tribal forestry

There may be one way to manage forests that does help to reduce the extent and intensity of the wildfires now occurring. Given the level of catastrophic climate change, it is probably something less than a total solution, but it may, if implemented well, have some positive effects. In an article for Counter Punch, Sonali Kolhatkar refers to “tribal forestry” as an approach that can contribute to managing forests in a way that may help reduce somewhat the extent and intensity of the wildfires now occurring (https://www.counterpunch.org/2020/09/17/fighting-fire-with-fire-what-tribal-people-know-about-forest-ecosystems).

Her source for this information is Ali Meders-Knight, a Mechoopda tribal member from Chico in the northern part of California, who “[f]or more than 20 years …has practiced what is now called Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK) and has worked as a liaison for tribal forestry programs addressing precisely the problem of California’s mismanaged land and fuel that end up giving rise to out-of-control deadly fires.”

In an interview, she explained to Kolhatkar that “The plants and the land are adapted to fire. [The area is] used to fire; it wants fire.” Meders-Knight explained further “that the optimal days for controlled fire burns are hard to predict weeks or months in advance, which means that the state’s permitting process needs to be far more flexible. And firefighters, whose job it is to put out every fire during the hottest months of the year, could be trained as ‘fire technicians’ to manage fire in other months—thereby making their jobs less dangerous and overwhelming than they are now. She sees this as a ‘workforce development initiative’ that could be part of a ‘green jobs’ project in the state, especially at a time of mass unemployment and a housing crisis. Prison inmates who are recruited to fight California’s fires could also benefit from such a program.”

Kolhatkar also cites a New York Times article to add credence to the idea of tribal forestry. She writes: “an Aboriginal burning program started seven years ago has cut hot and destructive wildfires in half and reduced carbon emissions by more than 40 percent….in Australia, fire was a crucial tool in managing the land before the arrival of Europeans.”

Bear in mind that well-managed forest management has not been a priority for the Trump administration or the private sector. Indeed, both favor a mostly unregulated market to solve economic problems and both have been steadfast climate-deniers or have dismissed the problem is too economically costly and have used their economic and political clout to maximize the primacy of fossil fuels in federal energy policy and unregulated access of lumber companies to forests. Sen. Mitch McConnell has just admitted that human-caused global warming exists, but he doesn’t have a climate plan and has no plans to have the Senate consider this earth-altering issue (https://insideclimattenews.org/news/03092020/kentucky-2020-senate-climate-change-election-mitch-mcconnell-amy-mcgrath).

When communities burn: Living amid the forests or leaving

Even if a new administration in the White House begins supports major programs to support renewables and phase out fossil fuels, the effects of such efforts would take decades to stem global warming and reduce the excessive carbon dioxide, methane, and other greenhouse gases already in the atmosphere. Nonetheless, government officials, scientists, experts, and various community and environmental groups believe there is a role for well-conceived forest management.

Spencer Bokat-Lindell throws some light on the causes of wildfires and what can be done with respect of forest management (https://www.nytimes.com/2020/09/15/opinion/california-wildfires-climate-change.html). He refers to an analysis by the former Times climate reporter, Kendra Pierre-Louis, who “wrote in 2018, many of the deadliest and costliest fires start not in the heart of isolated forests but at the wildland-urban interface, where developed and undeveloped land meet.” Continuing: “About 44 million houses, equivalent to one in every three in the country, are in these zones, and the number is rising particularly fast in California. Wildfires already pose the greatest danger to people in the wildland-urban interface, and their presence there tends to increase the number of fires that start in the first place.”

Bokat-Lindell says that experts tell us that “governments “could impose regulations to make housing developments more resilient, including stipulations for fire-resistant building materials and moats of cleared vegetation known as defensible space. California adopted many of these standards, some of the strictest in the country, in 2008. One analysis of the devastating Camp Fire that killed 85 people in 2018 determined that about 51 percent of the 350 single-family homes built to the new codes escaped damage, compared with just 18 percent of the 12,100 homes built earlier.”

However, “there are considerable obstacles to making such fire-resistant homes and communities. In many states, developers have resisted new regulations. Retrofitting the millions of houses already built can be prohibitively expensive. And in the aftermath of a fire, the pressure to rebuild often wins out over safety considerations.” Bokat-Lindell quotes Max Moritz, a wildfire expert affiliated with the University of California, Santa Barbara, who said: “At this point we’ve learned a lot about how to engineer homes and communities so that they can be more survivable. But these lessons aren’t being implemented fast enough.”

Others, including the Los Angeles Times editorial board to which Bokat-Lindell refers, call for a “managed retreat” away from the forests, or relocating threatened homes. This is the kind of proposal that has also been applied or proposed to communities facing coastal erosion or flooding. Such proposals have not gained momentum, the editorial board notes. People are locating in such areas for economic reasons “driven in part by soaring housing prices that have pushed people out of cities. Prohibitions against building in fire-prone areas would therefore entail building denser, affordable housing in urban economic centers.” Presently, many people communities affected by the fires want to rebuild the same sort of houses in the same locations. At some point, this tendency may be interrupted by insurance companies that stop offering home insurance policies.

Other causes and responses to wildfires

There are other causes of wildfires. Some fires are caused by “negligent utility companies and natural causes, most are caused, intentionally or unintentionally, by people,” according to Bokat-Lindell’s reporting. “In Washington State, for example, people have started more than 1,300 fires so far this year. The Seattle Times editorial board argues that climate change has only increased the need to cultivate a more rigorous ethic of fire prevention among the public.”

“Vigilance about fire safety must be an everyday concern. From cigarette butts tossed on the roadside to campfires and fire pits, each outdoor spark is a threat to bucolic wild lands, property and life during these long parched weeks,” the board writes. “Every Washington resident and business shares this responsibility. Schools and public-safety bulletins should urgently spread this gospel. The message must be amplified each summer.”

In the final analysis, forest management does not go far enough

There is no doubt that there are constructive proposals on what can be done to reduce the proximate causes of wildfires. The list includes: education about safe practices by people when they are camping or engaged in other activities in forests, or using more resilient materials in housing construction, or giving people affordable housing options outside of fire-prone forest areas, or better regulation of and better practices by utility companies, tribal forestry, or limiting and regulating the practices of lumber companies. But they leave aside the fundamental causes, namely, the extended droughts, rising temperatures, and other conditions that stem from global warming.

Facing the prospect of a massive new American migration

Abrahm Lustgarten provides an in-depth analysis of the increasingly limited options available to people, communities and investors in locations more and more affected by wildfires in the West, by hurricanes in the East, and be droughts and flood damage throughout the nation (https://popularresistance.org/climate-change-will-force-a-new-american-migration). He elaborates as follows. “This summer has seen more fires, more heat, more storms — all of it making life increasingly untenable in larger areas of the nation. Already, droughts regularly threaten food crops across the West, while destructive floods inundate towns and fields from the Dakotas to Maryland, collapsing dams in Michigan and raising the shorelines of the Great Lakes. Rising seas and increasingly violent hurricanes are making thousands of miles of American shoreline nearly uninhabitable. As California burned, Hurricane Laura pounded the Louisiana coast with 150-mile-an-hour winds, killing at least 25 people; it was the 12th named storm to form by that point in 2020, another record. Phoenix, meanwhile, endured 53 days of 110-degree heat — 20 more days than the previous record.”

Lustgarten’s sources are wide-ranging. He “interviewed more than four dozen experts: economists and demographers, climate scientists and insurance executives, architects and urban planners, and ProPublica mapped out the danger zones that will close in on Americans over the next 30 years. The maps for the first time combined exclusive climate data from the Rhodium Group, an independent data-analytics firm; wildfire projections modeled by United States Forest Service researchers and others; and data about America’s shifting climate niches, an evolution of work first published by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences last spring. (A detailed analysis of the maps is available here.)”

His data reveal “a nation on the cusp of a great transformation.” Specifically: “Across the United States, some 162 million people — nearly 1 in 2 — will most likely experience a decline in the quality of their environment, namely more heat and less water. For 93 million of them, the changes could be particularly severe, and by 2070, our analysis suggests, if carbon emissions rise at extreme levels, at least 4 million Americans could find themselves living at the fringe, in places decidedly outside the ideal niche for human life. The cost of resisting the new climate reality is mounting. Florida officials have already acknowledged that defending some roadways against the sea will be unaffordable. And the nation’s federal flood-insurance program is for the first time requiring that some of its payouts be used to retreat from climate threats across the country. It will soon prove too expensive to maintain the status quo.”

Other victims of wildfires

In an article for The New York Times, Mike Baker and his colleagues report that :[t]he fast-moving fires that swept through Western United States have wiped out critical populations of endangered species and incinerated native habitats that may take years to recover, if they recover at all” (https://www.nytimes.com/2020/09/16/us/fires-oregon-california-washington.html). Yes, “tens of thousands of people forced to flee their homes, possessions and livelihoods destroyed, and state and federal fire fighting resources have been stretched beyond the limit.” But the devastating effects on wildlife is equally significant.

They quote Davia Palmeri, policy coordinator for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, who says: “We now have to think about climate change when managing wildlife.” Additionally: “Several endangered and threatened species, including the northern spotted owl and the weasel-like pine marten, depend on the mature mountain forests that bore the brunt of the fires.” In Washington state, “Fire that raced through the sagebrush steppe country of central Washington this month destroyed several state wildlife areas, leaving little more than bare ground. The flames killed about half of the state’s endangered population of pygmy rabbits, leaving only about 50 of the palm-sized rabbits in the wild there.” Thirty to seventy percent of the endangered sage grouse and sharp-tailed ground have been wiped out the fires and their critical breeding grounds of been burnt to the ground. Ranchers in Douglas County, Wash., “were unable to get cattle out of the way and many died. On the range they found deer and other wildlife staggering around, severely burned.” And: “The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife is bracing for winter rains that could wash ash and silt into local streams and impact endangered salmon.”

Unlike Trump, Joe Biden takes climate change seriously.

Audrey McNamara reports for CBS News, Sept 16, 2020, on how Biden and Trump responses to the wildfires are antithetical. In short, Trump refuses to accept the realty of climate change, while Biden believes it “poses an existential threat” (https://www.cbsnews.com/news/biden-trump-climate-change-western-wildfire-response).

Trump’s position was revealed again at a briefing with government officials in California on Monday, Sept 14 at the McClellan Airport in Sacramento. In what McNamara describes as a striking exchange, the head of California’s Natural Resource Agency, Wade Crowfoot, pleaded with Trump for “cooperation in addressing climate change.” Crawfoot said: “We want to work with you to really recognize the changing climate and what it means to our forest, and actually work together with that science — that science is going to be key.” Trump “dismissed Crowfoot’s plea, “suggesting that global warming will somehow reverse itself. ‘It will start getting cooler. You just watch,’ he said. Crowfoot, an expert in climate and sustainability issues, replied, ‘I wish science agreed with you.’ To which the president said, ‘I don’t think science knows actually.’”

Given his stand on climate change, it is likely if reelected that Trump will continue to advance maximalist-fossil-fuel energy and deregulation policies as long as there are profits to be made and he is able to wield authoritarian power. Indeed, “Trump has called climate change a ‘hoax,’ and rolled back numerous policies put in place to protect the natural environment. Despite his record, the president recently declared himself the greatest environmentalist since President Theodore Roosevelt, who helped protect 230 million acres of public land.” Contrariwise, Trump has increased the amount of public land available to mining, logging and other private interests. Jim Robbins offers some information that conflicts with Trump’s claim ((https://e360.yale.edu/features/open-for-business-the-trump-revolution-on-public-lands). Here’s what he writes.

“Former Trump adviser Steve Bannon coined the term “deconstruction of the administrative state,” to describe efforts to take power away from the federal government and allow business a freer hand in development. Nowhere is that policy being carried out more systematically than in the Trump administration’s actions on public lands, where the businesses seeking that freer hand are primarily the oil and gas extraction, logging, and mining industries.

“There are hundreds of millions of acres of publically owned lands across the West and Alaska, including National Forests, Bureau of Land Management lands, National Parks and National Monuments. They include some of the nation’s most iconic landscapes, and they are also critical to state and local economies. As a percentage of each Western state, federal ownership ranges from 29 percent of Montana to 79 percent of Nevada.

“According to a study in the journal Science, the Trump administration is responsible for the largest reduction of protected public lands in history. Three months after taking office, Trump issued an executive order that led to dramatic reductions in the size of two national monuments in Utah — Bears Ears National Monument, shrunk by 85 percent, and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, shrunk by 51 percent”

McNamara reminds us that it was only two years ago, when “the administration’s own National Climate Assessment — a peer-reviewed assessment mandated by Congress — warned in 2018 that ‘more frequent and intense extreme weather and climate-related events, as well as changes in average climate conditions, are expected to continue to damage infrastructure, ecosystems, and social systems that provide essential benefits to communities.’” To repeat what many others have said,  Trump cares little about facts and evidence and much about winning, supporting his powerful and rich constituencies,  and holding together his large, fact-avoidance, right-wing coalition, including tens of millions of voters who seemingly support him whatever he says or does.

What about Biden’s positions on the wildfires and global warming? McNamara points to Biden’s campaign website, featuring the candidate’s climate change plan, which stresses that it threatens not just the environment, but also ‘our health, our communities, our national security, and our economic well-being.’” Biden “endorses [a version of] the “Green New Deal, noting that it ‘captures two basic truths’  at the core of his climate change plan: ‘(1) the United States urgently needs to embrace greater ambition on an epic scale to meet the scope of this challenge, and (2) our environment and our economy are completely and totally connected.’ His plan sets a goal for a 100% clean energy economy and net-zero emissions by 2050.” As the president traveled to California, “Biden told supporters in Delaware, “We need a president who respects science…. Who understands that the damage from climate change is already here. Unless we take urgent action, it’ll soon be more catastrophic.”

Biden’s Green Energy Plan – Is it up to the challenge?

Bident’s plan “for a clean energy revolution and environmental justice” can be accessed at: https://joebiden.com/climate-plan. It is referred to it as the “Green New Deal.” Biden’s plan will “address the climate emergency and lead through the power of example” and it will ensure “the U.S. achieves a 100% clean energy economy no later than 2050.” When he is elected, Biden will in the first year of his presidency “demand that Congress enacts legislation…that: (1) establishes an enforcement mechanism that includes milestone targets no later than the end of his first term in 2025, (2) makes a historic investment in clean energy and climate research and innovation, (3) incentivizes the rapid deployment of clean energy innovations across the economy, especially in communities most impacted by climate change.”

The provisions of the plan make it clear that it accepts the accumulating scientific evidence on climate change, that human activities, especially the fossil-fuel sector, are the principal causes of rising temperatures and their myriad effects, and that the problems is so serious that we must institute countervailing changes as soon as we can. Here I quote from a few sections of the plan to give you a sense of how positively different Biden’s plan is from Trump’s environmental utterly destructive views and policies. There are questions about whether a Biden administration will be able to accomplish enough to curtail and then reverse the climate crisis and its many devastating effects as it is confronted by opposition from Republicans in the U.S. Congress, widespread corporate opposition, Trump-appointed judges in the federal judiciary, a continuing massive disinformation messaging from right-wing media, and base of tens of millions, including armed milita. Withal, the Biden climate plan articulates overall a path that addresses the real, pressing problems of existential importance.

Beginning on his first day in the White House, he “will make smart infrastructure investments to rebuild the nation and to ensure that our buildings, water, transportation, and energy infrastructure can withstand the impacts of climate change.” He will authorize the development of “regional climate resilience plans, in partnership with local universities and national labs, for local access to the most relevant science, data, information, tools, and training.” The climate plan also has an international dimension. Biden will “recommit the United States to the Paris Agreement on climate” and go further in supporting efforts to “get every major country to ramp up the ambition of their domestic climate targets,” and make sure that these “commitments are transparent and enforceable.” Moreover, he will “take action against fossil fuel companies and other polluters who put profit over people and knowingly harm our environment.” Specifically, on day one of his administration, Biden plan tells us his administration will begin to act as follows.

  • Require “aggressive methane pollution limits for new and existing oil and gas operations”
  • Use “the Federal government procurement system – which spends $500 billion every year – to drive toward 100% clean energy and zero-emissions vehicles”
  • Ensure “all U.S. government installations, buildings, and facilities are more efficient and climate-ready, harnessing the purchasing power and supply chains to drive innovation”
  • Reduce “greenhouse gas emissions from transportation – the fastest growing source of U.S. climate pollution – by preserving and implementing the existing Clean Air Act, and developing rigorous new fuel economy standards aimed at ensuring 100% of new sales for light-l and medium-duty vehicles will be electrified and annual improvements for heavy duty vehicles”
  • Double “down on the liquid fuels of the future, which make agriculture a key part of the solution to climate change. Advanced biofuels are now closer than ever as we begin to build the first plants for biofuels, creating jobs and new solutions to reduce emissions in planes, ocean-going vessels, and more.”
  • Save “consumers money and reduce emissions through new, aggressive appliance- and building-efficiency standards.”
  • Require “public companies to disclose climate risks and the greenhouse gas emissions in their operations.”
  • Protect “biodiversity, slowing extinction rates and helping leverage natural climate solutions by conserving 30% of America’s lands and waters.”
  • Protect “America’s natural treasure by permanently protecting the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and other areas impacted by President Trump’s attack on federal lands and waters, establishing national parks and monuments that reflect America’s natural heritage, banning new oil and gas permitting on public lands and water, modifying royalties to account for climate costs, and establishing targeted programs to enhance reforestation and develop renewables on federal lands and waters with the goal of doubling offshore wind by 2030.”

The Biden plan also includes language on how the plan will be funded. Here’s what it says. “The Biden plan will be paid for by reversing the excesses of the Trump tax cuts for corporations, reducing incentives for tax havens, evasion, and outsourcing, ensuring corporations pay their fair share, closing other loopholes in our tax code that reward wealth not work, and ending subsidies for fossil fuels.”

Concluding thoughts

We must await the outcome of the November elections. If Trump and the Republicans manage to steel the elections, then we can expect the climate crisis to worsen and, among other dire effects, for wildfires to proliferate. If Biden and the Democrats prevail, we can hope that the promises embedded in the climate plan will be actually pushed forward – and that there will be strong public support behind it. There is, though, little time to avoid the worst outcomes.

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