The dry west coast burned, and the east coast drowned in a deluge of water. Much of the rest of the country breathed in the smoke of the summer fires as the westerly winds transported and delivered the ash to Colorado, Utah, Ohio and the East Coast.
The United Nation’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change issued its Sixth Assessment Report last month as a preface to the November UN Climate Summit (COP26) in Glasgow, Scotland. The report was labeled a “code red” by the UN’s secretary general. It’s a statistical fact that the size and scope this year’s Dixie Fire is now reoccurring five times as often as they have historically.
We’re on a pace to increase Earth’s average temperature by at least 1.5 degrees centigrade, which will increase the fire hazards dramatically. If we can’t stop loading the atmosphere with carbon dioxide and methane, we’ll exceed the 1.5 and move to 2.0 (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit), and according to a report in The Nation, these blazing Dixie-sized fires will increase in occurrence by 14 times the current rate.
If that report weren’t enough of an alarm, the editors of 220 leading medical and public-health journals from across the globe warned in a collective editorial this week that if nations don’t take urgent action, rising temperatures “risk catastrophic harm to health that will be impossible to reverse.”
Rising temperatures are caused primarily by greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide and methane. The difficulty in reversing the deleterious effects of these gases is that carbon dioxide, for example, stays in the Earth’s atmosphere for approximately 100 years after initial release. Methane lifetimes are shorter.
Recent pictures of Lake Mead behind Hoover Dam (fed by the Colorado River) show water levels at the lowest level in history. Besides feeding Salt Lake city with 90 percent of its drinking water, the river is the biggest water artery in the western United States. The Colorado River collects its stores of water from the snowpacks of the Continental Divide. Despite reasonably good snowpacks recently, the river is increasingly unable to slake the needs of states in its basin, including Arizona, Utah, Nevada, New Mexico, Wyoming, California and Colorado. Hotter temperatures have dried up lands in these states soaking up greater amounts of the water. Arizona is among the worst off as its aquifers have dropped precipitously. Some urban and suburban areas are now pumping water from aquifers as deep as 1,000 feet. Recharging the aquifers is a problem if the Colorado River fails to deliver.
Of greater concern to the rest of the country is the downstream impact of a diminished Colorado River and its impact on California’s Imperial Valley and the fertile plains of northern Mexico, which together are the “breadbasket” of fruit and vegetable produce for the United States.
Other prominent climate problem areas include the warming oceans which are having perhaps the greatest effects on life on Earth. Melting polar icepacks and glaciers are threatening arctic species and altering fishing habitats. Sea-level rise from heated and swelling oceans and increased evaporation are causing more calamitous storms and rainfall. Apart from recent supercharged weather events, these changing oceanic thermoclines are threatening massive changes in weather patterns around the globe, particularly on the continents of Europe and Africa.
Recent catastrophic weather events have a multitude of less conspicuous consequences. Apart from the recent Category 4 and Category 5 hurricanes, the millions who went without power in the South, collapsing apartment buildings, million-acre fires, and flooded subways and basements in New York City, the less obvious effects for everybody are the increased costs of health care, the spreading of diseases, the loss of animal species, and the escalating tax and insurance rates to cover the disasters.
The hundreds of billions of dollars lost to this year’s crises will mean increased taxes to cover infrastructure recovery and prevention costs, but also escalating insurance rates, that is, if insurance options in some parts of the nation are even available. Insurance companies and reinsurance companies respond to these events in two ways, either by raising rates or ending insurance in high risk areas and shifting to lower risk products and services.
Make no mistake, Americans in all parts of the country will be paying to keep insurance companies viable, to keep government support services viable, and to cover increasing food and health care costs.
Life on Earth is changing. To deny it is to bury ones head in the proverbial sand, and simultaneously, to dismiss our obligations to leave the planet in good shape for future generations. I sometimes shutter to think of what life on Earth will be like for my grandchildren if we fail in our moral responsibility to do whatever is necessary to preserve the life-sustaining nature of our planet for our descendants.
As far as cosmologists know today, planet Earth is a life-giving “unicorn.” There may be others somewhere in the universe lightyears away, but that’s for dreamers, and beyond todays immediate needs to help our planet survive. It’s time for Earth’s current residents to take responsibly for preserving what we have been blessed with, a truly remarkable, life-giving sphere, at sea among the stars.
Adlai Stevenson put it well 60 years ago in a speech to the United Nations when he said, “We travel together, passengers on a little spaceship, dependent on its vulnerable reserves of air and soil; all committed for our safety to its security and peace; preserved from annihilation only by the care, the work, and, I will say, the love we give our fragile craft.”
Bill Sims is a Hillsboro resident, retired president of the Denver Council on Foreign Relations, an author and runs a small farm in Berrysville with his wife. He is a former educator, executive and foundation president.