Science tells us Northwest flooding and fires will intensify as carbon emissions rise.
THE science is clear: The climate is changing and human activity is the major contributor. Rather than debating the existence and causes of climate change, as the state Senate recently did, the question before Washington’s residents and, importantly, our Legislature is what are we going to do about it?
We have two pressing challenges in front of us: How do we reduce carbon emissions that are driving climate change; and how do we prepare our communities for the growing impacts?
The impact of climate change in Washington already is significant.
As more precipitation falls as rain instead of snow, river flows are peaking earlier and summer stream levels are dropping. This year’s dramatic lack of mountain snow aside, snowpack in the Cascades has declined between 15 and 35 percent over the last half of the 20th century.
Temperatures in the Pacific Northwest are rising. The risk of catastrophic wildfire has dramatically increased. Last summer, the Carlton Complex fire was the largest wildfire in our state’s recorded history. Sea levels are rising. And increasing levels of carbon dioxide in the water combined with the impacts of coastal runoff are causing the ocean to become more acidic, damaging marine life and the shellfish and other industries upon which they depend. These are all symptoms of a changing climate.
Gov. Jay Inslee has undertaken a serious conversation about putting a price on carbon. Whether we adopt a carbon tax or a cap-and-trade model, reducing emissions would play a critical role in slowing the impacts that our communities are already experiencing. Reducing emissions would require our Legislature to thoughtfully take up the debate of what carbon-pricing model works best for our state and businesses.
While this new debate takes shape, model projections indicate that floods and forest fires will continue to increase in size and frequency. So even as we work to reduce carbon emissions, we also must take actions on the ground to reduce the impacts of climate change. Scientists with The Nature Conservancy are already working with community leaders, farmers, ranchers, fishermen and timber companies to develop natural solutions to reduce climate impacts.
On the eastern slopes of the Cascades, new forest-health collaborations of local, state, federal and tribal landowners know that fires do not recognize property boundaries. These collaborations are using science to support state and federal initiatives to fund treatment of the most at-risk forests. In addition, the state Department of Natural Resources has requested $20 million for forest treatments in this capital budget and is seeking a total of $100 million over the next five years. These treatments, including controlled burning and forest thinning, would reduce the risk to life and property from wildfires and make forests healthier and more resilient. Such efforts must be a high priority for the Legislature this year if it is to help safeguard Washington’s forests and the people who depend on them.
Meanwhile, up and down the Interstate 5 corridor, warmer, earlier spring rains are pushing rivers over their banks and into homes, businesses and transportation centers. In response, The Nature Conservancy, the Puget Sound Partnership, the state Department of Ecology and other partners have created a new approach to flood-risk reduction called Floodplains by Design. This funding for the competitive grant program is currently under consideration by the Legislature as a way to use a combination of nature-based and engineered solutions to reduce flooding and to protect fish habitat and recreational opportunities.
The best available science tells us that flooding and fires will only intensify as carbon emissions rise. Although forest management and flood-plain restoration can reduce climate impacts, there are limits to our ability to adapt to a changing climate without meaningful reductions in greenhouse-gas emissions. Like these adaptation actions, efforts to reduce emissions don’t have to be such a bitter pill to swallow — rather they can significantly benefit Washingtonians. Wind and solar energy, improved public transportation, walkable and bike-able neighborhoods, and reforestation all have the potential to reduce carbon emissions and improve health and the quality of life.
Ending the debate about the reality of climate change and its causes is the first step. Now we must focus on the real debate: How will we respond, adapt and pay for what must be done? We must tackle flooding, catastrophic fires due to unhealthy forests, runoff contributing to acid-stressed shellfish beds and reduce greenhouse-gas concentrations. There are real debates to be had and there are real solutions that would build a stronger, healthier and more vibrant Washington.