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Tom Sinclair and Mark Reynolds: Wildfires underscore urgency to rein in climate change

Tom Sinclair and Mark Reynolds: Wildfires underscore urgency to rein in climate change

'Nothing left in the bucket': Wildfire resources run thin (copy)

FILE - In this Sept. 7, 2020, file photo, a firefighter battles the Creek Fire as it threatens homes in the Cascadel Woods neighborhood of Madera County, Calif. This year's fires have taxed the human, mechanical and financial resources of the nation's wildfire fighting forces to a degree that few past blazes did. And half of the fire season is yet to come. (AP Photo/Noah Berger,File)

Raging wildfires are mostly an abstraction to those of us who live in southern Wisconsin, overshadowed by concerns about COVID-19 outbreaks, racial unrest, shuttered businesses, lost jobs and educational disruptions from kindergarten through college.

Imagine living with all of those worries plus staggering heat waves, choking smoke, widespread power outages, mandatory evacuations, and the possibility of losing everything you own in an instant.

That’s the current reality in many parts of the West, where the fall fire season has barely started and already we’ve seen an astonishing amount of destruction. In California alone, an estimated 2.6 million acres — plus thousands of homes and buildings — had gone up in smoke by Labor Day, exceeding the 2 million acres burned in all of 2018. That year, the damage and economic loss from wildfires, according to AccuWeather, came to $400 billion.

The explanation for the increasing intensity and frequency of wildfires is pretty straightforward: Climate change is making forests drier and weather hotter, so a lightning strike can ignite a fire that quickly roars out of control.

“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,” climate scientist Park Williams of Columbia University told the New York Times.

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 that can spread the disease.

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.

Organizations as diverse as the Wisconsin Farmers Union, NAACP Dane County, the Democratic Party of Wisconsin, and the Dane County Board have publicly endorsed the bill or its concept. More than 82 House members have signed on as cosponsors. 

The West’s 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.

Tom Sinclair is a volunteer with the Madison chapter of Citizens’ Climate Lobby. Mark Reynolds is CCL’s executive director in Coronado, California.

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