Fiddling While the West Burns

by Rolf Skar

September 8, 2009

Once you’ve witnessed a wildland fire, you’ll never forget it.  The haze that filters sunlight, casting a strange, darkened light.  The dramatic flare-ups that consume trees like matches.  The massive plumes of smoke that mimic mushroom clouds.  And maybe most of all, the pervasive smoke that gets everywhere, creeping beyond closed doors and sticking to clothes.

While fires are an important part of the natural balance in some American ecosytems, scientists tell us global warming is setting up hotter, drier conditions that could lead to more large, dangerous fires. Weather and climate are very complicated phenomenon, so there’s plenty of science being to understand this; you can read more here and here.

The Station Fire burning near Los Angeles

This means more people and property at risk, more firefighter lives on the line, and more taxpayer dollars sapped by expensive emergency responses.

What can be done?  Fire experts tell us we need to spend more money on preventative measures – things that improve our safety, save money, and lower the likelihood of dangerous conflagrations in the future.  There is a long list of those measures, from creating fire-resistant “defensible space” around buildings, to the controlled burning of fire-dependent wildlands.

However, one of the most important preventative measures is receiving less attention: fighting global warming.  We can, and should, stop run-away temperature rise from making droughts, heat waves and fires worse.

A home destroyed by the Station Fire near Los Angeles

The moment to do this is now.  Away from the smoke-shrouded mountains of southern California, international leaders are struggling to create a climate treaty.  The deadline for this is rapidly approaching in December when UN climate talks wrap up in Copenhagen.

The main problem preventing progress is a lack of leadership from developed countries in two key areas: (1) commitments to serious cuts in pollution and (2) substantial funding to fight global warming and its effects in developing countries.

The first one is pretty straightforward.  In order to fight global warming, developed countries need to cut climate pollution aggressively.  So far, few have shown any real commitment to this.  Instead, countries like the U.S. have set weak targets, then filled them offsets to outsource green jobs, cleaner skies elsewhere.  In a recent media interview, Representative Rick Boucher (R-VA) summed up the effects of offsets on pollution reductions succintly: “…an electric utility burning coal will not have to reduce the emissions at the plant site.  It can just keep burning coal.”  Needless to say, loopholes and outsourcing won’t get us where we need to go.
The second commitment, providing funding, does not mean another big bailout fueled by taxpayer dollars.  If properly designed, cap and trade systems make big polluters pay for their pollution instead of lining their pockets with windfall profits.  For a total of $140 billion worldwide, this funding would allow us to protect the world’s most vulnerable people from the worst impacts of climate change, help developing countries “leapfrog” dirty energy development and stop deforestation (a leading source of climate pollution).

Now is the time for President Obama to step up and provide leadership.  In gatherings later this month at the United Nations in New York and the G-20 in Pittsburgh, world leaders will have an historic opportunity to make real progress towards a climate deal.  If they act like poll-watching politicians instead of real leaders, our future may be left out high, hot and dry.

Rolf Skar

By Rolf Skar

Rolf Skar is the Campaigns Director at Greenpeace USA. Since 2007, Rolf has contributed to international Greenpeace campaigns to stop deforestation in the Canadian boreal forest, the Paradise forests of Southeast Asia, and the Brazilian Amazon.

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