Guest Commentary: Wildfires Underscore Urgency to Rein in Climate Change

By Elisabeth Robbins and Mark Reynolds

My friend hurriedly evacuated her dream home northeast of Vacaville as flames advanced down the hillside. In the Mendocino National Forest, firefighters burned out a protective barrier around my son’s cabin deep in the woods.  That may, or may not, have protected it when Wednesday’s terrific winds swept fire through.  As of this writing, we don’t know.  At best, “Maybe I’ll have the view I’ve always wanted,” he said wryly.

These fires touch everyone.  For too many it’s a personal loss.  For others, it’s a loss to someone we know and care about, so it becomes our loss too.  We have all lost freedom of movement outdoors because of the highly polluted air.

And the fall fire season hasn’t even started.  Already  we have seen an astonishing amount of destruction, across the state and right here in Yolo County.  Over 2.6 million acres have gone up in smoke, exceeding the 2 million acres burned in 2018. That year, the damage and economic loss from wildfires, according to AccuWeather, came to $400 billion.

At the end of August, nearly 4,000 homes and other structures had been consumed by wildfires this year in California. Every day now, our social media feeds are filled with photos of orange, smoky skies. In Davis and Woodland we’ve had lemon yellow days.

The explanation for the increasing intensity and frequency of wildfires is pretty straightforward: Climate change is making forests drier and weather hotter, conditions in which a lightning strike can ignite a fire that explodes to destroy thousands of acres. Climate scientist Park Williams of Columbia University told the New York Times, “Behind the scenes of all of this, you’ve got temperatures that are about two to three degrees Fahrenheit warmer now than they would have been without global warming.”

On our current trajectory, temperatures will continue to climb, bringing more fires and greater destruction. These wildfires also create a feedback loop that exacerbates climate change by releasing massive amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

Unforeseen crises are also made worse by climate change. As we struggle to persevere through the coronavirus pandemic, for example, smoke from fires causes respiratory problems that can make the virus more deadly. People fleeing fires may also contend with crowded shelters where the disease can spread easily.

With the impact of climate change being felt here and now, we find ourselves running out of time to bring down the heat-trapping pollution that is warming our world. We must therefore use all the tools at our disposal to curtail those emissions.

One of the most effective tools is an ambitious price on carbon that will speed up the transition to a low- or zero-carbon economy. A tax or fee on carbon can have a positive impact on low- and middle-income families, too. How? Take the revenue from a carbon fee and distribute it to all households.

Legislation to implement an effective carbon price while protecting the economic well-being of people has been introduced in the U.S. House as the Energy Innovation and Carbon Dividend Act (H.R. 763). The carbon fee is expected to drive down carbon emissions 40% in the first 12 years and 90% by 2050. A household impact study released in August found that among households in the lowest fifth economically, 96% would receive “carbon dividends” that exceed their carbon costs.

We urge Congressman John Garamendi to join the 82 House members who are currently co-sponsoring this bill.

Our smoke-filled skies should serve as a warning that our climate could one day be unbearable if we fail to take the actions necessary to rein in climate change. An effective price on carbon with money given to households can put us on the path to preserving a livable world.

Elisabeth Robbins is co-leader of the Yolo County Chapter of Citizens’ Climate Lobby. Mark Reynolds is the executive director of Citizens’ Climate Lobby.

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Disclaimer: the views expressed by guest writers are strictly those of the author and may not reflect the views of the Vanguard, its editor, or its editorial board.

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  1. Tia Will

    Thank you both for this piece.

    A major factor hindering current progress in the case of both increasing fire risk and COVID-19 is denial. I have a very hard time understanding how it helps to deny the reality staring us right in the face. And yet we do see denial in both public health and safety spheres. A great irony is that neglecting action now will cost us enormous economic disruption both now and in the future.


  2. Keith Olsen

    One of the most effective tools is an ambitious price on carbon that will speed up the transition to a low- or zero-carbon economy. A tax or fee on carbon can have a positive impact on low- and middle-income families, too. How? Take the revenue from a carbon fee and distribute it to all households.

    Also known as income redistribution.

    1. Alan Miller

      So true!

      I’ve always supported air-pollution reduction policies, but somehow, whenever the progressive-term “Climate Change” is added to the air pollution discussion, it becomes about progressive politics.  Meanwhile, we ignore investments that would truly make a difference, such as a statewide higher-speed electrified rail grid.  Instead of promoting electric cars (which still encourage sprawl and the inefficiency of the single-rider), build massive core mass transit, and watch as growth and land use adapts naturally, rather than forcing it – which is what we are doing now.

      Meanwhile, I’m shopping for a new gasoline-powered S.U.V., which I expect to last well into the 2030’s or even the 2040’s (if my last gasoline S.U.V. is any indication), future decades in which I expect there will still be gasoline, plentiful and cheap.

  3. Richard McCann

    A more effective action is to donate to the key half dozen US Senate races where Democrats are close or leading in toss up races. Our Congress member will follow President Biden if he’s elected in November and Biden’s plan is quite ambitious. If Biden loses, then what Garamendi does will be largely irrelevant.

  4. Alan Miller

    I believe that the climate is changing.  Schooled at U.C.D. as a geologist, we know the earth’s climate has always been changing.  The question really is — how much of the warming is caused by humans? . . . and I doubt anyone really knows, and I suspect the number would vary depending on the politics of the climatologist.

    What I do believe is there’s not a d*mn thing we can do about it.  Covering over farmland in East Davis to build a business park isn’t going to make a hill of beans of difference whether you believe that project is climate-saving — as an article in the V recently implied — or climate-destroying, as some commenters implied.  Me?  I say China and India policies on burning coal and the continued spread of wealth and the accompanying worldwide mobility and tech boom (energy consumption) will steamroll over anything the US ever tries to do.  Not that we shouldn’t aim for cleaner air – we should.  Let’s just not destroy our economy doing it while so many others pˆss in the sandbox, and certainly not use it as an excuse for, ahem, ‘wealth redistribution’.

    I think we need to accept the obvious – 200 years of heavy industrialization with little pollution controls, followed by the jet age, may have f*cked the planet, or maybe it was going to warm up a bit anyway.  Humans must and will adapt, with a lot of suffering and casualties along the way.  Buy stock in air filter and fire-retardant companies.

    And please stop with the anecdotal weather observations.

    1. David Greenwald

      Your comment suggests that climate change is the cause of a fire. That’s not an accurate read. Climate Change doesn’t cause fires. Climate change takes the fires that we are likely to get regardless and creates the conditions for them to be bigger and more dangerous. One of the biggest fires was the Gender Reveal fire that got out of control. But it created the conditions that allowed it to get out of control.

      1. Bill Marshall

        Suggest you study forestry and/or range management… at least a good primer… during previous periods of climate change, going back 10 k+ years, Ma Nature adjusted to climate change… without ‘preservationist’, pseudo-natural activities such as strict fire suppression that allow the buildup of fuels.   Also, the “no logging, ever” mentality…

        Redwoods are quite comfortable with natural fires, as were many other species… the underlayer fuels were eliminated/reduced by fire… healthy trees survived, dead/diseased ones were “pushed out of the gene pool”… along with the insects, etc., that weakened/killed the trees… the ash served as “compost”… several species of trees even benefit when their cones are ‘opened’ in intense heat, and the seeds have a good start with the ashes…

        Pollution (non-CO2) weakened some forests… making them more susceptible to insect attack.

        What we are seeing has many variables from the past, in addition to ‘climate change’:  forests, shrub/chaparral, grasslands management is the main one… there are others… we have done a lot of  ‘stupids’ in the past… if we don’t address those, climate change won’t be the major factor.

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