The fires of climate change are at our doorstep. We know it. We’ve been choking on the smoke from spring to autumn. Whole communities in Washington, Oregon, and California have been wiped out by firestorms.
Here’s the thing—we can solve this challenge, while cleaning our air and strengthening our economy. All that’s missing is political courage. It is clear some candidates for statewide office have this courage, most notably Kathleen Williams, and also Steve Bullock and Mike Cooney. Others plainly lack it, notably Steve Daines, Matt Rosendale, and Greg Gianforte. I’ll explain.
But first, what’s with the fires and the smoke? Spoiler: it’s climate change, driven by burning fossil fuels, like oil, gas, and coal. A recent survey of peer-reviewed research by Smith et al. (2020) identified a “strong consensus” that climate change is creating the conditions for “more extreme fires and more extreme fire seasons.” The study explains that climate change is drying out the American West, extending the fire season and increasing the area burned in Western forests tenfold between 1973-1982 and 2003-2012.
In recent years, western wildfires have consumed entire towns. In 2018, Paradise, California, burned and 85 people lost their lives. This summer, Talent, Phoenix, Detroit, and Blue River, Oregon were destroyed by fire. So too Malden, Washington, and Berry Creek, California. What towns are next?
Here, in Montana, June and July rains staved off the fires that devastated the west coast. Yet the fire season has still stretched from June to October. Smoke waves still smothered Montana time and again. And the smoke alone hurts us. Wildfire smoke correlates with increased winter influenza, a bad sign given the current pandemic.1 One analysis estimated conservatively that smoke from this summer’s wildfires caused over 1,200 premature mortalities in California alone.2
Of course, wildfire is but one of many extreme weather events occurring with increased frequency due to climate change. Climate related disasters—heatwaves, droughts, flooding, winter storms, hurricanes, and wildfires—have nearly doubled over the past twenty years, according to a recent report by the UN Office of Disaster Risk Reduction.3 If we don’t take concerted action to reduce greenhouse gas pollution from fossil fuels, all these impacts will worsen dramatically.4
In short, the situation is dire and the hour is late. But we can turn the boat around—the science, tech, and economics are there—we just need a courageous crew. It’s clear that Kathleen Williams recognizes this issue and is prepared to the work to fix it.5 Governor Bullock and Mike Cooney also acknowledge the science and have offered solutions.6
Daines, Rosendale, and Gianforte, on the other hand, clearly lack the courage needed to craft legislation to limit greenhouse gas emissions. None of these three politicians has publicly acknowledged the scientific consensus that greenhouse gas emissions are driving climate change, much less proposed any policy solutions to reduce GHGs. And they won’t.
Daines’s political career has been bankrolled by the very polluters driving climate change—taking $467,049 from the oil and gas industry just this election cycle.7 He has also been a top recipient of funding from the coal mining industry.8 His priorities—killing the Clean Power Plan, pushing coal exports and oil pipelines—will worsen climate impacts.9 Rosendale has similar fossil backers, including Koch Industries, as well as oil and coal companies.10 Gianforte, in turn, has never supported any legislation to address climate change, earning a 5% lifetime score from the League of Conservation Voters.11
In sum, climate change is a clear and present danger to all Montanans. Politicians who willfully ignore this danger, either to appease corporate donors or as a matter of ideology, have no place in public office. The public is tired of such do-nothing pandering.12 It’s time to vote them out of office, and vote in climate champions.
Shiloh Hernandez, Helena