TIME Environment

White House Announces New Action on Solar Energy

President Barack Obama will announce over 300 new public and private sector commitments to clean, solar energy — but his decision to include Walmart in his plans angered some labor groups

The White House is announcing executive actions to advance clean energy on Friday, including $2 billion worth of upgrades to federal buildings to make them more efficient over the next three years.

President Obama will announce the planned upgrades on Friday in California, where he has been fundraising for Democrats running for the Senate since Wednesday. At the core of Obama’s announcement is a renewed focus on solar energy, including 300 new public and private sector commitments to make solar power more accessible. According to the White House, the commitments represent enough solar energy to power 130,000 homes.

Among the commitments are proposals to use more solar energy in affordable and low-income housing units, and expansion of solar energy at retail stores including Walmart, Apple, and Ikea. The decision to include Walmart angered some labor groups, who say the retailer pays low wages and offers few benefits to its workers. Former Labor Secretary Robert Reich openly criticized the inclusion of Walmart in a Facebook post Thursday.

The attention to solar energy follows a White House summit held in mid-April, where the administration urged business owners and local leaders to use more solar energy. At the so-called “solar summit,” the administration launched a $15 million program to help local, state governments combat climate change and utilize solar energy.

Obama is also set to announce the installation of solar panels at the White House residence on Friday. According to the LA Times, White House spokesman Matt Lehrich said the installation of solar panels, “helps demonstrate that historic buildings can incorporate solar energy and energy efficiency upgrades.”

TIME Environment

Climate Change Is Here — But That Won’t Make Americans Care

Climate Change Report
Floodwaters from the Souris River surround homes near Minot State University in Minot, N.D. in this June 27, 2011 file photo. Charles Rex Arbogast—AP

If climate action has to wait until we all feel climate pain, we're doomed

The National Climate Assessment released Tuesday did not break much new scientific ground, but it debuted a new scientific message. “Climate change, once considered an issue for a distant future, has moved firmly into the present,” the report concluded. President Obama parroted that message while flacking the report: “This is not some distant problem of the future. This is a problem that is affecting Americans right now.” The media also focused on the here-and-now. “U.S. Climate Has Already Changed, Study Finds,” declared the New York Times. “U.S. Climate Report Says Global Warming Impact Already Severe,” said the Washington Post.

It’s true, of course. We’re already seeing hotter weather, nastier droughts, rising seas, and more damaging floods. I live at Ground Zero for climate change, so I’m keenly aware that it’s not just a someday phenomenon. But I’m also a bit skeptical that the new here-and-now message will get Americans to care about an issue that’s never really grabbed them in the past. Because while climate change really is our most daunting problem, it’s not our most imminent problem. It isn’t severely hurting most Americans who aren’t drought-ravaged farmers. It’s annoying that Biscayne Bay now floods the Whole Foods parking lot near my house once a month, but it’s not the end of the world.

Climate change, on the other hand, really could create the end of the world, or at least the end of the world as we know it. The scientific warnings about climate refugees, underwater cities, extreme storms, and agricultural depressions are unbelievably scary. The National Climate Assessment documented some of those potentially horrific scenarios for the U.S., like the baking of the Southwest, the melting of Alaska, and the drowning of Florida, but it emphasized the bad stuff that’s already happening.

This is partly because environmental activists are known for being Debbie Downers and Chicken Littles, for always accentuating the apocalyptic. Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger, two longtime critics of the green movement, made a splash last month with a Times op-ed arguing that “images of melting glaciers, raging wildfires and rampaging floods” only increase skepticism about global warming. “More than a decade’s worth of research suggests that fear-based appeals about climate change inspire denial, fatalism and polarization,” they wrote.

Nordhaus and Shellenberger love nuclear power and natural gas, and the conclusion of their op-ed—that the public will start caring about global warming when enviros start embracing nuclear power and natural gas—smacked a bit of motivated reasoning. But their contention that Americans don’t like being hectored about looming disasters sounded plausible enough. (Joe Romm at Climate Progress disputed it; Nordhaus and Shellenberger responded here. I don’t know enough to adjudicate that particular fight.

Honestly, I don’t know what will get the public to start caring about global warming. The BP oil spill didn’t. The warmest decade in recorded history didn’t. Neither did Superstorm Sandy, despite Bloomberg Businessweek’s memorable “It’s Global Warming, Stupid” cover.

The epic drought in California doesn’t seem to be doing the trick, either. Part of the problem is a soft economy that makes environmental concerns seem like unaffordable luxuries. Part of the problem is the Republican Party’s rejection of climate science in the Obama era. And part of the problem is the invisibility of carbon pollution. It doesn’t make the air hard to breathe. It’s a huge threat to wildlife, but it doesn’t instantaneously wipe out species of charismatic megafauna. The recent coal ash spill in the Dan River in North Carolina and oil tanker explosion on the James River in Virgina were brought to you by fossil fuels, but it’s hard to connect those kind of accidents to the larger climate issue.

I’ve always thought that the “green jobs” argument for abandoning fossil fuels was pretty compelling; the wind and solar industries now employ more Americans than the coal industry. Maybe the spurious Republican assaults on Solyndra ruined that line of reasoning. Again, I don’t know. I’m not a marketing expert.

What I do know is that global warming is going to get a lot worse than it is now, and that it doesn’t feel that bad right now. I could see how the immediate effects of climate change would be a top-tier political issue in Kiribati, but for the U.S., the overwhelming majority of the pain lies decades in the future. I get that the new strategy is to use the impact that people are already feeling to get them to understand that the impact is only going to grow, but most people aren’t feeling any dramatic impact yet—even those of us at Ground Zero.

Maybe freaking people out about the future is as off-putting as the critics say. Unfortunately, the future on a warmer planet would be as frightening as the scientists say. The truth is unpleasant, but it’s the truth. If climate activists want to put a happy face on it, they can also point out that a warmer planet is not inevitable, that wind and solar and energy efficiency are getting cheaper while dirty energy is getting more expensive, that clean energy can be a vibrant source of economic growth. That’s the truth, too.

But if climate action depends on getting people outraged about what’s happening outside their window, we’re all doomed. We need action because of the pain that’s coming for our kids and grandkids, not because of the pain that’s already here. If we only act once the pain becomes unbearable, we’ll be way too late.

TIME Environment

Obama to Arkansas Tornado Survivors: Your Country Is Here For You

Barack Obama Vilonia, Arkansas Tornado
President Barack Obama tours tornado-damaged areas and talks with Daniel Smith and his sons Garrison Dority and Gabriel Dority in Vilonia, Ark. on May 7, 2014. Susan Walsh—AP

President Barack Obama toured areas in Arkansas on Wednesday that were destroyed by forceful tornadoes in late April, promising support to residents: "Your country is going to be here for you"

President Obama told residents of an Arkansas town blasted by tornadoes in late April that the federal government will have their backs throughout the rebuilding process.

“Your country is going to be here for you,” Obama said during a press conference Wednesday. The President spent Wednesday touring areas destroyed by severe weather including Vilonia, Ark. just outside of Little Rock. The April 27 storms killed 15 and left hundreds of homes ruined.

On Wednesday, Obama praised the people of Arkansas for their strength in his promises to provide support. “Folks here are tough,” Obama said. “They look out for one another … that’s been especially true this past week.”

TIME Environment

Carbon Pollution Could Make Your Sandwich Less Healthy

Nutrient levels will fall as CO2 rises
Nutrient levels in crops like wheat could fall as CO2 rises Shawn Baldwin/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Add more thing to worry about on climate change: the more CO2 we put in the atmosphere, the fewer nutrients many crops will have

The massive National Climate Assessment (NCA) that came out yesterday was full of sobering lessons about the way that human-caused global warming is changing life around us. That includes human health: the report found that rising temperatures could exacerbate air pollution and allergies, including asthma, while worsening wildfires and killer heat waves. More extreme weather—including frequent heavy downpours—can raise the risk of food and waterborne illness, and allow disease-carrying pests like deer ticks and mosquitoes to expand their range.

Now a new study published today in the journal Nature offers the most direct evidence yet of a significant health threat associated with climate change: less-nutritious crops. Researchers led by Dr. Samuel Myers at the Harvard University School of Public Health looked at how rising levels of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide will impact staple foods like wheat, maize and soy. They found that as CO2 increases, the levels of vital minerals like zinc and iron will decline. Some 2 billion people around the world already suffer from zinc and iron deficiencies—resulting in a loss of 63 million life years annually. Elevated levels of CO2 will make that malnutrition even worse. “These crops are an important source of dietary zinc and iron for people who are near the nutritional threshold,” says Myers. “From a human health standpoint this could be very important.”

Researchers grew crops at different test sites—some sites had CO2 levels close to the levels we see today while others had levels we’re likely to reach by mid-century if the world keeps burning fossil fuels at an unsustainable rate. Earlier studies have found that elevated levels of CO2 could depress nutrient levels, but they were carried out in greenhouses or closed chambers, which might have skewed results. The experiments Myers and his colleagues drew on used free air carbon dioxide enrichment (FACE) technology, which allowed the crops—dozens of different types of grains, rice, soybeans and field peas—to be grown with variable levels of CO2 in open fields, as they would in the real world. “These FACE experiments are the gold standard,” says Myers.

Elevated CO2 levels affected different crops in different ways. Zinc, iron and protein concentrations in wheat grown at high CO2 sites fell by 9.3%, 5.1% and 6.3%. Field peas and soybeans also lost zinc and iron as CO2 rose. Maize and sorghum plants, however, showed less sensitivity to changing levels of CO2. And even within a crop like rice, different cultivars or genotypes were more or less resistant to the effects of CO2. Nor is it exactly clear why rising concentrations of CO2—which on the whole help fuel plant growth—might result in lower concentrations of important nutrients, though it’s possible the increased CO2 might be washing out some of those elements.

What do know is that the malnutrition would worsen if the staple crops that the world’s poorest people depend on become less nutritious as CO2 levels rise. One way to adapt to that threat, of course, would be to slow the increase of CO2 emissions, which would also have the useful side effect of slowing disastrous climate change. Farmers can also try to grow varieties of staple crops that have shown more resistance to high CO2 levels, while scientists can begin the work of breeding crops that are more resilient to carbon. Microsupplements of essential nutrients like zinc, which bolsters the immune system, could fill the gap as well. But there’s no getting around the fact that we already struggles to properly feed the 7 billion plus people who live on the planet. Higher CO2 levels and warmer temperatures will just make that task tougher.

For the first time in at least 800,000 years—if not far longer—average carbon concentrations in April stayed above 400 ppm for the entire month. Barring some way of cheaply removing CO2 from the atmosphere, those levels will only go up for the foreseeable future. “We are radically changing the entire global environment,” warns Myers. “We are moving into a set of environmental conditions we haven’t adapted to, and there will be impacts that affect our well being that will be hard to anticipate.” We are entering a new world, even if it is one of our own making. Expect a bumpy ride ahead.

TIME Environment

National Climate Report Is a Study in Extremes

A car sits in dried and cracked earth of what was the bottom of the Almaden Reservoir on Jan. 28, 2014 in San Jose, California.
A car sits in dried and cracked earth of what was the bottom of the Almaden Reservoir on Jan. 28, 2014 in San Jose, California. Justin Sullivan—Getty Images

The newly released National Climate Assessment grimly shows that warming is already upon us and extreme weather could become the norm

The White House pulled out all the stops for today’s rollout of the new National Climate Assessment (NCA), including making President Obama available to talk to local and national weather people about global warming. The report itself — download the whole 839-page paper here — is an incredibly impressive piece of work, detailing the current impacts and projected effects of global warming in the U.S. across a range of geographic regions and economic sectors. Even better is the government website dedicated to the NCA, which offers fascinating interactive and multimedia tools to help anyone see how climate change will affect their life, their community and their country. The entire document is much easier to understand — and much bolder — than the increasingly antiquated Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change assessments. If the U.S. were as good at stopping climate change as we are at studying it, we’d have nothing to fear.

But we’re not—and we do. It’s worth exploring the NCA on your own — start with the highlights — but what struck me is this: to understand what climate change has done and will do to the U.S., you need to understand the extremes. There’s something about the very term “global warming” that makes it seem as if climate change is something that will happen gradually and uniformly, like boiling a pot of water. The NCA finds U.S. average temperature are expected to rise 2°F (1.1°C) to 4°F (2.2°C) over the next few decades, which on the face of it can seem easy to adapt to. The difference between an 83°F (28.3°C) and an 87°F (30.6°C) summer day is barely noticeable.

But those averages can hide dramatic changes in extremes. Heat waves have become more frequent across the U.S. in recent decades, with western regions setting records in the 200s, while the number of extreme cold waves has reached the lowest level on record. The number of record low monthly temperatures has declined to the lowest level since 1911, while the number of record high temperature days has increased to the highest level since the 1930s. And that’s expected to worsen — by the end of the century, what would have previously been once-in-20-year extreme hot days are projected to occur every two or three years across much of the country.

That’s true for precipitation as well. On average, precipitation is expected to increase across the country, which makes sense — warmer air can hold more water. But increasingly that rainfall is coming in very heavy precipitation events. (That’s a once-in-20-year day of rainfall.) In the Northeast, Midwest and upper Great Plains, the amount of rain falling in very heavy precipitation events is more than 30% above the 1901–60 average. If carbon emissions keep growing, those extreme precipitation events could occur up to five times more often. Even in regions where total precipitation is expected to decrease — like the parched Southwest — what rain that does fall is more likely to fall in heavy events. “It’s not the average changes we’ll notice,” said Jerry Melillo, the chairman of the National Climate Assessment Committee, at the White House event this afternoon. “It’s the extremes.”

That’s because it’s extreme weather that really tests our resilience. A prolonged heat wave leads to a spike in electricity demand as people turn up their air conditioning, which in turn can stress out our vulnerable electrical grid, leading to brownouts and blackouts. Those who don’t have access to cooling—especially the elderly and the poor — are at direct risk for heat-related health conditions. Extreme precipitation events — like the one that struck much of the Southeast last week — can lead to devastating floods, which have been on the increase in the eastern Great Plans, parts of the Midwest and much of New England. The inland floods from Hurricane Irene were devastating for much of the Northeast, destroying farms and infrastructure. Those costs will compound over time as we keep adding greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.

The red-carpet rollout of the NCA wasn’t by accident — later this year Obama’s Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) will put forward regulations designed to curb carbon emissions from existing power plants. It’s in his interest to make the scientific threat of climate change crystal clear — and the NCA does that. But the science is the easy part. “We all have to come together and turn these words into actions,” said National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration head Kathryn Sullivan at the White House event. That’s the tough part.

TIME animals

These Scientists Want to Breed Animals That Can Survive Climate Change

New breeds won't fry as quickly, researchers hope.

Scientists at the University of Delaware are working to breed more heat-resistant chickens to better survive climate change, specifically at the African naked-neck chicken. The bird’s lack of neck feathers helps keep it cool — a model for what it might take for an animal to thrive in higher temperatures. Theoretically, incorporating some of the characteristics of the African chicken in U.S. breeds could create a more adaptable bird—and more food in the long run.

“We have to start now to anticipate what changes we have to make in order to feed 9 billion people,” Carl Schmidt, one of the researchers, told the Los Angeles Times. According to Schmidt, the hardier chickens could begin to be mass-produced within 15 years. As America warms up, they’ll certainly be useful, but the new animals are also relevant in the short-term for small-scale farming in Africa.

The experiment is one of the first attempts to kickstart evolution’s reaction to the climate catastrophe we find ourselves in. Too bad humans aren’t changing quite as quickly.

TIME Environment

Drones Banned From 2 U.S. National Parks

Yosemite National Park and Zion National Park say visitors who fly unmanned aircraft could receive a 6-month jail sentence or $5,000 fine

Sick of seeing drones flying above the treetops, two U.S. national parks recently told visitors to leave their miniature remote-controlled aircraft at home.

Zion National Park in Utah told visitors Monday to keep the buzzing unmanned vehicles out of the park, as they had been disturbing everyone from hikers to herds of bighorn sheep. Photographers often use drones to take aerial pictures.

Yosemite National Park in northern California had earlier released a statement Friday complaining that drones had become a “daily sight” and sound in the park.

The parks have warned that visitors who continue to bring drones to the park would be in violation of a federal rule that bars unauthorized airplanes in the park. Violations could result in 6 months in jail or a $5,000 fine.

Critics, however, are saying that the parks are misinterpreting the rule which they claim only applies to manned aircraft.

TIME climate change

Obama Administration Releases Major Climate Change Report

Hurricane Sandy
Superstorm Sandy showed the dangers of climate change Scott Eells—Bloomberg/Getty Images

A new report released by the Obama administration details the tough toll of climate change on the U.S. and what may happen if it's not addressed. The findings are especially bad for California and Alaska, which will experience severe drought and melting

The Obama administration released a wide-ranging climate change report on Tuesday, laying out exactly what impact the changing climate is having on the U.S., and what could happen if it isn’t addressed.

The third National Climate Assessment (NCA), a kind of Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report focused on the U.S., is the product of years of work by over two hundred climate scientists. A review draft was released last year, but the report has now been signed off by the federal National Climate Assessment and Development Advisory Committee.

The White House will unroll the report’s findings with a PR blitz today, the latest signal that President Barack Obama is placing a fresh emphasis on climate change during his second term in office.

Among the NCA’s findings, four critical conclusions stand out:

1.The Southwest will bake: California’s epic drought has done more than anything else this year to draw attention to the threat of global warming—even if the climate history of the West has shown evidence of decades-long droughts even before humans started pouring carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. But climate change will only make it worse—the reports predicts that the entire region, including states like California and Arizona, will get hotter, and the southern half of the region will get much drier, prompting major wildfires. Given that population in the Southwest has been growing rapidly in recent years, warming will only increase the decades-old competition for water in the West.

2.Alaska will melt: The Arctic is the fastest warming part of the world, which is why Alaska—America’s Arctic state—has been heating up more than twice as rapidly as the rest of the country over the past 60 years. That trend will likely continue in the future, which might sound like good news in a place where winters can last for more than six months. But the retreating summer sea ice, shrinking glaciers and melting permafrost will radically change Alaska—and especially Inuit communities that have lived on the land for thousands of years.

3.Coastlines will be in danger: Superstorm Sandy provided a very expensive preview of what happens when a powerful storm and rising sea levels meet over some of the biggest and richest cities in the world. Even if climate change doesn’t end up making Atlantic hurricanes more powerful or more frequent—and the debate is still out on that question—sea levels will continue to rise. That will put the 164 million Americans who live in coastal counties—more than half the country, and growing by 1.2 million a year—at intensified risk from flooding.

4.Agriculture will be resilient… at first: Many farmers should actually be able to adapt relatively well to warming for the next 20 to 25 years, in part because increased CO2 concentrations and longer growing season can benefit some crops. But that won’t last for long—as warming intensifies, the negative impacts for crops and livestocks will begin to outweigh the positive ones, especially in drought-stricken farming regions.

The release of the report comes as the Obama administration begins to renew its commitment to climate change. The White House released its Second National Climate Assessment (NCA) in 2009, only months after the president’s election. The document didn’t get a whole lot of attention, but that didn’t matter much to environmentalists. 2009 was the high-water mark for climate action in Washington. Obama had promised that his election would mark “the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow,” and that June, national carbon cap-and-trade legislation had narrowly passed the House of Representatives. The wonky work of the NCA, a Congressionally mandated program that pulls together the latest science on how climate change will impact the U.S., seemed important, but also a bit besides the point. The scientific debate was over—and environmentalists believed the time was ready for the U.S. to finally lead on climate change.

It didn’t work out that way. Cap-and-trade stalled and eventually died in the Senate in 2010, and when Republicans took back the House during midterm elections later that year, hopes for national climate legislation evaporated. While Obama could claim meaningful environmental wins—toughening fuel efficiency standards and channeling billions of dollars to renewable energy—many environmentalists believed he had turned his attention away from one of the most dire threats facing the country and the world.

But beginning with his second inaugural address in January 2013, marked by a promise to “respond to the threat of climate change,” Obama has renewed his focus on global warming. The big showdown will come later this year, when the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) puts forward controversial rules that will curb greenhouse gas emissions from power plants, but this morning provides fresh evidence of the emphasis Obama is now putting on global warming. The release of the Third NCA will be marked by one-on-one Presidential interviews with local and national metereologists—still a trusted source on climate science for many Americans, even if they shouldn’t always be—and the presence of top White House officials at the rollout later this afternoon. The NCA is no longer a sideshow—to a White House searching for a climate win, it’s the main event.

 

TIME Environment

States Are Cracking Down on Face Wash

Vials of microbeads alongside products that use such small, plastic spheres.
Vials of microbeads alongside products that use such small, plastic spheres. Photo courtesy of 5 Gyres

Environmentalists are sounding alarms about microbeads, the tiny bits of plastic used in personal care products that researchers say are too small to be filtered out of water treatment plants, so they're ending up in oceans and lakes

If you’ve ever cleansed your face with a product that promised to gently exfoliate your T-zone, you may have been enjoying the effects of the latest scourge of environmentalists: microbeads.

Microbeads are tiny, round bits of plastic that are found in, among other things, personal care products made by companies like Johnson & Johnson and Proctor & Gamble. They’re so small that one will just cover Abraham Lincoln’s eye on a penny. More important, researchers have found that they’re too small to be sifted out at water treatments plants, so the tiny beads are flowing down bathroom sinks and ending up in America’s lakes and oceans. Though the effects of their presence are still being investigated, five states—California, New York, Illinois, Ohio and Minnesota—are considering bills that would proactively ban their use.

“The fundamental question is going to be: do we wait to take this material out until we prove that this microbead causes harm?” says Chelsea Rochman, a marine ecologist at the University of California, Davis, who specializes in microplastics research.

According to industry experts, microbeads started becoming popular with big companies about a decade ago as replacements for harsher scrubbing ingredients like pumice. Given how relatively new they are, there is little research specifically investigating how microbeads affect the environment. Still, Rochman says, there is plenty of evidence from research on other plastics suggesting that they’re probably causing more harm than good. In oceans and lakes, she says, bits of plastic “act like sponges,” soaking up toxins like pesticides and flame retardants that have also found their way into the ecosystem. And hundreds of species, from fish to plankton to wild-caught tuna, ingest bits of plastic, meaning those toxins could be ending up in the food chain.

Jay Ansell, a toxicologist with the trade association that represents personal care product companies, emphasizes that beyond the lack of research, there also isn’t hard proof that the beads researchers have found came from facial scrubs rather than paint or sand-blasting. Still, that hasn’t stopped many of the big companies represented by the Personal Care Products Council from taking steps away from the beads. Johnson & Johnson, which produces product lines like Clean & Clear and Neutrogena, has already announced that they’re not using microbeads in any new products and are reformulating all those that currently use them, with plans to eliminate their use entirely by 2017. Proctor & Gamble, maker of brands such as Olay, has made similar public vows.

“As an industry there was a feeling that this is certainly something we can do and we can do it today,” Ansell says of eliminating microbeads. “This is something we can live without.”

So why all the legislation, if companies aren’t pushing back? “This is a game of Whack-a-Mole,” says Stiv Wilson, policy director at 5 Gyres, an organization that studies plastic in the world’s watersheds. His group drafted the legislation that has served as a model in all the states that are currently considering bans. He says that laws are needed to keep big companies, however good-willed, beholden to certain timelines and to make sure smaller companies that might use microbeads don’t slip through the cracks. He believes that advocates only need two bills to become laws in U.S. states before it creates a “distribution nightmare” that will force companies’ hands.

Both Illinois and New York look poised to pass their bills. The Illinois measure has passed the Senate and moved on to the state House. In New York, companion bills have been introduced in both chambers, and the attorney general’s office is pushing their passage. Wilson says he’s confident that California could pass their bill too, though he’s less confident about the political circumstances in Minnesota and Ohio.

“It’s really important that these bills become law,” Wilson says. “There’s a history of companies saying they’re going to do something and then putting it off until forgotten … You’ve got to get some teeth behind these promises.” Though companies have not yet said what materials they might use as replacements, advocates have suggested natural products such as crushed walnuts and apricot shells.

An advocacy group operating under the banner “Beat the Micro Bead” is pushing similar reform in Europe. If you’re curious about whether a certain cosmetic contains microbeads, you can view their product lists here. In addition to face wash, Rochman says microbeads are also used in goods like toothpaste, toilet bowl cleaners and other cleaning products.

“This is a solvable problem,” says Wilson. “There’s plenty of places in the market that have demonstrated that you can get the same effect with other materials.” Whatever substitutes the companies end up using, expect more of them to be biodegradable.

TIME

Southern California Blaze Kicks Off What Could Be Especially Dangerous Wildfire Season

A fire crew uses their deck gun to cut down an aggressive branch of the Etiwanda Fire in Rancho Cucamonga, Calif., on April 30, 2014.
A fire crew uses their deck gun to cut down an aggressive branch of the Etiwanda Fire in Rancho Cucamonga, Calif., on April 30, 2014. David Bro—Zuma Press

Rising temperatures and a prolonged drought have prepped the Golden State for what could become one of the most severe and dangerous wildfire seasons on record, beginning with the Etiwanda Fire that firefighters have about 53 percent contained

As he looks ahead to summer, firefighter Steve Abbott is worried about the down and dead. The term refers to the dry, lifeless leaves and branches that are explosive fuel for wildfires and which are more abundant in California this year thanks to an unprecedented drought that has gripped the state. “The combination of temperatures and fuel adds to our concern,” says Abbott, one of more than 500 firefighters now battling what’s known as the Etiwanda Fire in San Bernardino County east of Los Angeles.

The fire, which started on April 30, has burned about 1,600 acres and was 53 percent contained by Thursday evening. In addition to the drought conditions and temperatures that climbed above 90 in Southern California this week, fierce Santa Ana winds helped propel the blaze and prevented fire crews from fighting it from the air. Although the fire has not yet destroyed any structures, Etiwanda is effectively opening night for a wildfire season that fire officials say could be one of the most severe and dangerous on record—and a preview of what life in a hotter and drier world could be for Californians.

That’s because the Golden State is primed to burn. California is suffering through its most severe dry spell in decades, with the entire state now in some category of drought. At the beginning of May the snowpack level in the Sierra Nevada mountains—a key source of stored water—was just 18% of normal. This winter, meanwhile, was the warmest on record for the state. The drought and the heat mean that plants and trees haven’t grown as many green leaves as usual. Those leaves help trees maintain moisture—and without them, the plants are that much more likely to ignite in a blaze. And it might not even take a fire to kill some of these parched trees. “If you don’t have the vegetation receiving water, not only do you have lower humidity levels in the plants, but some of the trees will actually die,” says Carlos Guerrero, a Glendale, Calif. fire captain and a spokesman for the multi-agency unified command battling the Etiwanda Fire. Dead trees means even more fuel on the ground as the height of the summer wildfire season approaches.

Guerrero and his fellow firefighters are getting the Etiwanda blaze under control—the mandatory evacuation orders announced after the fire began on Apr. 30 were lifted by the next day. But the changing climate means that the threat from wildfires is likely to only increase in the months and the years to come, in California and in much of the rest of the West. A study published last month in the journal Geophysical Research Letters found that the number of large wildfires in the West had increased by a rate of seven fires a year from 1984 to 2011, while the total area had increased at a rate of nearly 90,000 acres a year. Since 2000 more than 8 million acres have burned during six separate years. Before 2000, no year had seen 8 million acres burned. The authors connected the increase to climate change, as did the researchers behind a 2012 study in Ecosphere that predicted that global warming would likely cause more frequent wildfires in the Western U.S. within the next 30 years. Even the most recent report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, considered the gold standard for climate science, concluded that there was high confidence that global warming was already intensifying wildfires in the West.

Climate change isn’t the only factor behind the increasing wildfires in California and the West. Successful firefighting in the past has allowed some forests to grow beyond their natural limits, ironically providing more fuel for megafires. And the number of people who have moved to areas that border wild land has increased as well. Given that most wildfires are begun by human beings—either purposefully or by accident—more people near a forest means more chances for forest fires.

For people like Mia Hidayat, who lives in a housing development near the border of the Etiwanda Fire, that means the simple sight of dry brush and bushes in her neighborhood has taken on a new danger. “I’m afraid,” says Hidayat. As California’s wildfire season grows, many others are sure to feel the same.

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