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Wildfires in US and Canada: Wake-up call for urgent action on climate change

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We’re living in a time of serious environmental catastrophes. The Maui wildfires (August 8) in Hawaii and the Canadian wildfires in May and June this year have once again brought into focus the devastating impact of climate change. Along with humans, every year we lose thousands of species, even as others slip deeper into danger.

The Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies published a report in the journal Climate Change recently, and they predict by the year 2050 the Western US will experience not only more wildfires, but they will start earlier in the year, and they will emit more pollutants, some of which can travel hundreds of miles away from the fire and potentially cause lung problems for anyone who breathes in these tiny particulates of soot and ash.

The Maui fires have killed more than 100 people, forced tens of thousands of residents and tourists to evacuate the island and devastated the historic resort city of Lahaina. The blaze is the deadliest U.S. wildfire since 1918, when northern Minnesota’s Cloquet Fire, which raged for more than four days, claimed 453 lives, according to the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA). The deadliest wildfire in US history, Wisconsin’s Peshtigo fire in 1871, killed 1,152.

Much of Canada, like the rest of North America, has experienced record heat and drought recently as climate change continues to warm the planet. In May and June this year wildfires spread across the country, causing mass evacuations and burning through millions of acres. Even on Monday thick smoke blanketed much of the Pacific Northwest as numerous wildfires in Canada, Washington State and Oregon continued to burn, killing at least one person, destroying scores of buildings and threatening dozens more.

Wildfires are a natural part of the landscape in the West. The issue really becomes where we’ve altered the natural order of things, as is happening with climate change. There’s also a health consideration with the pollution and the particulates that come with these large fires.

We need to think about what the greenhouse gas emissions impacts are at play, and how much we can moderate the continued rise of temperature if greenhouse gas emissions are reduced.

Climate change is expected to worsen the frequency, intensity, and impacts of extreme weather events. For example, sea level rise increases the impacts of coastal storms and warming can place more stress on water supplies during droughts.

US is the main climate culprit

The US is by far the world’s leading historic emitter of greenhouse gases. America has produced around 400 billion tonnes of CO2 since 1751, enough to account for 25% of all anthropogenic emissions globally — and double China’s share. This fact alone, coupled with the fact that China, with a far larger population and industrial base, produces half as much CO2 per capita, demonstrates that the US bears a unique responsibility towards poorer countries.

The Biden administration announced a plan to make the US carbon neutral by 2050 but there are a few snags to consider. First of all, the current Supreme Court has made clear that regulatory agencies have limited powers and that Congress must clearly specify their scope. It means that Congress would need to pass and continually fund a carbon neutrality plan through 2050, and whoever is president would need to sign the bills. “This will never happen in a million years,” says American columnist Bradley Blankenship.

Polls indicate that a substantial majority of Americans want to take action on the climate change. According to an April poll by Pew Research, 69% of Americans are in favor of the US becoming carbon neutral by 2050. And 54% believes climate change is a major threat — though 78% of Democrats feel this way.

The 2023 UN Climate Change Conference (COP 28), which will be held in Dubai, UAE, from 30 November to 12 December this year, is supposed to focus on four paradigm shifts:

  • Fast-tracking the energy transition and slashing emissions before 2030;
  • Transforming climate finance, by delivering on old promises and setting the framework for a new deal on finance;
  • Putting nature, people, lives, and livelihoods at the heart of climate action; and
  • Mobilizing for the most inclusive COP ever.

It’s time for a serious political will to take steps to save the planet.

Wordtoon by Subhendu Sarkar

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