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At the Front Door: Climate Change & Forest Fires –  a column on climate change in our lives

On a Wednesday morning just a few weeks ago, Bay Area residents woke up to a scene out of a dystopian movie. The sun hung low and red in a sky that looked like it too was on fire. Ash fell from the sky as evidence of the unimaginable destruction which spanned all the way from Los Angeles across the border north to Oregon. Air quality was so bad that authorities called for people to stay indoors. News headlines and radio hosts discussed the damage caused by forest fires, but what they really should have been discussing was climate change. 

For decades we have heard about the negative impacts of climate change on our planet. And in 2018, the total devastation of Paradise, California drove home that forest fires were no longer confined  to places where people just went on vacation. This was different. This was right outside our windows. For the first time ever, I knew people who had been evacuated to shelters and could do nothing but wait to learn if they had homes to go back to. For many of us, the last few weeks have been an unwelcome and long-overdue wakeup call. Climate change isn’t something that is happening elsewhere. It is happening here, right now, threatening our homes and filling our lungs with smoke.  

The link between Climate change and worsening forest fires in California and across the West is incontrovertible. While forest management is important it cannot  be blamed for the recent catastrophic nature of these fires. It is climate change that causes summers to grow hotter with less precipitation and an increased risk of drought. Not only is climate change making most of California drier, it is causing it to be drier for longer periods of time. This year’s hot and dry spring was no exception, which is why there was plenty of dry vegetation scorched by record-hot temperatures, just waiting to ignite. And ignite it did. In late August a thunderstorm passed over northern California. The dry air caused the rain to evaporate leaving only lightning to reach the ground. These lightning strikes started hundreds of fires, many in hard-to-reach places. 

Scientists note that the impacts of human-caused climate change means that we are looking at “a longer fire season with conditions friendlier to fire” resulting in larger, more frequent, more intense, and more destructive fires. This forecast has certainly held true over the last two decades, as the worst ten fires in the State’s history have all occurred since 2000. The last decade has been even worse, continuously smashing previous records for destruction. An analysis conducted by the LA Times found that “wildfires and their compounding effects have intensified in recent years  — and there’s little sign things will improve.” And 2020 is certainly living up to this prediction. 

California is once again struggling through its worst fire season ever, and the August Complex Fire officially became the state’s largest fire since records have been kept (1932). And the fire season has just barely started.

This is, of course, made even worse by the fact that people are often choosing to live near the forests, meaning it is increasingly likely for humans to intentionally and unintentionally start forest fires. The most consequential example this year being the El Dorado Fire outside of Los Angeles, which was started by a pyrotechnic device used as part of a gender reveal. So  far the fire has burned 22,000 acres and ten structures, caused the evacuation of over 20,000 people, and resulted in the death of one fire fighter.  

The real question is, “When will we stop acting like each progressively-worse fire season is an abnormality and acknowledge that worse is the new normal?” 

The climate we were accustomed to is not coming back, and the worst is yet to come.  It is inevitable. We can continue to applaud firefighters and first responders, but a more profound show of gratitude would be to acknowledge and address the root of the problem: climate change, largely caused by the burning of fossil fuels.

California Governor Newsom succinctly summed up the situation during a press conference: “What we’re experiencing right here is coming to communities all across the United States of America unless we get our act together on climate change.” It makes  one wonder if the recent fires will alter the Governor’s previously permissive stance on permitting new oil and gas wells.

Combatting the causes of climate change is no longer a luxury. It is a priority, not just for our politicians and legislators but for us too. The most recent report for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, noted that effectively tackling climate change would “require rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes to all aspects of society.” 

If we want to adapt, and to do so equitably, we need to act now. We have to start making fundamental and uncomfortable changes in how we live – and demand that others arounds us do the same. 


Erin Zimmerman is trained as a Climate Reality Leader in 2019 by the Climate Reality Project, but has been active in the environmental movement for over a decade. Erin holds a PhD in Political Science from the University of Adelaide, where she focused on environmental degradation and its impacts on country and regional stability in Asia. She is currently the Chair of the Speakers’ Bureau of the Santa Clara Chapter of the Climate Reality Project  and an active member of the Legislative and Policy team.

Image credits: markus spiske, Unsplash

Bibliography

Branch, John and Plumer, Brad (22 Sept 2020), “Climate Disruption Is Now Locked In. The Next Moves Will Be Crucial,” The New York Times,
https://www.nytimes.com/2020/09/22/climate/climate-change-future.html?searchResultPosition=1
Cal Fire, (Updated 22 Sept 2020) “El Dorado Fire,” Incidents, https://www.fire.ca.gov/incidents/2020/9/5/el-dorado-fire/
DeMarche, Edmund, (21 Sept 2020), “Firefighter Who Died in El Dorado Fire is ID’d as Crew Boss,” Fox News,
https://www.foxnews.com/us/firefighter-who-died-in-el-dorado-fire-is-idd-as-crew-boss
Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, (2018), “Summary for Policymakers of IPCC Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5°C approved by governments,” https://www.ipcc.ch/2018/10/08/summary-for-policymakers-of-ipcc-special-report-on-global-warming-of-1-5c-approved-by-governments/
Krishnakumar, Priya and Kannan Swetha, (15 Sept 2020) “The Worst Fires Season Ever. Again.” The Los Angeles Times,
https://www.latimes.com/projects/california-fires-damage-climate-change-analysis/
McGrath, Matt (25 Sept 2020), “California wildfire trend ‘driven by climate’”, BBC News: https://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-54278988
Newberger, Emma and Rattner, Nate (18 Sept 2020), “These charts show how wildfires are getting larger, more severe in the U.S.” CNBC,
https://www.cnbc.com/2020/09/18/fires-in-california-oregon-and-washington-data-shows-blazes-getting-worse-.html
Pierre-Louise, Kendra and Schwartz, John (22 Sept 2020) “Why Does California Have So Many Wildfires?”, New York Times, Climate and Environment section, https://www.nytimes.com/article/why-does-california-have-wildfires.html
Shepherd, Katie (8 Sept 2020), “A Gender-Reveal Stunt Sparked a California wildfire that has forced 21,000 People to Evacuate”, Washington Post, https://www.washingtonpost.com/nation/2020/09/08/california-gender-reveal-fire/
Tucker, Liza (09 Feb 2020), “Permits to Drill New Oil and Gas Wells Zoom Up 190% In The First Six Months of 2020Under Gov. Newsome Worrisome Trend,” Consmer Watchdog,
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Union of Concerned Scientists, (8 Sept 2020) “Infographic: Wildfires and Climate Change,” Union of Concerned Scientists. https://www.ucsusa.org/resources/infographic-wildfires-and-climate-change?utm_source=facebook&utm_medium=social&utm_campaign=fbads&fbclid=PAAaYSNg_EYXMMP_3h0vRf0b7Y8uVhtVVhivEQr1V31SLp4iR5V_KwHCnQrfs
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