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OPINION: Wildfires exacerbate climate change by releasing massive amounts of carbon dioxide

COURTESY PHOTO - Wildfire smoke rises above Sellwood Park in Portland during the September 2020 crisis.The air quality in the Portland metro Madison Tuckerarea is the worst in the world. I remember when I said that I could never move away from Oregon because of the fresh and clean air. Is this our new reality under climate change?

The fall fire season hasn't even started, and already we've seen an astonishing amount of destruction. In California, 2.6 million acres have gone up in smoke, exceeding the 2 million acres burned in 2018. That year, the damage and economic loss from wildfires, according to AccuWeather, came to $400 billion. At the end of August, nearly 4,000 homes and other structures had been consumed by wildfires this year in California. By early September, social media feeds were filled with photos of smoky skies, and death tolls continue to climb across western states.

Mark ReynoldsClimate change is making forests drier and weather hotter, conditions in which a lightning strike can ignite a fire that quickly destroys thousands of acres. Climate scientist Park Williams of Columbia University told the New York Times, "Behind the scenes of all of this, you've got temperatures that are about two to three degrees Fahrenheit warmer now than they would have been without global warming."

On our current trajectory, temperatures will continue to climb, bringing more fires and greater destruction. These wildfires also create a feedback loop that exacerbates climate change by releasing massive amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

Unforeseen crises are also made worse by climate change. As we struggle to persevere through the coronavirus pandemic, for example, smoke from fires causes respiratory problems that can make the virus more deadly. People fleeing fires may also contend with crowded shelters that can spread the disease.

We are finding ourselves running out of time to bring down the heat-trapping pollution that is warming our world. We must use all the tools at our disposal to curtail emissions — one of which is an ambitious price on carbon that will speed up the transition to a low- or zero-carbon economy. A tax or fee on carbon can have a positive impact on low-and middle-income families, too.

How? Take the revenue from a carbon fee and distribute it to all households.

Legislation to implement an effective carbon price while protecting the economic well-being of people has been introduced in the U.S. House as the Energy Innovation and Carbon Dividend Act (H.R. 763). The carbon fee is expected to drive down carbon emissions 40% in the first 12 years and 90% by 2050. A household impact study released in August found that among households in the lowest fifth economically, 96% would receive "carbon dividends" that exceed their carbon costs. I urge our representatives to join the 82 House members who are currently co-sponsors of this act.

Our smoke-filled skies should serve as a warning that our climate could one day be unbearable if we fail to take the actions necessary to rein in climate change. An effective price on carbon with money given to households can put us on the path to preserving a livable world.

Milwaukie resident Madison Tucker is a volunteer with the Portland chapter of the Citizens' Climate Lobby. Mark Reynolds is the executive director of Citizens' Climate Lobby.


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