Wednesday, October 24, 2007

The 'adjustment' in San Diego

[Photo by Andrew Gornbert / EPA]

-- by Dave

The scale of the wildfires in California is a daunting reminder of man's helplessness in the face of nature's power. But it's also a reminder that there are real costs that arise from global warming, and from continuing to do nothing as we continue to pour greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.

The costs so far in the San Diego area alone: $1 billion and rapidly rising. The Bush administration is scurrying to provide disaster relief, but so far no one is talking about the big gorilla in the room: the role of global warming in these and hundreds of other wildfires throughout the West.

It's been a memorable fire season already in Idaho and Montana, as well as in Oregon. Now it's hitting home in California, where the substantially larger population is now at increasing risk.

In all of these areas, the trend has been similar: unseasonably warm winters and spring have meant a vegetation buildup in wild areas that have turned into massive tinder boxes as the heat of summer has dried them up, making them increasingly vulnerable to out-of-control fire regimes.

And we've known for some time that global warming has been playing a significant role in all this:
The size and ferocity of these wildfires plaguing the West right now -- many growing in size every hour -- astonishes even experienced fire chiefs like Mat Fratus of the San Bernardino City Fire Department.

"I had talked to people who had been in the fire service their entire career, and not only this fire, but fires in preceding years, because of the drought, because of the fuel conditions, they produced fire behavior, flame links, intensities that we had never really experienced before," Fratus said.

"And everything we had to throw at it, we did. And it just seemed to burn right through us," Fratus said.

... Today's wildfires are part of a worsening pattern most everywhere.

Since 1970, the number of major wildfires has soared not only in North America but around the world.

Scientists report that global warming means mountains lose winter snowpack weeks ahead of time, from the Himalayas to California Sierras.

"The snow is melting earlier in the year at very regular intervals now, and we're getting much longer fire seasons. It dries out much more than before," said Anthony Westerling, a researcher at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography.

The economic cost of these new fires is many billions of dollars. No one knows exactly how much, except that the rapid new development seems bound to make it much worse.

"Some of our fastest growing areas are going to have the biggest increases in fire frequency in the future driven by temperature increases from climate change," Westerling said.

Darkening this picture is the recent news that these wildfires are spewing mercury into the atmosphere at an alarming rate.

And as I noted then, these are all part of the very real costs that the Bush administration cynically calculated back in 2002 that the public could just grin and bear:
Recall that when the EPA first acknowledged the reality of global warming back in 2002, it nonetheless refused to recommend any action to change course:

But while the report says the United States will be substantially changed in the next few decades — "very likely" seeing the disruption of snow-fed water supplies, more stifling heat waves and the permanent disappearance of Rocky Mountain meadows and coastal marshes, for example — it does not propose any major shift in the administration's policy on greenhouse gases.

It recommends adapting to inevitable changes. It does not recommend making rapid reductions in greenhouse gases to limit warming, the approach favored by many environmental groups and countries that have accepted the Kyoto Protocol, a climate treaty written in the Clinton administration that was rejected by Mr. Bush.

A few days after the report was issued, Bush dismissed it outright -- for even acknowledging the reality of the phenomenon. But White House policy afterward has been geared toward doing as little as possible to lower carbon emissions because, after all, we can just "adjust."

Now we're starting to see a little bit of the big price we'll be paying for those "adjustments."

In San Diego, I think, we're starting to get a glimpse of the much bigger price we'll be paying. And more is on the way.

As the Scientific American explained in its piece yesterday:
The world may finally acknowledge that global warming is a major environmental hazard. But new research shows that reducing the main greenhouse gas behind it may be even more difficult than previously believed. The reason: the world's oceans and forests, which scientists were counting on to help hold off catastrophic rises in carbon dioxide, are already so full of CO2 that they are losing their ability to absorb this climate change culprit.

"For every ton of CO2 emitted [into] the atmosphere, the natural sinks are removing less carbon than before," says biologist Josep "Pep" Canadell, executive director of the Global Carbon Project—an Australia–based research consortium devoted to analyzing the pollution behind global warming. "This trend will continue into the future."

Looks like Glenn Beck -- who has decried global-warming science as the concoction of a "New World Order" conspiracy -- is going to have a field day finding new segments of the country who'll be getting their fiery just desserts. Funny how that works -- especially when the reality is that it's his own special brand of ignorance-mongering that is helping to fuel the flames.

UPDATE: Sure enough: Beck is blaming the environmentalists:
Last night, CNN Headline News host Glenn Beck blamed California’s massive wildfires on the “damn environmentalists” and their “bad environmental policies.” He also claimed that global warming has nothing to do with the situation, stating, “[I]f I hear global warming one more time, blood is going to shoot out of my eyes.”

To prove his points, he brought on R.J. Smith of the Exxon-funded Competitive Enterprise Institute and Chris Horner, author of the Politically Incorrect Guide to Global Warming and Environmentalism. Horner — who is also a senior fellow at CEI — predictably argued that “[g]lobal warming is not a likely suspect” for the fires and Smith said that “the greens have made things worse by stopping all [fuels] management.”

There is a special hell that will be waiting for Glenn Beck someday.

UPDATE II: EnergySmart has more.

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