Oregon is on fire. Again.
This year's wildfires are the largest in the nation — so fierce they're creating their own weather patterns, making them even harder to contain.
For years, experts have warned that fires would be one of the serious consequences of climate change, but we've been too slow to act. Now climate change is not a distant threat. It's here. Now. And it's an urgent priority that needs immediate attention.
In the past year, Oregonians have seen historic wildfires driven by hurricane force winds raze entire communities. We shivered in cold, dark homes as an ice storm toppled power lines and brought down trees. We watched helplessly as temperatures reached historic highs in June, and hung our heads as dozens of our vulnerable neighbors lost their lives to the heat. And we continue to live through a historic drought that chokes off agricultural crops and starves salmon of adequate water.
To make matters worse, communities devastated by last year's wildfires have yet to fully recover, with homeowners and small businesses still displaced and waiting for help to rebuild.
The effects of climate change are threatening our way of life, our economy and our safety. The question is, do we have the will to tackle this urgent problem?
The Legislature has taken important steps already, passing a bipartisan law that will move Oregon to a 100% clean energy-powered electrical grid by 2040, including a cap on rate increases to make sure low-income residents aren't hurt by this transition. That will help create clean energy jobs in Oregon and dramatically cut our carbon emissions.
But far more work is needed to prevent and contain future wildfires and other devastating impacts of climate change. We need to see the Legislature making significant investments in critical infrastructure that protects flood-prone communities, working with local governments to cap some irrigation canals; expanding support for efforts like the Umatilla Forest Collaborative Project to reduce wildfire risks and make our forests healthier; establishing an Elliott State Research Forest to help us better understand how climate change and fire impact Oregon's forest management; supporting small rural fire districts during critical summer months to put more firefighters on the ground; and, investing in water storage projects to help farmers and rural communities better handle drought conditions.
This work also involves working with low-income and racially diverse urban neighborhoods where the lack of tree cover and parks increases temperatures and lowers air quality; and working with farmworkers and their employers to ensure that workers are protected from extreme heat events.
It will likely require keeping homeless Oregonians off our freeway rights of way. Pedestrian deaths and traffic accidents aren't the only concern here. The risk of campfires has already proven to be costly to neighborhoods adjacent to our roadways.
We need to continue identifying ways to use existing health care dollars to better protect vulnerable Oregonians from severe heat (air conditioners), cold (weatherization), and smoke (air purifiers), and proactively identify more government buildings that can be used as heating and cooling stations during extreme events.
At the Oregon Treasury, where we oversee more than $100 billion in investments on behalf of state pension funds and other trust beneficiaries, we are doing our part. We've made significant investments in clean energy companies and technologies that will reduce carbon emissions and provide better storage and transportation of clean energy in the future.
And where we can use our clout as a major investor, we've helped elect clean energy advocates to the board of ExxonMobil and pushed other fossil fuel companies to take seriously their responsibility to address climate change.
What we need now is bold leadership and honest conversations from state leaders, and decisions that prioritize long-term investments to save lives and protect property. Climate change deniers used to paint the consequences as no more likely than a sci-fi movie set in the distant future. Now, Oregonians can see with their own eyes that climate change is here to stay, and that we must mobilize to stop it from doing further damage to the state that we love.
Tobias Read of Beaverton is Oregon's state treasurer. For 10 years, he also represented parts of Beaverton, Southwest Portland, Washington and Multnomah counties in the Oregon House.
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