Colorado wildfires should rekindle action on climate crisis

Despite COVID-19, climate change remains a top threat to global security

A view of the Pine Gulch Fire on Aug. 11, 2020. (Rocky Mountain Incident Management Team/BLM)

Amidst the chaos of a novel coronavirus and historic presidential elections, Coloradans have been starkly reminded of another threat looming large — climate change.

As of Tuesday, over 134,000 acres are burning in Colorado. The Pine Gulch Fire is already the fourth largest fire in the state’s history (and growing), and most of the fires have little to no containment. With 100% of the state in drought or dry conditions, continued above average temperatures and no precipitation in the extended forecast, there’s no end in sight.

While no single event can be attributed directly to climate change, the contributing trend is well established and reflected globally. In what may be the hottest temperature ever on Earth, Death Valley National Park recently recorded a scorching 130 degrees Fahrenheit. Meanwhile, Greenland’s ice sheets are reported to have melted “past the point of no return,” an exceptionally rare “fire tornado” was spotted in California, and a new study estimates 20%-55% of oceans have already experienced changes in temperatures and salt levels. These grim developments serve as requisite reminders that the effects of climate change aren’t just our future, they’re our past and present.

Unfortunately, with the onset of COVID-19, attention to climate change has slowed. Leading activists such as Greta Thunberg have been largely replaced in headlines by the worst economic drops in history and 170,000 Americans dead. Yet the threat of climate change remains at least as urgent as COVID-19, if not more so.

Still, it can be hard to appreciate how climate change is just as urgent — after all, COVID-19 has left nearly three quarters of a million people dead in mere months worldwide. So how, exactly, does climate change rival coronavirus?

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The answer lies within irreversible and additive change. Scientific consensus suggests that due to the amount of carbon dioxide already in the atmosphere, even if all human emissions of greenhouse gases were eliminated immediately, the warming effects and subsequent changes would likely continue for centuries. This is attributed to the length of time that carbon dioxide remains in the atmosphere with natural removal, as well as the compounding effects of warming. Consequently, barring immediate development of new mass-scale carbon sequestration technologies, delays in mitigating climate change will continue to compound the effects experienced later. In short, we’ve already committed to some level of change, and we’ll commit ourselves to more — with grave consequences to global health, security and economies — the longer we wait to act.

Colorado’s forests are one such example of change we’re already committed to. The trend is clear for Colorado, which is home to over 24.4 million acres of forested land: In the 1960s and 1970s, less than 100,000 acres burned per decade. Between 1980 to 1999, this increased to nearly 200,000 acres per decade. Since 2000, estimates hover around 2 million acres having gone up in flames, with the top 20 largest fires in Colorado all occurring after 2002.

These increasing fires are fueled in large part by combinations of severe drought, high temperatures and beetle kill affecting roughly one in 15 trees, all related to climate change, as well as long-standing fire suppression to save human infrastructure. These fires have significant effects on lives, homes, public health, local economies, transportation and more. Unfortunately, the American West will likely continue to get hotter and drier, and the beetle kill has already left tinder boxes throughout significant portions of our state. Even with action on climate change, we cannot reverse these changes. We can, however, work to usher in newer, more resilient forests for a changed climate.

It’s important to remember that despite the increasing urgency of both COVID-19 and climate change, not all hope is lost. Both crises have tangible, evidence-driven solutions that can drastically reduce impacts — we simply need leaders who will act accordingly.

In Colorado, we are lucky to have been recognized for the second year in a row for our efforts in data-driven policy. To this end, many experts across multiple agencies are already working hard to rebuild forest health and resiliency, with the Colorado Legislature in close partnership. But it is imperative that the general public and media use the vast, fast-burning wildfires to renew discussions of climate change and, more importantly, to continue discussions of wildfire mitigation and forest resiliency beyond the wildfire season. Even amidst a global pandemic, climate change remains just as urgent.

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