On September 9, 2020, I woke up before dawn for an early conference call with some East Coast colleagues. But the dawn never arrived that day in Berkeley, California. Streetlights stayed on as the sky glowed orange, with toxic smoke spewing from wildfires spreading through California, Oregon and Washington. I’ve worked on climate policy for more than 30 years, but I’ve never seen anything this scary.
When I entered the climate change field, I hoped that many of the impacts predicted by climate scientists would never actually come to pass because the world would take action to prevent them. In my Ph.D. work decades ago, I studied climate feedback loops: the ways in which climate change causes impacts that have the potential to further amplify climate change. One of the feedbacks I investigated was the idea that hotter temperatures and drier conditions would cause forest diebacks. We described it this way in theoretical models: As temperatures creep upward and precipitation patterns change, forests in some areas will no longer adapt to the new climate in their location. Some species may be able to slowly shift to higher latitudes or altitudes, but if the pace of change is too rapid, nature won’t be able to keep up. As trees die, the carbon stored in their trunks and branches will return to the atmosphere, further accelerating climate change.
This clinical description belies what it’s like to actually witness a climate feedback loop in action — and the heartbreak it entails. Millions of my fellow West Coasters are living through a consequence of inaction they can’t ignore — one that has killed at least 35 people, destroyed thousands of homes and businesses and created air so polluted that it temporarily broke Washington State’s air quality monitoring system. Six out of 20 of the largest wildfires in California’s recent history raged in 2020. As these blazes burn through millions of acres and release even more carbon dioxide into the air, they exacerbate the problem that has made these extreme weather events more common in the first place. These fires would be devastating enough on their own, but during a pandemic that disproportionately impacts people who live in areas with the worst air quality and makes them harder to fight, they feel apocalyptic. With California’s fire season far from over, checking the smoke conditions became a new part of my daily routine.
There are other climate feedback loops at work in U.S. forests, from beetle kill to degrading soil carbon related to hotter temperatures and earlier snowmelt that leads to drier vegetation. While insufficient national and international action on climate change made some of these changes inevitable, that doesn’t mean there’s nothing we can do. We need government leaders, especially at the national level, to take action — not only to reduce emissions, but also to better prepare for the mounting consequences of climate change that we can’t avoid.
We also need to improve the way we manage forests. One direct way to increase the West’s resilience to uncontrollable wildfires is to do smaller, controlled burns in the wet winter season, which would help eliminate dry vegetation that fuels bigger blazes. In the past, implementation of prescribed fires fell far short of what good management plans call for due to lack of resources and public concerns about the smoke from smaller burns. This year’s record-breaking wildfire season should serve as a wake-up call. Our choice isn’t between burning and not burning — after all, fire plays an important ecological role in western forests. Our choice is between prescribed burns or uncontrolled burns, which as we’ve seen are much more expensive and dangerous for humans and ecosystems alike.
Fire preparedness is essential, but we must also do more to fight the broader problem. There’s no longer any doubt that the hotter, drier conditions resulting from climate change are making wildfires worse. A 2019 poll by the Public Policy Institute of California found that 78% of respondents in the state thought it was important for California to lead on climate action. The survey suggested that recent wildfires (even before this record-setting year) may have influenced these responses as more people recognize the role that climate change played in fueling the fires. In fact, the majority of U.S. citizens across party lines want more climate action. One of the ironies here is that Washington, Oregon and California have among the strongest climate policies and lowest emissions rates in the country.
But state-level action is not enough. The federal government must back it up with national policies that reduce overall emissions while doing more to protect U.S. citizens from the most dangerous impacts of climate change, from fires to hurricanes, like the one that inundated the Gulf Coast even as fires burned across the West. Congress must act; partisan gridlock is unacceptable when it should be clear to all that we all breathe the same air and share the same planet.
Climate change is here, now, and Americans want action. After the fires, the hurricanes and the pandemic of 2020, we must build back better by investing in the clean energy, tree restoration and climate resilience to increase our safety and ensure prosperity in the Anthropocene.