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Ruminations of a Feisty Old Quaker

Wake-Up Call

Are we awake yet?

As I write this, there are 22 wildfires raging
- that word is accurate - raging through California's Sonoma and Napa valleys and the eastern part of the Central Valley, along the base of the Sierra. At least 3500 homes and businesses have been destroyed. Thousands of people have been evacuated, including the entire city of Calistoga. Much of Santa Rosa is in rubble. The official death toll currently stands at 23, and authorities expect that to rise "significantly" when they are able to go into areas that are currently quite literally too hot to enter.

Two days ago, the smoke from those fires briefly reached my home in Oregon, 400 miles to the north, driving air pollution counts into the "unhealthy for sensitive groups" range for several hours. It was a bitter reminder of our own fire season, still not completely wound down; at its height, our valley was ringed with fires that poured smoke at us from all directions, causing air pollution counts to remain in the unhealthy range for most of August and about half of September. We were not alone. During that time, Yosemite National Park, Glacier National Park, Crater Lake National Park, and the Columbia Gorge National Recreation Area all experienced major fires. A historic lodge was lost in Glacier. Much of the Pacific Crest Trail was closed. There were fires in western Montana, Washington, Idaho, and British Columbia. Across the West, there have been more than 10,000 fires this year, charring more than 700,000 acres. Five major fires are still alive in Oregon right now.

While the West was burning, the East was blowing away, in one of the worst hurricane seasons the Americas have ever experienced. Since record keeping began in 1924, there has been an average of one Category Five hurricane - the strongest class, with winds exceeding 150 miles per hour - roughly every three years. There have been three Category Fives already this year, and the season won't end for at least another six weeks. This season's storms have included the strongest hurricane ever recorded in the Atlantic - Irma - and one of the strongest ever recorded anywhere, Maria, whose 178-miles-per-hour winds damaged or destroyed over 90% of the buildings in Puerto Rico. It has not included the winds which are driving the current California fires, but these also have crossed the hurricane-force threshold several times, and it is suspected (though not yet confirmed) that they actually caused the Sonoma and Napa fires, by blowing trees into power lines.

Perhaps the worst thing about this hot, dry, windy summer, though, is the fact that it has been no surprise. Climatologists have been predicting it - or something like it - for many years.

Actually, you don't have to be a climatologist. Anyone can read the trend lines. Take those Category Five hurricanes. Throughout the 20th century, there was an average of just two or three of those per decade; there was only one decade with more than four (the 1930s, which had six), and there was one with none at all (the 1940s). But the 2000s had eight, and the 2010s have had three so far. This year was only the second time that two Category Fives have made landfall in the same season while they were still Category Fives. The other time was in 2007.

Wildfires show a similar dynamic. As the Daily Tidings newspaper of Ashland, Oregon, put it in a September 1, 2017 editorial: "Wildfires have always happened in Western forests and always will. But research shows that fire seasons are starting earlier and ending later, the fires are larger and each blaze lasts longer. One study found the average duration of a wildfire in the decade ending in 2012 was 52 days. In the 1970s, it was six."

What is doing this to us? We are. As I pointed out in an earlier blog post ("Smoke," September 5), there is inescapable evidence linking increased hurricane and wildfire activity to global warming, and there is equally inescapable evidence linking global warming to human activities, primarily the burning of fossil fuels. The underlying cause is the increased amount of energy retained in the atmosphere by the presence of excess carbon dioxide. (There are other greenhouse gases, but they are present in small enough amounts that their contribution is relatively minor; carbon dioxide is the big enchilada.) The same amount of solar energy falls on the planet as it always has, but less of it escapes. Temperature rise is a symptom of this increased energy, not its cause; more energetic storms, higher rainfall, and deeper droughts are other symptoms. They are going to continue, and get worse, until and unless we can get the excess energy out of the atmosphere again.

And that will require government action. Markets are a necessary part of the answer, but they cannot do the job by themselves. Global warming is a classic example of the economic problem known as "externalities." The market-set prices of gasoline, coal, and natural gas are affected primarily by the direct costs associated with producing them. These prices may also include some of the indirect production costs. They do not and cannot include the costs of using these fuels after they are purchased. The post-purchase costs - health problems, community dislocation, adverse changes in the composition of the atmosphere, and all the rest - are external to the transaction between the producers and the consumers of fossil fuels. The response to them must be external as well.

I don't have a good handle on what that response should look like. I'm familiar with most of the available tools (you will find discussions of them in my 1996 book, The Economy of Nature), but I don't know what the best way to mix them will turn out to be. Command and control measures are certainly an option - China's recent announcement that they will be banning the sale of new internal-combustion-powered cars within the next decade is an extreme example - but I hope they can be applied sparingly. Using fees and taxes to push some of the external costs back into energy transactions is a better approach, as these can actually help the market do its job. They are not usually seen that way, of course: most people tend to think of any costs imposed by the government as forms of command and control rather than ways to tune the market. This assumption is particularly strong among those in the current Administration and the current Congress. So the outlook for applying any controls at all within the near future is not very bright.

And so we dither around, and back out of the Paris Accords, and repeal clean air regulations, and concentrate our energy policy on pulling more fossil fuels out of the ground instead of developing alternatives that will reduce our dependence on them. Meanwhile our forests burn, and the Napa and Sonoma valleys burn, and the conveyor belt of the mid-Atlantic brings us more and stronger hurricanes, damaging more structures and taking more lives, over a greater and greater part of each year. That last point is particularly troublesome. The hurricane season has always officially begun in June. This year's first proto-hurricane, Tropical Storm Arlene, showed up on April 19.

But maybe I'm reporting on the wrong things. If you don't live in the West or in the hurricane belt - if the storms and the fires aren't directly affecting you - it may be possible for you to pretend that those events aren't significant beyond their immediate environs. So here's something else to call to your attention. Most California wines are produced in the Napa and Sonoma Valleys. Huge acreages of vinyards are currently going up in flames; not only the vines, but the wineries and the storage facilities that go with them. Large stores of wines laid by for later sale are being damaged or destroyed, along with the ability to produce more. You like the market system? Fine. It's going to go to work here. Supply and demand will do their job. The price of California wines will rise abruptly; California wine prices will drive other wine prices up. If you are used to having wine with dinner, prepare yourself for a nasty hit in the pocketbook, courtesy of global warming. Which means, in the end, courtesy of all that fossil fuel you insist on continuing to burn as if it will last forever - as if pumping all that carbon out of the ground, through cars and trucks and trains and airplanes and powerplants, and into the sky, will make no difference whatsoever.

Did I get your attention?

Are we awake yet?

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