Any discussion about climate change should be required to start with a quote from Peter Goldmark, Washington’s Commissioner of Public Lands.
“Our fire season started a month ahead, our crops matured weeks ahead and the dry weather we usually get in August, we’ve had since May,” Goldmark told the New York Times earlier this month. “By heavens, if this isn’t a sign of climate change, then what is climate change going to bring?”
What, indeed? While many naysayers dispute the scientific consensus that the earth’s climate is changing and that human activity is partly to blame, Goldmark’s statement presents a challenge for those skeptics: How to explain obvious climate extremes? And what would real climate change look like?
Whether a result of human actions or not, the past month has brought about a glimpse of a changing dynamic as forests turned to kindling by drought conditions have been torched by wildfires. The Okanogan Complex of fires in north-central Washington has been deemed the largest in state history, covering more than 250,000 acres; some 16 large wildfires were burning as of Monday; and for the first time, state officials issued a plea for volunteers to help battle wildfires. The Federal Emergency Management Agency last week declared an emergency in several Washington counties, including Skamania.
Wildfires, obviously, existed before anybody thought up the phrase “climate change.” But a parched spring and summer have exacerbated the situation by creating conditions that are ripe for large, intense fires. As the New York Times reported: “Fire is fueled by hot and dry weather, and the forecast for the Northwestern states calls for above-normal temperatures, below-normal precipitation and continuing drought in many areas into the fall.” Recently, during a press conference in Spokane, Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., asked, “If warm and dry is going to be the new normal, how can we work to better fortify these communities?” That is just one of the questions generated by the realities of climate change. Last year, about $1.52 billion was spent fighting wildfires across the country; this year’s bill is expected to top $2.1 billion.
For those who dispute the connection between this wildfire season and a warming planet, there is plenty of additional scientific evidence. According to NASA: The 10 warmest years on record have occurred since 1998; ice sheets in Greenland, Antarctica and the Arctic are diminishing; ocean temperatures have risen an average of 0.3 degrees since 1969; and glaciers throughout the world are retreating. There is anecdotal evidence as well, such as mushy snow forcing organizers to move the start of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race in Alaska to 220 miles north of its traditional locale.
All of this will have a long-term impact ranging from costly to devastating, and it will require changes to policy on the federal, state and local levels. One of the first questions that must be addressed is the traditional tactic of trying to put out wildfires as soon as they flare up. Given the rapidly growing cost of such a strategy, it is reasonable to suggest that containment rather than suppression would be the more economical approach.
That, however, is just a snippet of the issues that will arise. A warming climate, ocean acidification and rising seas will have a vast impact upon global food production, wildlife habitat and human health. Because if this isn’t global warming, then we shudder to think of what it would actually look like.