By now we all have seen the images of glowing-red skies and smoke-clogged air of the western U.S., where 5 million acres have burned this summer.
These catastrophic fires are not limited to the American West; tropical areas like Indonesia and the Amazon have been caught between a warming/drying climate and human burning for agricultural development. Drought-stricken grasslands in Argentina now are burning uncontrollably. And after emerging from the worst wildfire season on record, with 46 million acres and thousands of homes lost – and up to a billion animals killed – Australians now are bracing for another fire season to begin. But the most remarkable effects are in the Arctic, which has been warming at over twice the rate of the rest of the planet. June saw the first ever record of 100 degrees Fahrenheit above the Arctic Circle! Along with these record high Arctic temperatures has come record-low winter snowfall, and consecutive years of unprecedented fires.
Further complicating the climate-fueled wildfires around our planet, there is the firestorm of false information on social media. The stories can range from plausible to outrageous, but the primary effect is to sow confusion and division among our citizens. As we the American voters ingest this unhealthy information diet, we become less equipped to deal with problems as they arise, let alone heading them off in advance.
One recent falsehood dealt with the tragedy of our western fires, attributing the cause to “liberal forest management” and not climate change. Yes, fire suppression tactics from decades past in the National Forests have led to an accumulation of fuel, which would not have occurred naturally. One reason for this suppression is the spread of housing developments into more-affordable, fire-prone areas. Across much of the western U.S., policies lean towards a hands-off libertarian approach, with county officials enacting lax building codes. In this way a local tax base can be developed, but when the fires come it’s the federal government that has to foot the bill for fighting fires and saving houses. According to Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue, spending on fire suppression by the U.S. Forest Service has ballooned from 15% in the recent past to over 55% of their total budget today! Chasing after all these fires prevents our foresters from conducting the preventative tactics of thinning, insect management and prescribed burns that they can be so good at when we allow them to do so.
One of the primary contributors to our information problem is the secretive internet conspiracy group “QAnon,” which has been spreading false claims about who is to blame for the fires and negating the overarching role of climate change and human land use practices. Local law enforcement agencies such as the Douglas County (Oregon) Sheriff’s Department have even been pleading for the stop of the online rumor spread, because it forces public safety departments to divert resources from where they are most needed: protecting property. In the modern Information Age, one of the best ways to act as a responsible citizen is to vet our sources of information.
Carbon pollution is making it harder to live on our planet. And relying on social media for information is making it harder to understand this problem, or to come to a decision on how to act. But the good news is, 2020 has taught us a lot of great lessons. We need voters to choose credible info sources, and we need real experts to inform our policy makers. With these first steps taken, we can begin the exciting process of creating a sustainable future.
Chris Werle of Lamar County is the state coordinator for the Citizens’ Climate Lobby.