Have you ever had loved ones in harm's way? I have family living in Monrovia, Calif., only a mile or two south of the 24,000-acre Bobcat Fire. They describe the terrible smoke and poor air quality they are having to endure. They have been on standby for possible mandatory evacuation the last few days but they have decided to leave their home voluntarily for a few days just to get some relief from the smoke.
As of this writing, they are safe and still have a home to return to, but many of our fellow Americans out West have not been as lucky.
The fall fire season hasn't even started, and already we've seen an astonishing amount of destruction. In California, 2.6 million acres have gone up in smoke, exceeding the 2 million acres burned in 2018. That year, the damage and economic loss from wildfires, according to AccuWeather, came to $400 billion. At the end of August, nearly 4,000 homes and other structures had been consumed by wildfires this year in California. By early September, social media feeds were filled with photos of orange, smoky skies.
The explanation for the increasing intensity and frequency of wildfires is pretty straightforward: Climate change is making forests drier and weather hotter, conditions in which a lightning strike can ignite a fire that quickly destroys thousands of acres.
Climate scientist Park Williams of Columbia University told The New York Times, "Behind the scenes of all of this, you've got temperatures that are about two to three degrees Fahrenheit warmer now than they would have been without global warming."
On our current trajectory, temperatures will continue to climb, bringing more fires and greater destruction. These wildfires also create a feedback loop that exacerbates climate change by releasing massive amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.
Unforeseen crises are also made worse by climate change. As we struggle to persevere through the coronavirus pandemic, for example, smoke from fires causes respiratory problems that can make the virus more deadly. People fleeing fires may also contend with crowded shelters that can spread the disease.
With the impact of climate change being felt here and now, we find ourselves running out of time to bring down the heat-trapping pollution that is warming our world. We must therefore use all the tools at our disposal to curtail those emissions.
One of the most effective tools is an ambitious price on carbon that will speed up the transition to a low- or zero-carbon economy.
A tax or fee on carbon can have a positive impact on low- and middle-income families, too. How? Take the revenue from a carbon fee and distribute it to all households.
Legislation to implement an effective carbon price while protecting the economic well-being of people has been introduced in the U.S. House as the Energy Innovation and Carbon Dividend Act (HR763).
The carbon fee is expected to drive down carbon emissions 40 percent in the first 12 years, and 90 percent by 2050. A household impact study released in August found that among households in the lowest fifth economically, 96 percent would receive "carbon dividends" that exceed their carbon costs.
Our House congressional representatives haven't yet joined the 82 house members who are co-sponsors of HR763. I hope they will. I know they want to hear from the people they represent. Why not call or email them with your concerns about climate impacts?
Governor Hutchinson's recent weekly address on the growing importance of Arkansas timber emphasized that 57 percent of Arkansas is forested and that "our forests offer adventure, a living, and a way of life for 3 million Arkansans." We need to protect that economic resource, as well as our agriculture powerhouse, from the climate fate that is befalling the West.
Our smoke-filled skies should serve as a warning that our climate could one day be unbearable if we fail to take the actions necessary to rein in climate change. An effective price on carbon with money given to households can put us on the path to preserving a livable world.
Steven Smith is a volunteer with the Russellville Chapter of Citizens' Climate Lobby. Mark Reynolds is the executive director of Citizens' Climate Lobby.