As featured on p. 218 of "Bloggers on the Bus," under the name "a MyDD blogger."

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

The Fires, The Budget, And Climate Change

I've been reading my Altadena blog and LA Now, and I see that firefighters are making progress on the spate of blazes, and apparently saved Mount Wilson, though it's still in some danger. This will continue for at least a week, at which point the firefighting emergency fund will be almost completely exhausted.

These are not "unpredictable" costs. We now have practically a year-round fire season, with damaging blazes cropping up in places where we never saw them before. And people die from bad budget choices relating to public safety.

There was a provision in the budget deal to have those living in areas most affected by fire hazards pay a fee on their homeowner's insurance to fund firefighting efforts that save their residences. Republicans blocked them, as they have been doing for years. As a result we all pay the price in the long term, somehow in the name of "fiscal responsibility." We're essentially offering welfare for those who choose to live in danger zones.

Which leads us to the reason why these fires have continued to occur, and in greater numbers, year after year. It's attributable to global warming, and as much as reactionaries and climate denialists hide their heads in the sand about it, the truth remains the same.

Roughly speaking, it turns out that land use issues are probably responsible for about half of the increase in western wildfire activity over the past few decades and climate change is responsible for the other half. The mechanism is pretty straightforward: higher temperatures lead to both reduced snowpack in the Sierra Nevadas and an earlier melt, which in turn produces a longer and drier fire season. Result: more and bigger fires. Plus there's this, from CAP's Tom Kenworthy:

In recent years, a widespread and so far unchecked epidemic of mountain pine beetles that has killed millions of acres of trees from Colorado north into Canada has laid the foundation for a potentially large increase in catastrophic fires. Climate change has played a role in that outbreak, too, as warmer winters spare the beetles from low temperatures that would normally kill them off, and drought stresses trees.

In the western United States, mountain pine beetles have killed some 6.5 million acres of forest, according to the Associated Press. As large as that path of destruction is, it’s dwarfed by the 35 million acres killed in British Columbia, which has experienced a rash of forest fires this summer that as of early this month had burned more than 155,000 acres. In the United States to date about 5.2 million acres — an area larger than Massachusetts —have burned this year.

Destruction of trees by the mountain pine beetle, combined with climate change and fire, makes for a dangerous feedback loop. Dead forests sequester less carbon dioxide. Burning forests release lots of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. More carbon dioxide adds to climate change, which raises temperatures, stresses forests, and makes more and bigger fires more likely.

Some would say that the possibility that forest fires like this are caused by human error contradicts this case, but actually, no. Dry forest areas are simply more susceptible to a lit cigarette or a spark from an electrical device, and that's due to hotter temperatures and less rain.

We can choose to find other factors for these events, and we can choose to charge everyone for living in places where nobody should. But that's a choice, made in budgets and made in lifestyle. It's a choice that's harming our planet, draining our budgets and killing our people.

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