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Wildfires sign of climate 'tinderboxes'

Climate change is devastating the American West, where wildfire season is off to an early, ferocious start. The U.N. says wildfires wreak havoc globally.

Sunset on the 2017 Cajete Fire in Santa Fe, New Mexico
Sunset on the 2017 Cajete Fire in Santa Fe, New Mexico (AN/Jeff Cross)

TAOS, New Mexico (AN) — Climate change is devastating the American West.

Here in New Mexico, wildfire season is off to an early and ferocious start. Stoked by unseasonably warm temperatures, low humidity and howling winds, fires across the state are consuming hundreds of thousands of acres of forest and farm lands. Homes and communities are being lost and livelihoods destroyed. Wild and domestic animals are dying in numbers that are impossible to count. National and state parks and monuments are closing their gates to visitors.

In Arizona, Utah and Nevada, Colorado River reservoirs Lake Mead and Lake Powell, which provide drinking water and hydroelectric power to millions of Americans, remain at alarmingly low levels as a drought for the record books further dries out an already hot and arid Southwest. California remains abnormally dry and is bracing for yet another summer drought. Farmers and wine growers from southern California north to Washington state are struggling with rising temperatures and a drier climate.

One recent study predicts ominously that if greenhouse gas emissions continue to go unchecked, in the not-too-distant future areas of the mountain West that depend on the water stored in snowpacks could go for years seeing little or no snow.

Bad as it is, as people and communities around the globe well know, existential threats brought on by climate change are in no way unique to the American West.

“From Australia to Canada, the United States to China, across Europe and the Amazon, wildfires are wreaking havoc on the environment, wildlife, human health, and infrastructure,” say the authors of a recent U.N. report, “Spreading Like Wildfire: The Rising Threat of Extraordinary Landscape Fires.”

The report by the United Nations Environment Program, or UNEP, and its partner GRID-Arendal, an environmental communications center based in Norway, finds that not only are wildfires burning longer and hotter in places they have always occurred, they are also flaring up in unexpected places, like in drying peatlands and on thawing permafrost.

'Landscapes into tinderboxes'

Wildfires not only destroy communities and resources while reducing biodiversity, they also emit harmful pollutants and vast quantities of greenhouse gases, contributing to a climate change feedback loop that spurs more warming, more drying, more burning.

“The heating of the planet is turning landscapes into tinderboxes, while more extreme weather means stronger, hotter, drier winds to fan the flames,” says the UNEP report.

UNEP finds that wildfires will likely become more frequent in some areas, such as the Arctic. “Areas of tropical forest in Indonesia and the southern Amazon are likely to see increased burning if greenhouse gas emissions continue at their current rate,” the study says.

The U.N. says that countries must “meet and exceed” their commitments under the 2015 Paris Agreement to reduce global warming and the prevalence of wildfires globally. This will, in turn, reduce the social, economic, and ecological impact of wildfires. The Paris treaty’s goal is to prevent average global temperatures from rising more than 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, or 1.5 degrees C. if possible — though the world already has warmed by more than 1 degree.

Mustering the political will to make this happen remains a daunting prospect. Here in the United States, many Republicans, beholden to the fossil-fuel industry and loyal to former President Donald Trump, consider the notion of human-induced climate change a hoax.

Democrats, while generally more attuned to the dangers of global warming but struggling to retain paper-thin majorities in Congress, are focused largely on threats to women’s reproductive choices, voting rights for minorities and people of color, and protections for the LBGTQ+ community.

A study published this week by the World Meteorological Organization in Geneva reaffirms that world leaders need to act without delay. It finds there is now an almost 50-50 chance the annual average global temperature will temporarily reach 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial levels for at least one of the next five years.

Since 2015, when it was close to zero, the chance of temporarily exceeding 1.5 degrees has risen steadily. The 1.5 degrees benchmark is “not some random statistic,” says WMO's secretary-general, Petteri Taalas. “It is rather an indicator of the point at which climate impacts will become increasingly harmful for people and indeed the entire planet.”