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Conservation In Mind – The most urgent issue of our time

By Frances Lamberts

In the journal Science last fall, an Australian scientist discussed the wildfire crisis then ravaging that continent. Although the fire season wouldn’t normally peak until two or three months later, in his state (New South Wales) alone, more than four million acres had been burned, exceeding the total in the preceding three years combined.

Of special concern were earlier start and high intensity of the blazes, and their occurrence in areas, such as wet eucalypt forests “that historically saw fires very rarely, perhaps every 1,000 years.”

The fires were causing enormous ecological harm, and their smoke strongly affected human health. Nearly three billion wildlife animals were killed or displaced. Among these, 100 threatened plant and animal species lost more than half of their remaining habitat to the blazes. Dangerous smoke levels were causing respiratory and cardiovascular problems among Australians, with smoke pollution, he stated, “killing far more people than the flames.”

From the now ongoing conflagrations in our Western states, Mark Reynolds, too, concludes that “Wildfires underscore urgency to reign in climate change.” He is the executive director of the Citizens’ Climate Lobby organization.

Even before the start of the fall fire season, Reynolds notes, there has been an astonishing amount of destruction. In California alone, 2.6 million acres have gone up in smoke, consuming nearly 4,000 homes and other structures before the end of August.

The fires burn at such intensities – often at over 1,300 °F as the US Forest Service has documented – that the soil and its nutrients and microbiological life can be severely damaged, affecting forests’ future productivity. Their extraordinary speed can leave little time for safe evacuations, and respiratory problems from their smoke can make the coronavirus more deadly. People fleeing fires, Reynolds point out, may also contend with crowded shelters that can further spread the disease.

The explanation is pretty obvious: Climate change is making forests drier and weather hotter, more prone to lightning strikes that can ignite fires. These create a feedback loop that further exacerbates climate change through releasing massive amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

“We find ourselves running out of time to bring down the heat-trapping pollution that is warming our world,” he notes and that, among the most effective tools to curb the emissions is a price on carbon, with all revenue from the fee distributed, as monthly dividends, to American households. A bipartisan bill to this effect, the Energy Innovation and Carbon Dividend Act, is awaiting action in the Congress.

It would be a proper response to President Teddy Roosevelt’s admonishment, more than 100 years ago, that: “To each generation comes its allotted task; and no generation is to be excused for failure to perform that task.” Like scientists and young people the world over, let’s hope that Tennessee’s new legislators in the Congress will help to get this bill passed next year, and the then president sign it into law.