The cold front chelating the Lump Gulch Fire got everyone off the ropes in the wildfire battle during the first round of 2020. Although the rapid pummeling came to an end, long intervals lay ahead. Our fire season in the 1980s was August, occasionally September — never May. Those weeks have passed. Driven by global warming, the wildfire season expanded by at least 78 days, and the burnt area multiplied.
Each summer, our city is swamped with haze already for weeks. It means children coughing themselves to sleep, labored breathing, and burning eyes for my dad. Wildfire smoke increases hospital admissions significantly and is particularly detrimental to children. Like Lewis and Clark, multiple western counties of Montana have earned Warnings regularly over the past decade in air quality from the American Lung Association and now are amongst the worst pollution nationally.
COVID-19 should intensify the unhealthy condition. In Montana, wildfire smoke is causing widespread influenza during the winter, a worrying sign about what the pandemic will bring. The scenario threatens to hit fright-show proportions without significant reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. The U.S. Global Change Research Program estimates that the burned area will rise by 200-600 percent by the middle of the century with associated rises in air emissions. And this is just one example of unabated climate change’s dangerous effects.
Yet there is excellent news: They can cut emissions quickly enough to avoid the very worst impacts. A study conducted by UC Berkeley estimates that by 2035 the United States will reach 90 percent carbon-free electricity. The eureka moment is that we’re doing it without any increase in energy bills and no decline in efficiency, while still creating millions of sustainable energy jobs and going to deliver significant benefits to public health from lowered air pollution.
The strategy is simple and clear: rapidly falling costs allow for a significant build-up of renewable and battery storage, facilitating the closing of the nastiest fossil plants and preventing any new fossil plants. Current low- and no-carbon battery storage supplies provide support when renewable production is small for rare occasions.
To sum up, there is a hope of a decent world — one in which children will not hack themselves to sleep during the summer. We have the equipment, and it’s cheap, the solution. Everything it lacks is political will. For so many lawmakers tied up with the petroleum industry, and that is where the real battle lies.