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Opinion >  Guest Opinion

David H. Greegor Jr.: Clock is ticking to reduce threat of climate change to American West

By David H. Greegor Jr. For The Spokesman-Review

The American West is going to burn up.

The situation is perilous now and it’s only going to get worse, according to a 2016 study –Climate Change Blamed for Half of Increased Forest Fire Danger” – published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The study reported that longer fire seasons and more burned acres of forest are likely to continue as long as there is enough fuel to burn, but there will come a point, probably in the middle of the century, when there are not enough trees left to sustain wildfires.

Wildfires also release carbon dioxide, one of the main drivers of climate change, and reduce the number of trees available to absorb carbon dioxide, a double whammy for the atmosphere.

Since 1979, climate change has been responsible for more than half the drying of Western forests and the increased length of the fire season. After 1984, those factors enlarged the cumulative forest fire area by 16,000 square miles, about the size of Massachusetts and Connecticut combined. Cyclical climate variations would have dried out the landscape some, but human-caused climate change on top of those patterns caused this drying process to double. It’s a sobering prognosis.

The year 2015 was the worst for forest fires on record, and 2016 brought the huge Idaho Pioneer fire, the ninth-most-expensive fire in U.S. history. Now we have the phenomenally destructive brush fires in Southern California, which is likely to make 2017 the worst fire year ever.

During late summers in the West, smoke can force people indoors or to wear masks. It has not always been this way. Between Boise and Lowman, Idaho, totally blackened and dead landscapes resulted from the Pioneer fire. Current forest fires get so hot they kill everythingvegetation, animals, even the soil, which actually melts, sterilizing it. Contemporary Western fires are more severe (burn longer, hotter, are 100 percent destructive and move faster) because the vegetation is a powder keg, stressed by dryness and disease. If you suffer more from respiratory ailments, like asthma, than you did in the past, it is likely due to increased smoke.

The PNAS report misleads by stating that climate change is to be blamed for the fires. No, we are to blame. That subtlety unintentionally gets us off the hook, and climate change becomes our scapegoat. Climate change itself is blameless. It is, actually, like blaming a gun for killing. Climate change and guns are simply our impartial agents of destruction.

If you are still looking for a huge environmental disaster that can be directly linked to human-caused climate change, you need look no further than forest fires. Furthermore, no longer are scientists reticent to link these meteorological disasters (not just fires) to humans. The New York Times recently ran an article (“How Global Warming Fueled Five Extreme Weather Events”) based on a collection of papers published Dec. 13 in the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society.

Summarizing the research published:

Researchers analyzed 27 extreme weather events from 2016 and found that human-caused climate change was a “significant driver” for 21 of them. Five of those extreme weather events included: 1) Record temperatures around the world; 2) Coral bleaching in the Great Barrier Reef; 3) Drought in Africa; 4) Wildfires in North America; and 5) The warm “blob” in the Pacific Ocean (the blob has allowed toxic algae blooms to spread across the region, killing seabirds by the thousands and forcing local fisheries to close).

What can we do now?

1) We can fight any effort on the part of big government and their bedfellows, the fossil fuel industry, and any influential monied interests that deny the significance of climate change. They reject the fact that excess production of carbon dioxide and methane, the two major climate change gases, causes the atmospheric temperature to rise. The fossil fuel industry as well as obstructionists in government must disappear, and the faster the better. To encourage coal and natural gas production, whether it is by reducing the size of national monuments to allow for more exploratory activities or giving coal miners false hopes, is patently immoral.

2) We can join environmental organizations like Citizens’ Climate Lobby, a huge international grass-roots advocacy organization focused on national policies to address climate change.

Most climate change scientists agree that the clock is ticking to stabilize and reduce the climate change gases in the atmosphere. When that mother of all tipping points is reached, and some believe it is only a few years away, it really is too late.

David H. Greegor Jr., Ph.D., is a retired ecologist from Boise. He has taught ecology and environmental science at various universities and colleges since 1974.

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