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Close to Home: The political war over climate change

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Beginning on July 27, two massive and devastating wildfires swept through Mendocino, Lake, Colusa and Glenn counties.

Eight weeks, multiple evacuations, 280 destroyed structures and $267 million in damages later, the fires — collectively the Mendocino Complex — had become the largest in California history, requiring the deployment of nearly 15,000 personnel from 17 states and four countries.

The Mendocino fire began less than a year after one of the deadliest months of fires on record in California, when the Tubbs and Atlas fires claimed 44 lives in October 2017. Those fires came just two months before the Thomas fire, which burned more than 280,000 acres in Ventura County and stood as the largest wildfire in California history — until two months ago.

Having represented Northern Californians in Congress for nearly 20 years, I know firsthand that our communities are resilient and that we will recover.

But when it comes to wildfires in our state, we have reached a new normal.

Since 1985, wildfires in the West have demonstrably grown in size and frequency. Larger fires have become more common. Fire season starts earlier and lasts longer. Of the five largest fires in state history, four have come since 2012, while 14 of the 20 largest have come in the past 15 years.

It is no coincidence that 10 of the warmest years on record have also occurred in that span.

Evidence shows that the increasing number and size of wildfires is tied to climate change. The severity, frequency and size of wildfires, and the length of the wildfire season, are tied to cycles of drought and precipitation. These cycles, which can drive up the supply of dry fuel, are inextricably linked to rising global temperatures.

The damage isn’t limited to extreme weather. Rising sea levels endanger critical infrastructure, including right here at home: Highway 37 has been repeatedly washed out and closed due to flooding, and encroaching water levels threaten to inundate multiple points along the route. As the seas rise and coastlines shrink, millions of people around the world will be forced to leave their homes, sparking mass migrations and potentially severe instability.

Changing weather patterns also threaten agriculture: Rising temperatures have jolted the seasonal rhythms that underpin much of the world’s crop production, forcing farmers and growers to adapt or relocate, while pest populations are booming, imperiling crop yields all over the world. At the same time, new research suggests a startling, existential crisis for many of the world’s insect populations — including crucial pollinators.

Unfortunately, climate change is and has always been political. Despite mountains of evidence linking humans to rising temperatures and extreme weather, too many leaders on the other side of the aisle have kept their heads stuck firmly in the tar sands.

Fortunately, that view isn’t universal. I am a member of the Climate Solutions Caucus in the House of Representatives, a bipartisan group devoted to finding common-sense, feasible solutions to our climate crisis. Several Republicans in the caucus have publicly acknowledged the science of climate change and have offered pragmatic — though imperfect — proposals on the matter. I applaud those Republicans who have bucked party orthodoxy in favor of science and our future.

Even the current president — by his own admission — knows better. In a startlingly cynical assessment, the administration argued in a recent memo that repealing fuel-efficiency standards for automobiles is prudent, because climate change is so catastrophic that there is nothing we can do about it. Evidently, the GOP, having plundered, polluted and denied science so successfully for decades, now views the problem as simply too great to solve.

Nothing could be further from the truth. There are any number of common-sense steps Congress could take to make a tangible difference in the world we leave for our children. From cap-and-trade or carbon tax policies, to promoting renewables, encouraging innovation and expanding job-training programs, we have options. What we need is action.

There are encouraging signs right here at home. Young people, for whom climate change poses the greatest threat, are no longer staying quiet. More than two dozen school boards in three states, including nearly a dozen schools right here in our district, have passed formal resolutions demanding action on climate change. These young people are right. Congress should listen to them — and follow their lead.

Mike Thompson, D-St. Helena, represents California’s 5th Congressional District.

You can send a letter to the editor at letters@pressdemocrat.com

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