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Putting the California fires into climate perspective

18 Dec 2018
Trump administration faces the smoking gun of climate change

By Hugh Biggar, Landscape News writer

Rather than considering a meaningful action plan, and despite heightened warnings from the United Nations about exceeding temparature targets, the Trump administration chose again the to bury its head in the sand instead of facing the severity of climate change.

At the COP 24 summit held 3–14 December in Katowice, Poland, U.S. delegates alongside allies from Russia, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia refused to endorse the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s special report released in October. The report, commissioned at the behest of small island nations already feeling the effects fo global warming, warned of terrifying planetary changes coming sooner than expected and urged unprecedented levels of action to try and slow the process.

But whether the administration likes it or not, climate change is here and increasingly dire.

The U.S. government itself released a report from last month, testament to which is given by an increasing number of Americans who have personally experienced the effects of climate change, be it through sea water intrusion, coastal erosion, drought, mega storms or – in California where I live – devastating wildfires.

California has seen the most destructive wildfires in its history in recent years. This past fall, blazes raged across the northern and southern reaches of the state, destroying thousands of buildings, killing nearly 100 people and displacing countless others.

Even hundreds of miles away from the wildfires, dense smoke shrouded the landscape in brownish haze and forced people indoors for the better part of a week. You could gauge the air quality by seeing how buildings and houses blurred into ghostly outlines in the air. The school my nieces attend, which is in Sacramento about 100 miles from the fires, shut down, as did those in 21 California counties. Even indoors, smoke caused constant headaches, sore throats and watery eyes. To the south, the San Francisco Bay Area experienced similar problems, and recorded the worst air quality on earth for the day of 16 November.

And this is just for the 2018 fires. Similarly devastating blazes ran across the Napa County wine region the autumn prior. In whole, the state’s traditional fire season of late summer and early autumn has shifted into a year-round concern.

Climate change is not the only contributor to these fires, but it is a major one. California has seen extended drought in recent years, killing a large number of trees while storm systems that in the past brought wet weather have stalled over the Pacific Ocean due in part to the Arctic Ocean’s warming. In these bone-dry conditions, it doesn’t take much – a downed power line, a spark from a tire rim – to ignite a fast-moving fire storm. If and when rain arrives, barren ground can turn into mudslides, as happened in southern California this month.

The aforementioned U.S. government report, issued by 13 federal agencies, concluded that climate change will cost the nation hundreds of billions of dollars, damage vital infrastructure, change natural landscapes, and severely impact the poor and most socially vulnerable, including displacing thousands of individuals.

It also addresses fires directly, stating that they are on track to become more frequent, larger and in areas other than just the country’s west; southeastern states are particularly at risk.

“Climate change is not some problem in the distant future…it is happening right now,” said Brenda Ekwurzel, one of the report’s authors and director of climate science at the Union of Concerned Scientists, in statement.

Even so, as it made clear in Poland, the Trump administration is pressing on with its refusal to take action, aiming to pull out of the Paris Agreement and holding to its platform that deregulating any national actions against climate change will in fact help the nation’s economy.

Trump officials may continue to ignore the real costs financially and otherwise of a warming earth, but it doesn’t change the reality on the ground and in the air. As those of us in California can attest, when it comes to climate change, where there’s smoke, there’s fire.



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