The west is in flames.
While that’s a somewhat dramatic and overly broad description of what’s happening right now on the West Coast, ait’s also a blunt appraisal of the wildfire disaster unfolding in California, Oregon and Washington, among other places.
Forests are burning. People are fleeing and dying. Smoke is compromising air quality while drifting across the nation. It has impacted the skies in this region the last few days.
Frankly, this is what the long-sounded threats of climate change look like: a magnification of disasters on an epic scale.
This is what our future may increasingly look like.
There are those who vigorously disagree, of course, and always will. But they fiddle while the world burns or drowns in ferocious tropical storms. They stand defiant as prairies and timberland bake or are washed away, depending on the meteorological mood of a given violent moment.
On Monday, President Donald Trump visited California, where nearly 2 million acres of land have burned this year already, a 2,000% increase from this time last year. He blamed the wildfires on poor forest management, not the extreme weather patterns that have created tinderbox conditions.
To be sure, forest management HAS long been a contributing factor in wildfires. The zero-tolerance policy that this nation adopted toward fires back in the early 1900s smothered the fact that the burn-off of vegetation was a natural process for forests and prairies. This realization eventually led to the development of proactive practices to deal with the excess fuel.
“Experts, environmentalists and loggers largely agree that thinning trees and brush through prescribed burns and careful logging will help prevent forests that cover vast tracts of the American West from threatening cities with fire,” The Associated Press noted.
But even these steps have occasionally confronted walls of opposition as humans have increasingly encroached into once-remote areas and, in the process, have placed themselves in harm’s way.
However, there is more at work here than forests that, as the president has suggested, need “raking.”
Climate change has generated extreme weather scenarios that have magnified the threats. For example, prolonged heat and dry weather, whipped by powerful winds often created by wildfires themselves, have made forested areas more prone to disaster.
This past weekend, the San Jose Mercury News cited a climate report by the U.S. Global Change Research Program noting global temperature changes since the early 20th century have led to more extreme weather events. (Incidentally, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reported Monday that North America saw its warmest August on record last month.) According to the study, “daily tidal flooding is accelerating in more than 25 Atlantic and Gulf Coast cities. Heatwaves have become more frequent in the U.S. since the 1960s, while extreme cold temperatures and cold waves are less frequent. And large forest fires in the western United States have increased since the early 1980s and are projected to continue.”
This report is one of many climate studies that have reached similar conclusions, which is why California Gov. Gavin Newsom told the president Monday, “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.”
Still, the arguments will continue as dry land burns, coastal areas flood and more lives and property are impacted. These exchanges will offer continued opportunities for discussion — but at some point, talk must give way to action. And that point is looming straight before us.