Fires illuminate consequences of climate change

Fires illuminate consequences of climate change

Anyone standing on top of the Science & Learning Center in recent days could look north and west to see huge plumes of smoke expanding into the sky like a mushroom cloud from an atom bomb. What looks like giant, fluffy gray clouds is actually smoke billowing into an already carbon-saturated atmosphere.

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The Woolsey Fire has burned more than 96,949 acres and has destroyed approximately 15,000 structures. Three people have died in the Woolsey Fire, while the Camp Fire in Northern California has claimed 77 lives so far, putting it on track to be the most destructive, deadliest wildfire in the state’s history.

On a recent Saturday night in downtown L.A., the sky became blanketed by smoke and ash  —  the smell as thick as the dirty air. It is November, and the hot and dry Santa Ana winds create a perfect catalyst for fires to start ripping up and down California. An increase in wildfires throughout the year is only one ramification of the climate change that is altering the environment and affecting people, property, and nature.

A temperature rise of a couple degrees may seem more likely to usher in more beach days in January than a worldwide disaster, but climate experts say a global temperature increase of 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit (1.5 degrees Celsius) is enough to cause irreversible climate damage, resulting in damage to both humans and environments around the world.

A stunning report issued in early October by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warned that the planet has until 2030 to stave off the humans-caused climate disaster. Such a rise in temperature would be a tipping point, increasing the risk of drought, fires, floods, and food shortages for people all around the world. As sea levels rise due to the ice caps melting, hundreds of millions of people will be forced to abandon their homes and seek safety. 

Global temperatures have already increased about 1.6 degrees Fahrenheit. The Earth’s global surface temperature in 2017 was the second warmest since 1880, according to NASA. Summer 2018 was the fourth-hottest summer on record, with 95 wildfires burning from Texas to Washington. Ecosystems and residents alike are feeling the heat. The Carr Fire in Redding, California this past summer displaced 40,000 people and burned over 1,000 structures and more than 110,000 acres. In Greece, 91 people died in a July wildfire, causing people to flee into the ocean for refuge. In Japan, a summer heatwave reached record-breaking temperatures of over 105 degrees Fahrenheit, killing eight people and hospitalizing 22,000.

In early November, the Camp Fire in Northern California spread rapidly, burning over 10,000 acres in mere hours. The Woolsey Fire nearly doubled in size in a matter of hours,  displacing hundreds of thousands of residents in Ventura County, Malibu and communities along the 101 Freeway. The dry conditions create an opportune landscape for a fire to blaze through. The effects on wildlife, industry, and our entire ecosystem are profound.

Associate Professor of Anthropology Dr. Ann Kakaliouras believes that people are not as concerned as they should be. “There are a lot of dire warnings, but there is a lot of inaction,” she said. “We have not shifted into a renewable energy economy, and we should be doing that quickly.” 

Professor Kakaliouras argues that, while industry is a big contributor to global warming, so are gasoline-powered cars. Alternative energy sources need to be emphasized more institutionally and privately. She explained that “clean coal is not really a thing,” so we need to put more emphasis on alternative energy. “There need to be more governmental incentives for people to buy cars that are not powered by gas,” she says.

Third-year Environmental Studies minor Lillian Ashby said that her family invested in a Prius to help limit the amount of gas she would be using. “There is no need to be contributing to the mass amounts of fossil fuels being used  —  especially in the L.A. area. Taking a step to ensure that my car is more environmentally friendly has made me more aware of other ways I can make a difference. I recently stopped eating meat because I know that the meat industry is a large contributor to global warming.”

Assistant Professor of Political Science Dr. Sara Angevine agrees that the government needs to incentivize people to participate in sustainable action. She also believes that recycling is easy and impactful. “It is the simplest everyday act to demonstrate environmental consciousness,” said Professor Angevine. “I do not feel like it is normalized or expected here.”

As the droughts intensify each year in Southern California, Professor Kakaliouras thinks the major impact of global warming on California will be lack of water. “There have to be newer and better ways to provide water that do not involve starving rivers,” she explained. She suggests an increase in desalination plants to turn salt water into drinkable water and urges institutions and private citizens alike to invest in alternative energy like solar and wind power.

Professor Kakaliouras also encourages sourcing food as locally as possible. Using fossil fuels to transport food from one side of the country to the other is unnecessary and wasteful. In the U.S., one meal travels an average of 1,500 miles before it gets to a plate. Representative of the Sustainability Club Meghan Pistolesi said that the club works in the garden on Campus to grow local fruits and vegetables. The club also organizes beach clean-up events for students on Campus.

Whittier College recently revamped its landscaping on campus to be more eco-friendly. The grounds crew replaced over 6,000 square feet of grass with low-maintenance, drought-resistant plants that thrive in the dry conditions of Southern California.

Nobody and no place is immune to the impact global warming is having and will continue to have. 2030 is only 12 years away. Whether you start by being aware of ways to help locally or become active on a larger scale, now is the time to make a difference.