Sometimes patients have to see the X-ray or test results to believe they are sick. When the entire West was recently under a thick blanket of unhealthy air, we could see our collective climate problem — our own and our planet’s lungs choking. Now, will we do something about it?
This unprecedented calamity of wildfires is exactly what climate scientists have been warning us about — rising temperatures over time, longer drier summers, and more extreme storms, winds and heat waves will result in fiercer, more frequent wildfires. Indeed, 97% of Washington is designated currently as “abnormally dry”; Oregon and California are even worse off with well over half of each state facing drought conditions. More than 5 million acres have been lost to fire in the West this year. On just one day — Sept. 7 — Washington state lost more acres to wildfire than it lost in each of the previous 12 fire seasons.
There is a popular canard in some circles that climate change isn’t to blame for the conflagration we’re facing, it’s forest management. There is no question that poor forest management has exacerbated our crisis, but it’s a secondary cause. A large proportion of the fires in Washington over the last few weeks were on grasslands — the town of Malden, lost almost completely to fire this year, is in the Palouse grasslands where there are no forests to manage. This assertion also incorrectly assumes the fires are a uniquely American issue. Recently, Greenland had major forest fires. An area the size of Greece was lost in Siberia to fires this year. Oh, and Greece? Also on fire. Are those fires the fault of elected officials in Olympia mismanaging forests?
We absolutely must invest in the health of our forests now that climate change has profoundly compromised their resilience, but to develop solutions we need to acknowledge the true causes. Research shows not only the number of forest acres in the western U.S. lost to fires has doubled as a direct result of climate change, but that this impact dwarfs all other causes. That means that while we can and must improve forest practices, that alone won’t be enough. Without concerted action on climate our forests will continue getting drier, more trees will die and become forest fuel risk, and forests and grassland wildfires will burn hotter and larger over the coming years. To deal with the cataclysm we face, we have to recognize how we got here — through industry-funded dependence on fossil fuels.
On any given day, we face a number of air pollutants that directly impact our overall health. Wildfire smoke exposure is particularly dangerous — causing airway irritation and inflammation throughout the body as the small size of the smoke particles enter deep into the lungs. Wildfire smoke not only increases asthma flare-ups and other chronic lung diseases, but also presents a greater possibility of heart attacks, strokes and even sudden cardiac death.
As an example, a patient with asthma, who had been taking all the necessary precautions to avoid wildfire smoke exposure, earlier this month had to seek care at a Puget Sound area clinic. Despite being careful, he had chest tightness, wheezing, fatigue, and had been unable to sleep for a week because of shortness of breath. He required a treatment with high dose steroids to manage his symptoms, which have their own significant, short and long-term side effects. He was just one of the many patients in similar situations, who required medical care due to poor air quality.
Health professionals worldwide are naming climate change as the largest public health crisis of our time. It is not just because of wildfires. As a result of historical redlining and other racist housing practices, communities of color and low-income communities are more likely to live in areas with poorer air quality. The pandemic itself spotlights how both climate and health are not experienced equitably. Regularly breathe more polluted air? You’re more likely to experience more severe COVID-19 impacts and death rates. The current wildfire crisis mirrors this.
The medical profession has recommended, during periods of unhealthy air quality, that people stay indoors with windows closed. Many people, including those in Black and brown communities, immigrants, undocumented workers and refugees, work in settings where they are unable to simply go inside. One America, the largest immigrant and refugee advocacy organization in Washington state, relays how undocumented and immigrant workers suffer far worse in the smoke, unable to avoid exposure, if having to be outside for their jobs. They have no choice but to risk their health, breathing air polluted with wildfire smoke, to sustain their livelihoods. What is a farmworker, construction worker or bus driver supposed to do?
We do have a choice, to choose solutions to address the climate crisis. We can electrify our transportation system and reduce our reliance on cars through transit and planning that supports walkable, connected communities. Doing so will reduce average personal transportation spending by more than $4,000 a year, while cutting our reliance on gasoline and diesel that worsen climate change and directly harm public health. We can invest in resilient ecosystems to prepare us for fires and floods.
We must do this in a way that prioritizes those communities that already bear a disproportionate share of the pollution burden. Research shows that residents of the Duwamish Valley in Seattle — an area located at the confluence of our region’s largest sources of pollution including the city’s industrial district, two highways, the Port of Seattle and Boeing Field, where people of color are the majority population — have a life expectancy 13 years shorter than less exposed ZIP codes, a result of pollution and chronic disinvestment. We must focus solutions in those places where they will do the most good, returning clean air to neighborhoods who haven’t had it in decades.
We can ensure the workers building our clean future are in family-sustaining jobs that protect their right to fair wages, fair benefits and to organize. Clean energy investment already generates more jobs per unit of energy produced than legacy fossil fuel sources. Fossil fuels are underperforming in the wider market, as evidenced by Big Oil, going from one of the largest parts of the S&P 500 in 2008 to the smallest sliver today. This generational realignment of our energy system is an opportunity to ensure that we build our future with workers, not on their backs.
Some climate action opponents are fond of saying that Washington acting alone won’t address the global emissions problem. And while in a way that’s true, it’s not clear why that should change anything about our own urgency. Our state is one state among many, but our annual pollution exceeds that of approximately 130 countries individually. On a per capita basis, we pollute more than many of the world’s largest emitters, including China and India. But either way, waiting for others to do the right thing just isn’t what we do. There are many things we do for the collective good even though doing so is only helpful if our neighbors do the same — like wearing a mask during a pandemic. We do it because good neighbors do their part.
Importantly, our neighbors are acting too — Oregon Gov. Kate Brown adopted a pathbreaking executive order to more than double that state’s Clean Fuels Program and far more. Canada is in the process of creating a national Clean Fuel Standard and price on carbon pollution, while British Columbia and California have priced carbon for years. Examples abound.
Moreover, if we achieve this transition the right way, we will gain benefits here, now, even as the broader world takes on climate change, too — things like cleaner air, more well-paying jobs, and an economy that prospers as the rest of the world plays catch-up. To paraphrase a famous Joel Pett political cartoon on the benefits of action in the midst of the climate debate — what if others don’t act fast enough and we create a better world in the meantime?
The smoke brings the clarity: To address climate change we need to change the political climate. It’s on all of us to bring more accountability, both leading up to and after the election, if we’re going to accelerate solutions at every level. We can see we are collectively choking on pollution, and we know the necessary medicine — will we act in time to make it better?