In June of 2016, Arizona was the setting for twenty-one different wildfires, according to InciWeb, a multi-organizational website that tracks these (usually) natural occurrences. There were sixteen in California, six each in Colorado and New Mexico, three in Oregon, and two each in Montana, Utah, and Wyoming. That’s a lot of fire. Yes, these incidents are indeed part of the ecology of the dry Western states, but statistics increasingly demonstrate that this part of the United States is experiencing them more often. In addition, the incidents are becoming larger and more savage, with the length of the fire “season” increasing. Climate Central states: “Across the Western U.S., the average annual number of large fires (larger than 1,000 acres) burning each year has more than tripled between the 1970s and the 2010s… the fire season is 105 days longer than it was in the 1970, and is approaching the point where the notion of a fire season will be made obsolete by the reality of year-round wildfires across the West.” And this is the good news. State by state, conditions are increasingly made dire by warmer temperatures and dryer conditions.
Climate Central, an organization composed of scientists and science writers, is not the only institution that attributes these increasingly incendiary conditions to climate change. The National Wildlife Federation points out that the warmth and droughts accelerate the occurrence of insect infestations that kill trees, literally adding fuel to the fires; in addition, “as thunderstorms become more severe… lightning in the region could increase by 12 to 30 percent by mid-century.” The Union of Concerned Scientists agrees with these indictments, corroborating the increasing likelihood of intense fires throughout the year. Their website notes that “moist, forested areas are the most likely to face greater threats from wildfires as conditions grow drier and hotter” and that this threat will ultimately envelope the entire southern half of the country as well as the western states.
Beyond the threat of wildfires, climate change affects this country in other ways. Climate Change comments that “Global warming has raised global sea level about 8 inches since 1880, and the rate of rise is accelerating.” Such problems as heat waves, flooded cities, decreasing snow levels, which provided much of the potable water in many areas (with accompanying habitat loss for certain species), are all becoming more commonplace.
Not all politicians, however, believe that climate change exists. The Skeptical Science website quotes Newt Gingrich in 2008 as saying: “I don’t think we have conclusive proof that humans are at the center of [global warming].” The site also credits Mitt Romney in 2012 as stating “My view is that we don’t know what’s causing climate change on this planet.” And, in that same year, Donald Trump Tweeted: “The concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive.”
Now, of course, the “real Donald Trump” is the presumptive Republican candidate for the United States presidency. According to the Washington Post, his views have not changed, at least in political terms; in 2015, the On The Issues website quotes Trump as characterizing concerns as “the mistaken belief that global climate change is being caused by carbon emissions.” and continuing with “what we have is really just an expensive way of making the tree-huggers feel good about themselves.” This last March, however, the Trump International Golf Links Ireland “submitted a permit to build… a limestone barricade 20 meters wide… a ‘monster sea wall’.” On his website, Trump has no position listed on global warming;
Contrast this to comments made by Bernie Sanders, whose presidential campaign has been partly based on the exact opposite premise. On The Issues quotes him as saying: “climate change is directly related to the growth of terrorism… [with struggles] over limited amounts of water, limited amounts of land to grow their crops… you’re going to see all kinds of international conflict.”** When asked about the primacy of gun reform, immigration, and climate change, Hillary Rodham Clinton maintained that all are equally important, stating : “I don’t want to just stop bad things from happening, I want to start good things from happening… I want to have half a billion more solar panels deployed, the first four years. I want to have enough clean energy to power every home the next four years.”
It’s easy to note the many substantive differences in the two presumptive presidential candidates; Trump’s web site lists just six positions, while Clinton’s offers over thirty. Beyond listing the issue, Clinton also cites facts and statistics about climate change and its effect on the United States as “15 of the 16 hottest years on record have come just since 2001.” In addition, Clinton prescribes specific ways of working with the problem, from cutting American dependence on oil to cleaning up American production and creating more renewable energy.
The upcoming national conventions will be the place where each party defines its current platforms. Climate change will be a difficult issue for the Republican party; as the Guardian noted last year, “Amid internal calls for climate action, a study finds that Republicans are the only climate-denying conservative party in the world.” This extends beyond presidential candidates; the Tampa Bay Times recently called out Marco Rubio, who is running for Senate re-election, for his “his out-of-step positions on Cuba, guns, climate change and other major issues.”
The Democratic Party, on the other hand, is poised to take some very large steps, calling for investigations of companies that deny the reality of climate change. On June 25th, the party published a draft of key policy issues that will become part of this year’s platform, and one of them is climate change, which the party characterizes as “a central challenge of our time, already impacting American communities.” Beyond the suggestion of corporate fraud, the platform calls for clean energy research, development, and deployment, looking to create an economy entirely run on clean energy by the middle of this century.
There are a number of reasons to vote Democratic this year, on all levels of government. One of the most important just may be the need for a party that admits that American stewardship of the environment has been substandard, leading to a reliance on fossil fuels that has contributed to climate change that may, at this point, be at least partially irreversible. As the summer progresses, it will be imperative that all Americans insist that this issue, and those related to it, become part and parcel of the political discussion. In the fall, one’s vote will constitute a different sort of referendum than Brexit – this will be a determination on whether or not our government will rise to leadership in this thorny challenge.
**Editor’s note: Bernie’s connection between terrorism and climate change is something most people either do not understand or do not fully appreciate. As climate change impacts less developed areas of the world, whether through increased flooding, permanent loss of shore lines, drought, etc., we will find those areas growing increasingly unstable. This instability will manifest itself in mass migrations, mass hunger, a lack of potable water for billions and, inevitably, violence. A number of experts believe that the Syrian war and the resulting humanitarian crisis was greatly exacerbated, and possibly caused, by an ongoing drought that stressed an already unstable country.
As in any chaotic situation, there will be those that take advantage of the angry and the desperate to recruit followers to any number of radicalized groups. Even as climate change destroys crops, it provides fertile ground for terrorism to grow. We ignore this reality at our peril.