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Jackson: Harry Reid, wildfires and climate change

<p>Illustration by Aaron McKinney</p>

Illustration by Aaron McKinney

Harry Reid blamed the Mount Charleston fire on climate change, in turn setting lots of right-wing hair on fire. Nestled in with the customary knee-jerk anti-Reid tropes (“shameless,” “senile,” etc.) were a few climate-change deniers who at least attempted to render a point that was germane to the fire: It was started by lightning, so stick that facto in your ipso, Harry Reid. Or words to that effect.

Yes, well, Reid wasn’t arguing that the Mount Charleston fire was sparked by a spontaneously combusting concentration of greenhouse gases.

“The West is being devastated by wildfires. Millions of acres are burning. Millions of acres have burned,” Reid said. “Why? Because the climate has changed. The winters are shorter. The summers are hotter. The moisture patterns have changed.”

Reid was stating the obvious. For decades scientists have been pointing at factors like warmer spring temperatures, lighter winter snowpacks and earlier growth creating an abundance of dryer fuel, and linking those factors to more — and more intense — Western wildfires.

The wildfire season in the Western U.S. lasts two months longer than it did 40 years ago, U.S. Forest Service Chief Thomas Tidwell told a congressional panel last month. Today’s fires burn land twice as fast as they did back then, Tidwell added. If only Tidwell would have found a way to work the word “Benghazi” into his remarks, the media might have paid attention.

True, you can’t blame a single wildfire — or storm or hurricane or drought — on climate change.

But a report last year by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association, which got about as much attention as the Forest Service chief’s congressional testimony, was a bit of a landmark in that it tried to calculate the impact of climate change on specific weather-related events around the world. Little to no correlation was found for a couple events — for instance, a flood in Pakistan was attributed almost wholly to atmospheric conditions unrelated to climate change.

In other cases, the impact was more direct and measurable. For instance, while acknowledging there may well have been a 2011 drought in Texas in any case, the NOAA report calculated that climate change made it 20 times more likely that the drought was as relentless, brutal and costly as it turned out to be.

The NOAA report also nodded to the steroids analogy for understanding the impact of climate change, which you’ve probably heard, being smarty-boots CityLife readers and all, but just in case, it goes something like this: A baseball player on steroids hits more home runs than he would if he wasn’t on steroids. There’s no way to know which specific home runs are a direct result of steroids. But it is undeniable that there are more home runs because of the steroids.

The weather is on steroids. We can’t say that the Mount Charleston fire or Superstorm Sandy or any other specific, individual phenomenon or disaster was directly caused by increased carbon dioxide levels. But we can (and scientists do) attribute the growing frequency and intensity of weather-related extremism overall to anthropogenic climate change.

With rare exceptions, the right refuses to acknowledge that greenhouse gases are warming the planet. Impervious to facts, those folks are primarily motivated by a passionate conviction that everything the left says is wrong. The fondest wishes of Harry Reid notwithstanding, so long as they have enough power to thwart progress, Republicans are not going to allow any meaningful steps to address climate change.

Maybe everyone on the left should announce that they have changed their minds, and that they now believe that anthropogenic climate change is a hoax. The left could give their policy revision the veneer of credibility by claiming the whole thing had been perpetrated on the public by the insurance industry (which, by the way, is really fricking scared of global warming).

Incapable, on a synaptic level, of accepting the validity of anything said by anyone who disagrees with them, the right would have no choice but to flip-flop, pick up the mantle of sustainability and demand immediate steps to mitigate the existential threat posed by warming temperatures, shrinking polar ice caps, submerging coastlines, extreme weather and Las Vegas area wildfires.

The erstwhile deniers of manmade climate change could easily justify their switcheroo by invoking their (purported) dedication to fiscal responsibility. The estimated cost of fighting the Mount Charleston fire is at least $18 million, which exceeds the state’s annual budget for fighting wildfires. And that’s nothing compared to the trillions — yes, trillions — of dollars the U.S. is going to spend over the next several decades attempting to save cities from coastlines, clean up after storms, fight and/or contain wars around the world caused by population displacement and rebellions, cover the rising costs of food, water and living generally and address countless other consequences, some anticipated, some not, of wholesale planetary ecological transformation.

If they’re so concerned about federal spending, congressional Republicans would do as Reid suggests, and “Talk about climate change as if it really exists.”

Alas, it’s much easier for the right to just mock Reid for blaming wildfires on climate change, even if nothing Reid said is factually inaccurate, scientifically controversial or even new.

HUGH JACKSON co-hosts The Agenda on KSNV Channel 3.