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California’s wildfires and Chicago’s derecho reveal cascading damage of climate change

We need to step up now and do everything we can to break these cataclysmic feedback loops.

Flames are seen at the Bobcat Fire in the Angeles National Forest on Thursday north of Monrovia, California. California wildfires that have already incinerated a record 2.3 million acres this year and are expected to continue until December.
David McNew/Getty images

The West Coast wildfires are giving us a frightening look at how the ruinous cascading effects of climate change are coming faster than many scientists expected.

We cannot afford to placidly ignore what is happening.

Wildfires across the West, including five of California’s 10 biggest wildfires on record, have burned millions of acres and killed at least 33 people. The blazes demonstrate the domino effects of climate change caused largely by burning fossil fuels — long predicted by scientists — are here.

“Many of the impacts of climate change we are seeing are laying out faster, and are greater, than what we predicted just a decade ago or so,” Michael Mann, distinguished professor of atmospheric science at Penn State University, told us on Friday.

In the West, hotter weather has dried out the soil. Low soil moisture makes heat waves hotter because the cooling effect of water evaporating from the ground is reduced. Dry soil hardens and takes up less moisture when it does rain. Heat shrinks the annual mountain snowpack and subsequent runoff.

All that cascades into higher temperatures and low humidity that correlate with stronger fires.

The fires not only take lives and destroy infrastructure. They also pollute our air with smoke and our water with the hazardous chemical runoff from burned structures, making people sicker. And the huge financial costs of recovery make it harder for governments and businesses to take those measures, in the first place, that would reduce the emission of greenhouse gases — the fundamental cause of climate change.

Here in the Midwest, we are experiencing similar cascading effects from a rare Aug. 10 derecho. In Chicago alone, a city already struggling with a shrinking urban canopy, we lost thousands of trees.

The loss of trees will create more heat islands, more flooding and poorer air quality because trees soak up water and filter pollutants from the air. More flooding will increase the number of times overflowing storm water carries untreated sewage into the lake, polluting our drinking water. Dirtier water and air will trigger more health problems.

The loss of trees also carries a psychological cost as neighborhoods no longer get the emotional boost of the shade and beauty of trees and birds and other wildlife. And the simple work of removing damaged branches and trees knocked down in the storm is proving to be a financial strain on the city.

We need to step up now and do everything we can to break these cataclysmic feedback loops, which include melting polar ice and rising sea levels.

The derecho here last month also damaged or destroyed thousands of homes, which will require rebuilding — an energy-intensive undertaking that adds to global warming. And the storm system catastrophically damaged soybean and corn crops.

In August alone, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reported last week, the United States was hit by four different billion-dollar disasters: the wildfires, the derecho and two hurricanes. As these disasters hit more frequently, we will have less time to recover between each one, and the cumulative damage will pile up.

In Washington, the Trump administration’s response has been to systematically reduce environmental protections and make the problems worse. Last week, Trump’s EPA administrator. Andrew Wheeler, said if Trump is reelected, he will continue to weaken environmental regulations.

Chicago is one of 25 cities that has joined the $70 million American Cities Climate Challenge to reduce carbon emissions. But more needs to be done. Illinois needs to invest strong in nature-based solutions, such as planting more trees, and accelerate its efforts to transition to energy conservation and a carbon-free economy.

To move Illinois in that direction, we need prompt action in Springfield on long-stalled clean-energy legislation, which we’re told is gathering momentum behind closed doors.

What we have witnessed in California and the Midwest in just the last several weeks — record-breaking wildfires and storms — are just part of the beginning of the destruction to come.

If nothing more is done.

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