As I descended the steps to my kitchen to turn the coffee machine on last week, I noticed a beautiful glowing amber light streaming in through my windows. Looking outside, I could see that, despite being a cloudless day, there was an unusual haze distorting the morning light.
The mystery was solved later when I read that the upper level jet stream was bringing the smoke from the West Coast fires across the country to my home in Philadelphia, creating unusually hazy skies and remarkable sunsets all the way across the country.
Much of the media and left-leaning politicians have faulted climate change for the wildfires racing across tinder-dry landscape in California, Idaho, Oregon and Washington. President Trump, on the other hand, at a meeting in California with emergency responders and politicians rebuffed that theory, blaming poor forest management and saying, “It’ll start getting cooler. I don’t think the science knows.”
Why do leaders on all sides fail to see, or fear to admit the true underlying cause of the fires with the public? Why are certain leaders so quick to blame climate change alone for environmental emergencies and why do others just as swiftly dismiss it as a factor at all? Where is the truth, and why do the political leaders in our world, from Trump to Biden, put off addressing our environmental issues honestly, in the proper context and with the appropriate gravity?
While it is no excuse, it is true that when you are confronted with something so big that it requires you to change everything about the way you think and see the world, that denial or scapegoating is a natural response. Not only, as a species do we reject what may be true but complex, but we often embrace what is false or misguided.
Approximately seven million acres of land have burned to date in the United States this year. In the previous two decades, the U.S. has averaged 3 ½ to 10 million acres burned per year. During the 1930’s and 1940’s, there were three times as many wildfires consuming five times as much forest, averaging 15 to as many as 50 million acres burned annually.
So, what is the truth behind the recent wildfires in the western United States and a huge proportion of the other environmental challenges facing our country and the world?
What is true that our landscapes have been transformed into streets, buildings, cities, massive agricultural wastelands and grazing lots, and there are today far fewer acres of forests to burn than there were in the 1930’s and 40s.
What is true is that California and Oregon with their fires and Texas and Louisiana with their hurricanes have seven times as many people and homes exposed to the elements now than they did 80 years ago, increasing the risks and likelihood of death to people and destruction to their property.
What is true is that all of the incredible benefits of modern life : good healthcare, abundant food, central heating and air conditioning, clean water, automobiles, air travel, electronics and more, are the result of our discovery and exploitation of fossil energy.
What is true is that all of these amazing improvements to human well-being have come with an equal or greater cost of creeping destruction to the planet’s land, air and waterways.
What is true is that dramatically reducing fossil energy use will increase the costs of all of these goods and services and decrease our quality of life as compared to our current standards of living.
What is true is that whether our energy sources remain predominantly fossil-based or are converted 100% to non-carbon alternatives, our energy consumption coupled with our increasing human population will continue to reshape the landscape, drive habitat loss, pollute the air, decimate fisheries, empty rivers, lakes and aquifers, deplete our fertile soils, and exterminate billions of wild animals.
What is true is that any Green New Deal, however well-intentioned, in which the U.S. borrows trillions of dollars from our children and children’s children will only serve to drive more growth and use of more materials and resources and fossil energy, causing an even faster depletion of limited resources and emission of more pollution and wastes.
What is true is we don’t want to acknowledge seeing ourselves as the enemy of our own existence. We would rather believe what is false but comforting. “It’ll get cooler” or “the Green New Deal will fix climate change.” Neither could be farther from the truth.
The truth is often hard to hear. The truth makes us uncomfortable. But it is the truth that we desperately crave from our leaders, to unify us in a common cause and assure us the world our children will live in will be livable.
Terry Spahr, Executive Director