‘We can’t ignore the reality’: Colorado fires underscore the urgency of US climate law | Climate crisis


Joe Biden ended his tour of neighborhoods devastated by Colorado’s most destructive fire by emphasizing the link between escalating U.S. wildfires and the global climate crisis, saying the United States can no longer “ignore the reality” of the weather conditions that “supercharged” the fires.

Biden’s trip to Boulder County on Friday marked his sixth climate disaster tour since taking office a year ago, highlighting the growing threat of global warming in the United States and the need for radical action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Last week’s prairie fire destroyed nearly 1,100 homes and some businesses after hurricane-force winds caused flames in two densely populated Denver suburbs, forcing 35,000 people to flee.

The cumulative effect of unusually humid conditions last spring, followed by extremely dry and hot conditions through December – weather conditions linked to global warming – allowed the rare winter fire to burn over 6,000 acres, engulfing both residential and commercial districts.

After meeting with some of the affected families, Biden praised the courage of the survivors and said, “We cannot ignore the reality that these fires are being supercharged. They are supercharged by climate change.

Biden pledged not to abandon families as they try to rebuild themselves, saying “we are here with you and we will not leave.”

The Colorado disaster closed a catastrophic year for the United States in which at least 650 people died from climate disasters, including heat waves, hurricanes, fires and floods. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the estimated economic cost of the destruction had exceeded $ 100 billion even before the Colorado fire.

A 69-year-old construction worker, Robert Sharpe, has been confirmed dead, while another person is missing. The cause of the fire is still under investigation.

Biden’s latest disaster tour highlights the stakes of his faltering Build Back Better (BBB) ​​legislation, which allocates $ 550 billion to tackle the world’s largest sources of heating gas – energy and transportation . Passage of the bill was hampered by fossil fuel-friendly Senator Joe Manchin, who angered fellow Democrats by opposing the historic social spending program that includes major investments in forest restoration, the wildfire resilience and mitigation under what would be the country’s largest. never investment in climate crisis.

Experts say without the bill, it will be impossible to meet the administration’s goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions to at least 50% below 2005 levels by 2030.

Globally, the United States is the second largest emitter of greenhouse gases, after China, and scientists warn that even halving emissions by 2030 may not be enough to avoid a catastrophic increase in emissions. Atmospheric and ocean temperatures, which increase the risk of forest fires, intensify drought and torrential rains, and exacerbate flooding.

“Over the past few months, we have seen vivid examples of the extraordinary costs the country is incurring due to climate change, and the problem is getting worse by the day,” said Vijay Limaye, climate and health scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council. (NRDC) Science Center. “The huge benefits of BBB adaptation and mitigation measures would far outweigh the costs. “

As the Biden administration fights to save the legislation and push it through the Senate, calls are mounting to accelerate the reforms needed to modernize government agencies to be equipped for climate disasters and extreme weather events. Manchin’s vote is crucial as the bill is opposed by Republicans.

Colorado Democratic Congressman Joe Neguse, co-chair of the bipartisan Wildfire Caucus, on Friday unveiled a new bill to help prevent future wildfires, fund advanced firefighting equipment and programs, and support firefighters. community and forest restoration efforts. affected by fires in the west.

Representative Joe Neguse speaks at a press conference on the Colorado wildfires January 2 in Boulder. Photograph: Jack Dempsey / AP

“As we endure increasingly difficult forest fire seasons, it is essential that the federal government help stop fires before they start, fight them if they spread, and help our communities to. fully recover once they have been brought under control… We cannot expect our communities to bear the burden of these disasters alone, ”said Neguse.

The Western Wildfire Support Act, co-sponsored by Senator Catherine Cortez Masto of Nevada, would direct the departments of the interior and agriculture to create fire prevention, management and recovery plans for federal lands in the west. the United States. It would also provide $ 100 million in funding to help communities affected by forest fires carry out long-term rehabilitation projects.

Neguse, whose district includes Boulder County, launched the Wildfire Caucus after the unprecedented 2020 season, when more than a thousand fires destroyed 665,454 acres of land in Colorado. Last year, more than 8,600 fires were recorded in California – a historic record that burned more than 2.5 million acres.

Exposure to smoke from wildfires can cause serious health problems such as asthma attacks and pneumonia, can worsen chronic heart and lung disease, and can increase the risk of lower birth weight if women pregnant are exposed. Yet while property damage is well tracked, there are no national statistics on hospital admissions or other health impacts from wildfires – or any climate disasters.

“The monitoring of climate related health is in very poor condition nationally. We barely have an idea of ​​the physical health implications, let alone the mental health impact, ”Limaye said.

Still, the magnitude of health and social costs is likely to be significant given that in 2021 alone, more than four in ten Americans lived in a county hit by a climate disaster, according to an analysis by the Washington Post.

The Post’s analysis found that about 15% of Americans live in counties where fires were declared in 2021, and the conditions necessary for a fire – high temperatures, low precipitation, and high winds – last on average for more than a month longer than they did four. decades ago. If the planet continues to warm, research suggests that by mid-century, the fire season could lengthen by an additional 23 days.

As BBB stalls and fossil fuel drilling continues at a steady pace, it is a race against time to ensure that government agencies, regulations and standards are fit for purpose as drought, flooding and other extreme weather events will almost certainly continue to intensify.

Biden reinstated some climate-smart standards repealed by Trump, such as requiring all federally funded projects to consider the long-term risk of flooding and sea-level rise, but most standards of construction and land use remain woefully obsolete, according to NRDC analyst Rob Moore.

Learning from the mistakes of the past is also essential.

A group of lawmakers from the states most affected by extreme weather events (Hawaii, Louisiana and California) supports the creation of a National Disaster Safety Board (NDSB), modeled after the body that investigates aircraft accidents , to help identify and correct the factors that contributed to a hazard, such as a storm or forest fire, becoming a true climate disaster.

Moore said, “The board would be a great addition to tackle climate disasters nationally and accelerate efforts to adapt to climate change. Extreme weather events are no longer an act of God, they are systemic and endemic problems that we must prepare for. “

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