As climate change alters the fabric of the Pacific Northwest, increasing the frequency and severity of heatwaves, wildfires and precipitation extremes, some of outdoor companies are scrambling to adapt their business models to shorter seasons and unpredictable conditions.
The 15 largest listed fashion companies are lagging behind when it comes to meeting the social and environmental targets of the Paris climate agreement and UN Sustainable Development Goals, a new report by the Business of Fashion says.
This week, the front page of the New York Times described the Trump administration’s repeal of the Clean Power Plan, the Obama administration’s attempt to slash carbon emissions from coal-fired power plants. “The war on coal is over,” declared Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt. Right under that article was an article from halfway around the world detailing China’s massive new investment in electric vehicles, part of Beijing’s determination to dominate the era of clean-energy technology. It is a tale of two strategies.
The Trump administration has decided to move into a new century: the 19th century. Coal has been in decline for at least seven decades. In 1950, it accounted for half of all U.S. electricity generation. It is now down to a third. Additionally, massive automation of mining has meant that the jobs in the industry are disappearing, down from 176,000 in 1985 to 50,000 in 2017. Machines and software are replacing coal miners just as surely as in other industries. Demand for coal is weak because of alternatives, chiefly natural gas. In the past couple of years, many of the top American coal companies have been forced to declare bankruptcy, including the largest, Peabody Energy.
Despite President Trump’s policy shift, these trends are unlikely to change. Reuters found that, of 32 utilities in the 26 states that filed lawsuits over the Clean Power Plan, “the bulk of them have no plans to alter their multi-billion dollar, years-long shift away from coal.” The reason utilities are shedding coal is economics — the price of natural gas has plummeted in recent years, and its share of U.S. electricity generation has nearly tripled since 1990. In addition, costs are falling dramatically for wind and solar energy.
And, of course, coal is the dirtiest form of energy in use. Coal-fired power plants are one of the nation’s leading sources of carbon-dioxide emissions, and most scientists agree those emissions lead to global warming. They also cause terrible air pollution, with all its attendant health problems and costs.
That’s one of the reasons China, which suffers more than a million deaths a year because of poor air quality, is making huge investments in clean energy. The country has become one of the world’s leading producers of wind turbines and solar panels, with government subsidies enabling its companies to become cost-efficient and global in their aspirations. In 2015, China was home to the world’s top wind-turbine maker and the top two solar-panel manufacturers. According to a recent report from the United Nations, China invested $78.3 billion in renewable energy last year — almost twice as much as the United States.
Now Beijing is making a push into electric cars, hoping to dominate what it believes will be the transport industry of the future. Already China has taken a large lead in electric cars. In 2016, more than twice as many were sold in China as in the United States, an astonishing catch-up for a country that had almost no such technologies 10 years ago. China’s leaders have let it be known that by 2025 they want 20 percent of all new cars sold in China to be powered by alternative fuels. All of this has already translated into jobs, “big league” as President Trump might say: 3.6 million people are already working in the renewable-energy sector in China, compared with 777,000 in the United States.
China is still heavily reliant on coal, which it has in plentiful supply, and it has tried to find steady sources of other fossil fuels. It went on a shopping spree over the past two decades, making deals for natural resources and energy around the world, often paying at the peak of the commodities bubble in the mid-2000s. But over time, it recognized that this mercantilism was a bad strategy, tying Beijing up with expensive projects in unstable countries in Africa. Instead, it watched and learned from the United States as technological revolutions dramatically increased the supply and lowered the cost of natural gas and solar energy. China has now decided to put a much larger emphasis on this route to energy security, one that also ensures it will be the world’s leading producer of clean energy.
Trump has often talked about how China is “killing us ” and that he’s tired of hearing about China’s huge growth numbers. He should notice that Beijing is getting its growth by focusing on the future, the next areas of growth in economics and technology. The United States under Trump will be engaged in a futile and quixotic quest to revive the industries of the past. Who do you think will win?
NAPA, Calif. — Home Depot is sold out of face masks, people sleeping in shelters have bandanas tied around their faces and residents even 50 miles away from the fires in northern California find themselves coughing and hacking as smoke and haze blanket the area.
The air quality index for San Francisco, Silicon Valley and the area around the fires was predicted to hit 180 on Thursday, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, or nearly five times what's considered safe.
That's even worse than famously polluted Beijing, whose southern suburbs were measured at 154 on Thursday by the U.S. embassy there.
"The federal (safe) standard is 35," said John Balmes,a professor of medicine at the University of California-San Francisco and expert on environmental health.
Residents who signed up for alerts from local authorities were barraged with air quality health advisories and Spare-the-Air alerts. Schools cancelled recess, teams cut sports practices and parents received notices that weekend football and soccer games might not be held.
The air quality level has been in the "unhealthy" to "very unhealthy" range since the fires began early Monday morning and is expected to stay bad as long as they continue. Wind and geography mean that the haze-affected area extends well beyond the towns where the fires are burning, putting millions of people in harm's way.
"It's smoke, it's particulate matter, it's even toxins from burning plastics and homes. All have very irritating qualities. People will have stinging eyes, trouble breathing, scratching throats and running noses," said Catherine Forest, a physician and expert on environmental toxins at Stanford Health Care in Palo Alto, Calif.
The levels of small particulate matter reported near the fires and further south around San Francisco are especially dangerous for those with pre-existing lung and heart disease, such as asthma, COPD (Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease) and any kind of heart disease.
The best advice is to simply stay indoors with the windows shut and air conditioning or heaters set to recirculate air, said Forest.
"Don't go out if you can avoid it, don't exercise if you can avoid it. Keep the elderly, small children and anyone with heart or lung disease inside," she said.
But for the hundreds of thousands of people who have to go about their daily work, not to mention the tens of thousands in the fire area, that's impossible advice to follow.
A mask, but not just any mask
For them, the best bet is to wear a face mask. But it's got to be an OSHA-certified N95 particulate filtering mask.
"Not the flat hospital-type masks people sometimes wear. Those are worse than useless because they give you a false sense of security" and don't filter out the most dangerous small particles, said Forest.
The N95 masks have been in short supply in the Bay area due to the fires. At a Home Depot in Fairfield, Calif., where a fire was burning north of town and some areas were under evacuation watch, a steady stream of customers came in looking for masks. But the shelf was bare.
One man asked a Home Depot staffer if there were any left and when he was told no, asked if he could buy the one hanging around the staffer's neck.
"You're not the first guy who's offered that," said the staffer, who declined both to sell the mask and to give his name.
At an Orchard Supply Hardware in Berkeley, Calif., a woman answered the phone, "Good morning Orchard Supply, we are sold out of all masks, how may I help you?" The store was working on getting an emergency truckload of masks.
Johnston Medical, also in Berkeley, was one of the few stores that still had some of the masks recommended by the CDC on hand. Clerks scrambled to help shoppers find masks in picked-over boxes. After hanging up from yet another call, one clerk turned to the other: "Guess what they wanted?"
The empty shelves are only very local, unlike other times, said Balmes. During the global SARS outbreak in 2012 there was a global shortage.
"The Chinese were buying them all up," said Balmes.
When people do find the masks, there are tricks to making them as effective as possible. First is to get the right size. While hardware stores typically only sell the large size of the masks, they actually come in three sizes, small medium and large. Try medical supply stories for the smaller sizes that tend to work better for women and children, experts suggest.
Then bend the flexible metal strip at the top of the mask so that it fits the curve of the nose, to get it the tightest possible.
"They have to seal around, like a snorkel mask," said Balmes.
Such masks are commonly worn by people in cities like Beijing and Shanghai, where residents live with dangerous air quality for much of the year. By Thursday, they were becoming a regular sight on the streets in Napa, Sonoma and Mendocino.
For those in their cars, the best advice is to keep the windows rolled up and put the air system on recirculate rather than having fresh air come in from the outside.
"You can run the heater or the air conditioner, as long as you've got it on recirculate," said Balmes.
Overall, the poor air quality shouldn't pose a long term threat to healthy individuals as long as it doesn't last more than another few days, say the experts.
Healthy lungs are remarkably self-cleaning, said Forest. They’re lined with mucus-coated, hair-like projections called cilia. The mucus catches the tiny particles that we breath in and then the waving, beating motion of the cillium moves them up and out of the lungs.
“It’s kind of like a little escalator. It carries it up out of your lungs and you either swallow or cough it out. Either is fine,” she said.
Another option is to run a home air filter. As long as it’s got a HEPA (high efficiency particulate air) filter can catch most, though not all, fine particles, defined as 2.5 microns in diameter or less, which can irritate lungs.
“They’re so small you can’t see them, but they’ll make you cough,” said Baumes.
The trick with HEPA filters is to change the filters, said Forest. You can’t just buy them and run them forever without putting in a new filter, "or they end up not doing anything at all," Forest said.
Contributing: Jessica Guynn, from Berkeley, Calif.
In 41 European countries, 534,471 premature deaths in 2014 can be linked to air pollution, the European Environment Agency (EEA) reported. Within the 28 countries of the European Union, that figure is 502,351.
Germany saw the highest number of deaths attributable to all air pollution sources, at 80,767. It was followed by the United Kingdom (64,351) and France (63,798). These are also the most populated countries in Europe.
"As a society, we should not accept the cost of air pollution," EEA Executive director Hans Bruyninckx said in a statement.
Transport, agriculture, power plants, industry and households are the biggest emitters in Europe, the agency said.
Investing in cleaner transport, energy and agriculture can help tackle this problem, Bruyninckx continued.
Despite these deaths, air quality in Europe has gradually improved, the EEA also pointed out.
Fine particulates most deadly
The EEA based its numbers on measurements of fine particulate matter (PM 2.5), nitrogen dioxide (NO2) and smog (O3).
According to the report, fine particulate matter alone accounted for around 428,000 of these premature deaths in all of Europe (399,000 in the EU).
Particulate matter is largely generated by vehicular traffic, but also comes from agriculture, energy production, industry and heating.
NO2 is a pollutant that can primarily be traced back to diesel fuel combustion. European cities such as Stuttgart have struggled with nitrogen dioxide emissions repeatedly exceeding permitted limits.
Ground-level smog or ozone (O3) is produced when sunlight reacts with nitrogen oxides and a volatile organic compound in the atmosphere. Nitrogen oxides (NOx) come from car exhaust, coal power plants, and factory emissions.
NOx, which also include nitrogen dioxide, are the pollutants at the center of the Dieselgate scandal, where numerous automakers were shown to have manipulated sensors to indicate fewer emissions in testing than cars actually produced on the road.
Further action required
"The European Commission is committed to tackling this and help member states make sure that the quality of their citizens' air is of the highest standard," Karmenu Vella, EU commissioner for the environment, said in a statement.
Jürgen Resch, head of Environmental Action Germany (Deutsche Umwelthilfe), pointed the finger at the auto industry and politicians - including German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
"The frightfully high proportion of premature deaths through poisonous diesel emissions is a result of the criminal practice of auto manufacturers," Resch said in a statement, referring to Dieselgate.
Environmental Action Germany reiterated its call for a ban on diesel vehicles.
The EEA report also placed special emphasis on greenhouse gases, pointing out that agriculture is a major source of this and other air pollutants.
The figures were released Wednesday in the agency's 2017 report on air quality in Europe.
“It is completely unsafe to be here at this moment,” said Jennifer Franco, a resident of Fairfield, California, on Wednesday afternoon, as massive wildfires ripped through Santa Rosa and Napa a few miles west. But she wasn’t talking about the flames—she was talking about the smoke. Accelerated by high-speed seasonal winds, ash-laden air was blowing eastward, directly into her neighborhood. “Since Tuesday morning, air quality is beyond terrible,” she said. “I’ve been having chest pain, and now I’m using a respirator.”
In Sebastopal, just west of Santa Rosa, winds were blowing in a more favorable direction. But retired social worker Vaughn Whalen said gray haze still obscured the blue sky there, making the sun look eerie, dull, and orange. “I’m a tougher old fella,” he said, when asked about how he was dealing with the smoke. “But a friend of mine who lives nearby has asthma. She was telling me that the smoke is in the house. Her eyes are burning. Her chest hurts. She has difficulty breathing.”
The most immediate threat from the 22 devastating wildfires currently roaring through California are the immediate fire zones. At least 21 people have died there; more than 600 people have gone missing; and thousands of buildings have been destroyed. But beyond the fire zones, millions of Californians are facing a secondary, more insidious threat: polluted air, rife with tiny particles small enough to penetrate deep into the circulatory system. Those potentially deadly particles are creating unhealthy air as far as 70 miles away from fire zones, according to Bay Area Air Quality Management District spokesman Tom Flannigan. But people closer to the fire zones are even more at risk, since the air in those regions could also be tinged with toxic heavy metals like arsenic, cadmium, copper and lead, as the smoke picks up chemicals from burned-up plastic, cars, and building materials.
“These are unprecedented conditions,” Flannigan said, estimating that four to five million people living in the Bay Area are breathing toxic air outdoors. “We’ve measured some of the highest air pollution ratings in the Bay Area ever recorded.” For context, Flannigan pointed to Beijing, China, perhaps the poster city for air pollution. “When they measure in Beijing on their worst days, they’re around 500 on the Air Quality Index,” he said. “And those are the kind of readings we’ve been seeing here.”
The particles within this smoke pose the biggest short-term risk to human health. It’s been extensively proven that high-dose exposure to so-called “fine particulate” pollution, or PM2.5, can trigger death, particularly in people with pre-existing conditions like asthma or heart disease. And breathing in smoke can make anyone—even healthy people—experience chest pain, dizziness, or shortness of breath. In California, those effects are already turning up: At least 20 people from outside immediate fire zones had visited UC San Francisco’s hospital facilities due to symptoms from smoke inhalation as of Tuesday evening, according to UCSF spokesperson Elizabeth Fernandez.
There’s also a risk that some Californians could suffer longer-term health consequences from this wildfire smoke. “Right now we’re most worried about exacerbations of preexisting diseases,” said John Balmes, a physician and professor of medicine at UCSF. “But with the heavy exposure to air pollutants in the fire zone, people could actually develop asthma from smoke exposure.” Breathing in carcinogens like arsenic from wildfire smoke could also cause cancer, but “that hasn’t been well-studied,” Balmes said.
It may seem like these situations are inevitable or happenstance, that there’s nothing people or the federal government could do to mitigate disaster-related conditions that threaten the health of so many Americans. But that’s just not the case. Indeed, just last week, the House Subcommittee on Environment held a hearing about the role of fire-related air pollution—and in striking contrast to virtually all other environmental concerns, Republican lawmakers are leading the charge to figure out how to stop air pollution from wildfires from getting so bad.
Republican Congressman John Shimkus from Illinois, the chairman of the environment subcommittee, expressed outrage over the unprecedented pollution from wildfires now enveloping the West. “Nearly every other significant source of combustion—from vehicles to power plants to factories—are subject to very stringent controls. But the emissions from wildfires are completely uncontrolled,” he said. “Congress should be looking at any and all ways to address wildfires and their air emissions, and most important of all, the policy measures that can help prevent or minimize wildfires in the first place.”
Obviously, the federal government can not control wildfire smoke pollution the same way they control pollution from coal plants or cars—forests do not choose to release smoke into the atmosphere. But serious discussions can be entertained about how to reduce the risk and intensity of fires through better management of forests, particularly forests on public lands. “Often, the largest and most polluting fires originate on or involve federal lands,” Shimkus said during last week’s hearing.
UCSF physician John Balmes agrees. That’s why he argues for better funding for the the U.S. Forest Service, which oversees national forest land. Oftentimes, he said, the agency does not have the money to do its job. “Their budget has to be supplemented every year for the funds to fight fires, and they usually don’t have money to do preventative maintenance tasks like clear out underbrush and get rid of dead trees,” Balmes said. Improper funding also means that Forest Service officials are short of resources to carry out prescribed or controlled burns, which reduce the risk of extreme wildfires in the future.
Predictably, however, enhanced funding for the Forest Service is not a Trump administration priority. Quite the contrary: The White House’s proposed budget would cut $300 million from the Forest Service’s wildfire fighting initiatives, together with $50 million from its wildfire prevention efforts. The proposed budget would also reduce funding for volunteer fire departments by 23 percent. And even with the California GOP delegation in Congress determined to shield their constituents from intense wildfire air pollution, most Republican lawmakers still refuse to acknowledge that man-made climate change is making these wildfire seasons worse. Even Shimkus, for all his eagerness to regulate the adverse effects of wildfires on air quality, is a climate denier: He has said God would never let climate change ruin the earth.
What’s certain is that climate change will ruin humans’ ability to inhabit the Earth. And the air pollution from wildfires is just one among a growing roster of weather-related disasters wreaking havoc for humanity. (See also: Puerto Rico, Texas, and Florida, over just the past month-plus.) “We’re already seeing an increase in catastrophic wildfires in California, and it’s only going to get worse as the climate gets warmer and drier,” Balmes said. So long as Trump and congressional Republicans deny climate change—and therefore do nothing to slow its impacts—the health hazards from those wildfires only stands to get worse as well.
Emily Atkin is a staff writer at the New Republic.
NO ONE KNOWS what sparked the violent fires ablaze in the hills of California wine country. In the last five days, the flames have torched more than 160,000 acres across Napa and Sonoma counties, reducing parts of Santa Rosa to piles of cinder and ash and leaving more than 20 dead and hundreds missing. And far from the white-hot embers of destruction, residents from San Francisco to Sacramento to Fresno have been waking up this week to choking fumes, commuting to work under skies tinged orange with dust and soot.
Now, in just a single fire season, ash has rained down on Portland, Seattle, San Francisco, and Los Angles. That might seem like an anomaly—but it’s more a portent of the country’s new, char-coated normal. As climate-change fuels increasingly large and frequent wildfires that hit closer and closer to densely populated urban centers, the smoke they produce is becoming a public health crisis.
“Over the past two days we’ve experienced unprecedented levels of air pollution in the region,” says Kristine Roselius, a spokeswoman for the Bay Area Quality Management District. Things cleared up slightly on Wednesday, but mercurial weather patterns make it hard to know if the worst is still yet to come. “It’s very difficult to forecast what the air quality will be at any moment because we’ve still got active fires.”
But in general, the forecast is not good. Roselius says they’re especially concerned about the elevated levels of PM2.5—very small bits of liquids and solids suspended in the air, no bigger than 2.5 nanometers across. Particles this small can be inhaled into the deepest recesses of the lungs, into the broccoli-shaped alveolar sacs, where they bypass the body’s filtration systems and slip directly into the bloodstream. What exactly is in those tiny droplets and specks depends on the source, the season, and atmospheric conditions. But it’s the amount of particulate matter more than the type that matters for health.
Good clean air will have fewer than a dozen micrograms of PM2.5's per square meter of atmosphere. Most people won’t notice anything up to about 55 micrograms, but folks with heart or lung disease will likely experience shortness of breath, wheezing, coughing, and chest pain. Asthma sufferers will become more prone to attacks. And as PM2.5 concentrations rise above 55 µg/m3, anyone working or exercising outside will start to notice.
Breathing will start to feel more difficult, and you might get light-headed. Children get hit harder, since they breathe faster than adults. Beyond 100 µg/m3 even healthy adults just walking around will start feeling a sting in their eyeballs and at the back of their throats, chest tightness, and the need to cough. Air monitors near the WIRED offices, 50 miles from the fires, were reading out 137 µg/m3 on Wednesday, and the mucous membrane burn was quite noticeable indeed. Symptoms like these will go away when air quality improves. But breathing in a lot of PM2.5’s can lead to serious long-term health problems.
So first things first: protection. Public health officials like Roselius are advising people with chronic respiratory illness to seek filtered air, either in the city or outside the region. That means buildings with high efficiency mechanical or electronic air cleaners, like these public libraries in San Francisco. If you’ve got air conditioning at home, set it to recirculate mode and make sure all your doors and windows are tightly closed. Three out of five households in California report having air conditioning, although most of these are in the southern parts of the state. Karl the Fog provides all the air conditioning the Bay Area has ever really needed. Good for the energy grid. Bad for those seeking a smoke-free haven.
As for facewear, a bandana worn around the mouth won’t do anything but making you feel like an outlaw. One-strap paper masks or surgical masks won’t help you either. Your best bet: disposable respirators, like the ones found at hardware stores and pharmacies. Look for ones labeled N95 and make sure they’re properly sealed around your face (that goes double for San Francisco’s bearded hipsters).
But the best thing to do is limit your time outside as much as possible. And don’t exert yourself any more than you have to. Because while it’s hard for scientists to predict how bad air quality will be in the aftermath of a wildfire, it’s even harder for them to predict the long-term public health impacts.
Over the years, researchers have tried unsuccessfully to measure the full health effects of wildfire smoke. The general consensus, based on hospital records, is that more smoke means more trips to the doctor for things like asthma, pneumonia, bronchitis, COPD, and heart failure. Children, the elderly, women, African Americans, and those with underlying chronic diseases appear to be most susceptible. But it’s been tricky to prove causation, because air pollution comes from so many places—wildfires, yes, but also tailpipes and factories.
That’s one of the reasons the Environmental Protection Agency just launched a crowd-sourced study to understand the link between wildfire smoke and health impacts. Using an app called SmokeSense, anyone can now send the EPA a snapshot of the air quality in their zip code, report nearby smoke or fire, and list symptoms they're experiencing.
It’s work that’s increasingly important as more acres of American forests go up in smoke each year. “As the climate continues to change, we’re going to see much more smoke, at higher intensities in the future,” says Jia Coco Liu, an environmental health researcher at Johns Hopkins. Based on air pollution from past and projected future wildfires in the American West, Liu and a team of scientists at Yale estimated that by mid-century more than 82 million people will experience smoke waves—more than two consecutive days with high levels of wildfire-related air pollution. People in the new Smoke Belt—Northern California, Western Oregon, and the Great Plains—are likely to suffer the highest exposure.
And there’s one more bit of bad news: Just as fire behaves differently in a city than it does out in the wild, so does smoke. Urban areas, with their concrete roads and walls of glass and steel, tend to stop a fire in its tracks. All those buildings and alleyways prevent wind from blowing fresh embers around. But those same aerodynamics mean that smoke gets trapped in cities. Liu’s latest research, which will appear in an upcoming issue of the American Journal of Epidemiology, found that metropolitan areas, even ones very far away from any actual wildfires, had much higher levels of particulate matter in the air than rural areas. An urban smoke island effect, if you will.
By looking at Medicare billing information, Liu was able to see a corresponding uptick in respiratory and other health issues. She hopes the research will help raise awareness that wildfire smoke is more than a nuisance. “People think of wildfires and they think about houses burning down,” she says. “From the city it can feel like a faraway problem. But actually, it’s the smoke that has a much higher impact.”
Take a deep breath, London.
A startling recent report revealed that every single area of London exceeds the guidelines for a dangerous type of air pollution, in the form of tiny particles that can settle in your lungs.
In the report, commissioned by the charity Centre for London, independent academics have called on mayor Sadiq Khan to do more about the problem, and fast.
“With a larger population than ever before, and an increase in traffic of most types, many of London’s roads and streets are congested, polluting and poor quality places,” says Sir Malcolm Grant, chair of NHS England, who also chaired the report.
This is not a new problem. London holds the record for the worst air pollution disaster ever, the Great Smog in 1952 that saw 12,000 people die in just four days, according to The Lancet.
But it’s not all about disasters; scientific evidence now suggests that air pollution, even at low levels, poses more of a health threat than we previously thought.
The air pollution checker London Air, run by King’s College London, shows air pollution in London tends to be low in most areas, but this does not mean it isn’t dangerous. “When this index was created these levels were considered unlikely to cause any adverse health effects,” the website says. “There is currently debate about whether there is any safe level for these pollutants.”
First, though, it is important to understand how London has become so toxic, and why 7.9 million Londoners live in areas exceeding World Health Organization air quality guidelines by at least 50 per cent.
What is in London’s air?
The air pollution in London comes in a few forms. In terms of gases, there’s carbon monoxide from cold engines or badly ventilated domestic gas cookers, there’s nitrogen dioxide from car exhausts. There’s ground level ozone, which forms when nitrogen dioxide reacts with sunlight and sulphur dioxide from the burning of fossil fuels.
There are also tiny particles, called particulates, which float around in the air. These are specks of solids and gases, and those found in London come in many different shapes and sizes. Broadly, they are grouped into two classes: particles smaller than 10 micrometres, PM10; and those smaller than 2.5 micrometres, called PM2.5. The smaller particles are the most dangerous, because they can get into our airways, and even settle deep in the lungs.
“Congestion and pollution will only get worse as London’s population grows unless we adopt new policies and approaches,” says Ben Rogers, director at the Centre for London, which produced the report.
What can be done
A better, more affordable public transport system could be one way to tackle the population problem. “After decades of neglect, [public transport] has seen relatively large scale investment, with extensive programmes of traffic calming, pavement widening, tree planting and pedestrianisation,” the report explains. “The capital has invested heavily in its rail services, so relieving demands on the road network, but also in bus services and cycling infrastructure.”
But there’s a warning: “Air pollution, road safety and the cost of travel are all major public concerns.” From October 23, vehicles in central London will be required to meet minimum exhaust emission standards, otherwise they will be met with a daily £10 fine called the Toxicity Charge, or T-Charge. This penalty is on top of the normal congestion charge.
The latest report does not think the congestion charge is enough, and outlines that it should be potentially scrapped, or at the very least reviewed. The group of academics put forward a few suggestions for what London could do above and beyond this. The ideas included a cashback scrappage scheme for old, high-emission vehicles, encouraging householders to give up parking permits and starting a new code to help different road users interact better.
The sooner, the better. “London needs action now to preserve economic and social vitality, and environmental sustainability in the years to come,” says Grant.
There’s enough wildfire activity in California and Nevada to blanket both much of both states with a layer of smoke in the coming days.
In California alone more than 140,000 acres are burning in large, wildland fires throughout the state. A fire in rough terrain near Reno is also contributing to smoke in northern Nevada.
In just the past two days fires in California’s wine country are thought to have produced as much small particulate matter as all the vehicles in the state produce in a year.
“A lot of that stuff has toxic emissions in it”
Jim Roberts, chemist, NOAA Earth System Research Laboratory
“It’s a lot,” said Sean Raffuse, an air quality analyst at the Crocker Nuclear Laboratory at University of California, Davis.
Although the early estimates are rough, Raffuse said the fires in wine country have probably produced about 10,000 tons of PM 2.5, an air pollutant that’s the main cause of haze in the United States.
By way of comparison, it takes the approximately 35 million on-road vehicles in California a year to generate a similar amount of PM 2.5, Raffuse said.
“Interestingly, these fuels are relatively light compared to some areas,” Raffuse said of the fires in wine country. “For example, I would expect the Redwood Valley Fire burning in Mendocino County to produce 2-3 times more smoke per acre burned.”
The amount of smoke is significant because PM 2.5 is associated with respiratory and cardiovascular problems in people.
And smoke from the thousands of structures burned in some of the fires can be even more hazardous than typical wildland fire smoke, said Jim Roberts, a research chemist from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Earth System’s Research Laboratory.
“It is a little bit different because they had so many structures burn, that is a different fuel mixture … a lot of that stuff has toxic emissions associated with it,” Roberts said.
The smoke and fumes will be most hazardous to the people closest to the burning, he said.
“On the local scale when that smoke stays in the area and you are exposed to it, then it can be harmful,” Roberts said. "People who fight residential fires really worry about those materials. That is why they wear respirators when they go into a house.”
Air quality data from the Environmental Protection Agency showed a large plume of dense smoke stretching from the central California coast, across the northwest corner of Nevada and into southern Oregon and Idaho on Wednesday.
Air quality forecasts in Reno, San Francisco and Sacramento predicted varying degrees of unhealthy air throughout northern California and Nevada.
Big Bend national park is Texas at its most cinematic, with soaring, jagged forest peaks looming over vast desert lowlands, at once haughty and humble, prickly and pretty. It is also among the most remote places in the state.
Even from Alpine, the town of 6,000 that is the main gateway to the park, it is more than an hour’s drive to one of the entrances.
So far from anywhere, it might seem an unlikely location to be scarred by air pollution. Yet for decades its stunning vistas have been compromised by poor air quality that Texas, working with the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), is supposed to address.
But environmental advocates fear that the Trump administration’s pro-coal agenda will derail the prospects of improvement, at least in the short term. Tuesday’s announcement that the EPA plans to abandon the 2015 Clean Power Plan to reduce carbon emissions came less than two weeks after the agency revealed a revised plan to combat regional haze in Texas and Oklahoma that critics say will do little to cut pollution.
Chrissy Mann, Austin-based senior campaign representative with the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign, said: “Taken in combination with the Clean Power Plan, what we’re seeing is an attempt from this administration and this EPA to dig in their pockets and find whatever kind of tricks they think are going to stick to provide a lifeline to the coal industry across the country and here in Texas. It’s disappointing.”
Texas is part of a multi-state coalition that sued to stop the Clean Power Plan, which was placed on hold by the US supreme court last year.
Ken Paxton, the Texas attorney general, said in a statement: “It’s gratifying that our lawsuit against Obama-era federal overreach was a catalyst for repeal of the plan. We look forward to working with the administration to craft a new strategy that will protect the environment without hurting jobs and the economy.”
A back-and-forth between the EPA and Texas over regional haze has been in motion since 1999, when the agency launched a concerted effort to deal with the problem, bidding to improve the air quality in Big Bend national park, Guadalupe Mountains national park and in Oklahoma, the home state of the EPA administrator, Scott Pruitt.
In 2009, the state enforcer, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, issued a plan that would restore “natural visibility” to Big Bend by the year 2155. That was rejected as inadequate by the EPA in 2014.
The EPA wanted Texas to cut 230,000 tons of sulphur dioxide emissions per year to improve visibility and reduce the risk of worsening respiratory diseases and heart disease and damaging soil, water, fish and wildlife.
Two years later, finding “Texas relied on an analysis that obscured the benefits of potentially cost-effective controls”, the EPA replaced parts of Texas’s emissions plan, calling for plant upgrades and a target of “natural visibility” by 2064.
Texas sued the agency and won a stay of implementation in a federal appeals court. The state argued that it is making reasonable progress and, along with industry representatives, claimed that enacting the structural improvements – notably fitting some electricity plants with sulphur dioxide scrubbers – would cost $2bn and be a backdoor way of forcing the closure of coal-fired power plants. That, it said, might put the state at risk of power shortages and increased prices for consumers.
Last December, in the sunset days of the Obama administration, the EPA proposed another scheme that would also have required older plants to upgrade their technology.
But in August this year, Pruitt’s EPA asked a federal court for more time – until the end of 2018 – to come up with a way forward. When the judge refused, on 29 September the EPA unveiled a path that is much more palatable for Texas and the power companies: one that wouldn’t require retrofitting, instead claiming to achieve comparable results with an intrastate cap-and-trade programme. That would give polluters allowances within an overall emissions budget that can be used or traded in a marketplace.
Such programmes can be effective, but Mann, of the Sierra Club, contends that the cap is too high so will not provide any incentive for meaningful reductions. “It’s not very aggressive. In other words, the amount of pollution that coal plants in Texas are allowed to produce is actually higher than our emissions from last year from the same coal plants, taken all together,” Mann said.
The National Park Service and EPA carried out a study in 1999 to understand what causes haze in Big Bend, which is worse in the warmer months. It found that sulphate particles formed from sulphur dioxide sources such as coal power plants and refineries were a key cause.
Researchers discovered that substantial amounts of sulphate particulates came not only from Texas and Mexico, but the distant eastern US. When air flows from the east, production in America’s coal heartlands has an effect on Big Bend’s scenery.
Even if Trump’s efforts to boost coal collide with economic reality and market forces spur more growth in renewable energy, any delays in transitioning to cleaner energy and reduced emissions prolong the haze problem.
Air quality has not improved and ozone has seen a slight deterioration over the past decade, according to Jeffery Bennett, physical sciences program coordinator at the park. “Nitrogen deposition has not changed and remains a significant concern. Desert landscapes are especially sensitive to nitrogen,” he wrote in an email in July.
“Mercury is an emerging concern,” he added, based on levels found in fish; it is unclear whether this is because of atmospheric deposition or the legacy of nearby abandoned mercury mines.
The park faces Mexico and since Donald Trump entered the White House it has attracted attention as a particularly unsuitable place to build a wall.
Still, in a few years, tourists might find that while Trump might have failed to wall off the Big Bend from Mexico, the view is blocked all the same. “If you’re standing here in Panther Junction and not able to see the Sierra del Carmen that’s 20 miles away, because of the sulphates and other pollutions that blew in, you’re missing a big part of why this became a park,” Jennette Jurado, the park’s public information officer, said earlier this year at the main visitor centre.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on Tuesday released a detailed 198-page proposed analysis of the costs and benefits of its move to repeal the Clean Power Plan, suggesting the administration plans to greatly decrease the government’s estimates of the cost of climate change.
The document explains the consequences of scrapping the Clean Power Plan, a set of rules for power plants aimed at reducing U.S. contributions to climate change. In the document, the EPA calculated the cost of one ton of emissions of carbon dioxide, a major greenhouse gas, to be between $1 and $6 in the year 2020. That’s down from the Obama administration’s central (inflation adjusted) 2020 estimate of $45 — “a reduction of 87 percent to 97 percent,” according to a comparison by the think tank Resources for the Future.
The wildly divergent numbers arise in significant part because the agency is now calculating the cost of carbon only within the United States, rather than around the globe — a key change that could be of major consequence.
The “social cost of carbon” is a very influential figure that helps policymakers weigh the value of moves aimed at stopping climate change. If the social cost of carbon is lower, that shrinks the estimated benefits of such moves, making it more likely that policymakers will find those benefits not worth the costs.
“The most important single economic concept in the economics of climate change is the social cost of carbon (SCC). At present, regulations with more than $1 trillion of benefits have been written for the United States that use the SCC in their economic analysis,” Yale University economist William Nordhaus wrote in a 2016 study.
Similar analyses could show up in other Trump administration regulatory decisions, experts said.
Critics say that in its “Regulatory Impact Analysis,” the Trump administration is manipulating the math to justify predetermined conclusions. The EPA analysis is “a radical departure from established science and economics,” charged attorney David Doniger of the Natural Resources Defense Council.
“My read is that the political decision to repeal the Clean Power Plan was made and then they did whatever was necessary to make the numbers work,” added Michael Greenstone, a professor of economics at the University of Chicago who worked on climate policy during the Obama years.
These critics were responding to a prior leaked draft that summarized the longer impact analysis, but the new version seemed largely consistent with it.
But the EPA defended the approach Tuesday, arguing that it was the Obama administration that had done the math in a questionable way.
“The facts are that the Obama administration’s estimates and analysis of costs and benefits was, in multiple areas, highly uncertain and/or controversial,” an agency spokesman, who spoke on the condition of anonymity said by email.
“The previous administration compared domestic costs against its estimate of global climate benefits,” the spokesman continued. “The proposed repeal also presents a scenario looking specifically at domestic climate impacts. EPA is tasked with protecting the environment and human health of this nation, and our alternative analysis reflects that. This administration also returns to long-standing OMB practice by using appropriate discount rates to compare apples to apples when estimating the current value of future scenarios.”
The new EPA document is a proposal, rather than a final analysis. And it presents a variety of scenarios and assumptions, broadly explaining the uncertainties involved in such complex calculations and citing the need for “transparency” in its analysis. Still, critics say the way the analyses are built involves a considerable departure.
The EPA’s changes — which could become central to ongoing litigation over how the agency addresses climate change — reflect a long, complicated debate over how the government justifies regulatory decisions, particularly with respect to climate change.
In 2009, the Obama administration created the Interagency Working Group on the Social Cost of Carbon, a panel designed to assess the economic damages from climate change. The body proceeded to use a complex brew of economic and scientific analyses to figure out the toll, in dollar terms, of a ton of carbon dioxide emitted to the atmosphere.
That estimate — which varies based on a variety of assumptions, but was recently put at $45 dollars (adjusted for inflation) in 2020 in one central scenario — then fed into regulatory analyses that helped Barack Obama’s EPA conclude that the benefits of the Clean Power Plan would greatly exceed its costs.
But the EPA’s approach has long been the target of conservative critics, and shortly after Trump’s election, the new administration moved to reverse it. In a March executive order, Trump disbanded the working group and said that its reports and findings “shall be withdrawn as no longer representative of governmental policy.”
Now, the EPA appears to have begun to unveil a different way of calculating the social cost of carbon and other aspects of its cost-benefit calculations related to pollution — one that could have sweeping implications.
Where Obama’s EPA said that it considered the cost of a ton of carbon dioxide emissions across the entire globe, Pruitt’s EPA said that it will “[shift] the focus to the domestic (rather than global) social cost of carbon.” Damages within the United States from climate change will naturally be smaller — making it harder to justify cutting greenhouse gas emissions.
But critics say this approach ignores the fact that climate change is a global problem and that emissions from other countries hurt us, just as our emissions hurt them. “The new proposal claims to count only the domestic U.S. impacts of carbon pollution, even though this pollution causes worldwide harm,” charged the Environmental Defense Fund in a recent rebuttal to the EPA’s analysis.
The National Academy of Sciences, in its latest report evaluating the social cost of carbon methodology, found that the calculation isn’t as simple as stopping at U.S. borders. “Climate change in other regions of the world could affect the United States through such pathways as global migration, economic destabilization, and political destabilization,” the body noted.
“The Academy finding was that you can’t just do some simple percentage of global damages to get at an estimate of the U.S. damages; you have to take into account how damages occurred outside the U.S. feed back into the U.S.,” said Rutgers climate scientist Robert Kopp, one of the members of the committee who drafted the report.
Discounting the future?
The EPA also appears to have changed how it is thinking about a key factor called the “discount rate,” which is central in calculating the social cost of carbon. The discount rate is “meant to represent the opportunity cost” of spending society’s dollars on fighting climate change, “rather than what those resources would have otherwise been invested in,” said economist Richard Newell, who co-chaired the National Academy’s report and is president of Resources for the Future.
The standard Obama era practice had been to apply a 2.5, 3, and 5 percent annual discount rate in the climate change context. But Pruitt’s EPA has instead considered, for the social cost of carbon, 3 percent and 7 percent. (It did later consider 2.5 percent in an appendix to the new document.)
Using 7 percent in particular — a rate meant to reflect a return on investment, say in the stock market — has long been advocated by allies of the administration’s environmental and regulatory policies, such as the conservative Heritage Foundation.
“The EPA/[Interagency Working Group] settled on 3 percent as the best choice, but its omission of 7 percent was glaring to those who follow this regulatory issue,” wrote the foundation’s David Kreutzer, who served on the EPA’s transition team, last year.
The 7 percent rate yields a considerably lower social cost of carbon. But “there’s good reasons to think that such a high discount rate is inappropriate for use in estimating the social cost of carbon,” Newell said. He explained that when it comes to the impacts of climate change, those generally affect individual consumers where a rate of 3 percent is more appropriate.
“This is a case where we have specific information which points to the use of a consumption rate of interest, and in that case, the use of the 7 percent rate is simply conceptually inappropriate,” Newell said.
Air pollution damages?
The EPA also has introduced new parameters for assessing the value of cutting air pollution. Emissions of fine particulate matter from fossil fuel burning can be deadly, but the EPA considers two scenarios in which the risk of death “falls to zero” at certain low concentrations of fine particulates in the air.
“These analyses are designed to increase transparency rather than imply a specific lower bound on the size of the health co-benefits,” the agency said.
In one of them, the agency assumes there’s no more risk below the levels currently required by the National Ambient Air Quality Standards, which is 12 micrograms per cubic meter of fine particles, technically known as PM2.5.
But critics say it’s not justifiable to exclude the dangers of particles at low concentrations.
“If you’re an area that is at 11, and the Clean Power Plan will push you to 9, under that assumption it says there are no health benefits,” said Jonathan Buonocore, an environmental health researcher at Harvard. “There’s no evidence this is true. Time and time again … we keep finding health benefits when air quality gets better, even in areas that are in attainment with the rules.”
So in sum, the EPA is changing its analysis in multiple ways — and this new analytical framework could now be applied in other decisions made by the federal government, experts said.
“Now that they have constructed it, it seems naive to assume that they will put it in a closet,” Greenstone said. “My best guess is that it will be used to revisit other environmental rules and that the last several decades of environmental gains are at risk, with the payoff coming in lower costs for polluters.”
Chris Mooney reports on science and the environment. Follow @chriscmooney
As farmers seek monetary help, and have openly flouted the ban imposed by the National Green Tribunal (NGT) on burning of paddy straw, a direct confrontation between the agitating farmers and the government is on the anvil.
ANALYSIS Updated: Oct 11, 2017 14:01 IST
1/7 A farmer in Karnal sets crop-residue on fire, leaving behind black ash. Stubble burning has already started on Delhi’s borders and NASA images revealed that red dots — denoting incidents of fire — have started appearing almost everywhere in Haryana and Punjab. (Burhaan Kinu / HT PHOTO)
Not to take any more risk with human health, the Supreme Court has reinstated the ban it imposed on sale of fire crackers in the Delhi-NCR region.
The “direct evidence of deterioration of air quality at alarming levels” that the Supreme Court cited to justify the ban has another player. Paddy stubble burning by farmers during the same period in Punjab, Haryana, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh and in the outskirts of Delhi, has also been blamed for chocking the Capital.
What forces farmers to burn the paddy stubbles is the short window available between the harvesting of paddy and the sowing of the next wheat crop. In a fortnight or so, farmers have to harvest the crop, market it, and also undertake sowing operations for the next rabi crop. Burning of paddy straw therefore is the easiest way out. Unfortunately, farmer’s compulsion that leaves him little option but to burn the crop residues has not been understood properly. Instead of helping the farmers, the entire effort is to coerce them into submission.
An estimated 20 million tonnes of paddy straw is burnt in Punjab alone. As the National Green Tribunal (NGT) had observed: “70% of the land covered by agricultural activity was put on fire by the farmers of Punjab who burnt farm residue,” further adding that stubble burning shoots up the carbon dioxide levels in the air by 70%. “The concentration of carbon monoxide and nitrogen dioxide rises by 7% and 2.1% respectively, triggering respiratory and heart problems. Also, it was stated that soil loses a significant amount of nitrogen, phosphorous, potassium and sulphur, the total loss of nutrients being estimated at 1.5-lakh tonnes per annum.
Farmers are aware of the environmental fall-out. But they need monetary help. Punjab farmers have been demanding Rs 6,000 per acre as a compensation package for the additional costs they have to incur to take measures that prevents burning of crop residues. Instead of providing any financial support, farmers who continue to resort to burning of paddy straw are being penalised, put behind bars, and threatened with withdrawal of farm subsidies. As if this is not enough, a ‘red entry’ against the plot number where stubble burning takes place is now being initiated in the land records.
The farming community is furious. Agitating farmers have now openly flouted the ban imposed by the National Green Tribunal (NGT) on burning of paddy straw, and a direct confrontation between the agitating farmers and the government is on an anvil. Already, several farmer unions have given call to defy the ban, and surely the incidences of crop residues being put to fire are also increasing. The confrontation is likely to worsen in the days to come.
Knowing that imposing any coercive measure against the farming community already reeling under severe distress will be politically incorrect, the Punjab Chief Minister Amarinder Singh is seeking an incentive of Rs 2,000-crore from the Centre to ensure that farmers remove paddy straw without burning it. “We have demanded that the Centre should give Rs 100 per quintal, which comes to roughly Rs 2,000-crore.” And he is right. After all, stubble burning is a socio-environment problem, and the society has to share the burden. Why can’t a proportion of the Rs 50,000-crore proposed economic stimulus package be used for address the problem of stubble burning?
It is a question of priorities. Within weeks of the inflation figures showing a rising trend, the government enhanced the dearness allowance (DA) for the central government employees from the existing 4% to 5%. The hike in DA by just 1% creates an annual additional burden of Rs 3,068.26 crore. If only the government had withheld the 1% increase in DA instalment and instead diverted the resources to address the severe environmental consequences arising from stubble burning, the entire problem could have been fixed by now.
There are two immediate steps the NGT need to ensure. First, ask the government to provide a compensation of at least Rs 200 per quintal to paddy farmers. I am seeking a higher compensation package because the labour costs have already skyrocketed. Also, there is no need to provide any more subsidies for machines like Happy Seeder, Straw Reeper, Chopper, Rotavator etc. Leave it to the farmers. Secondly, make it mandatory for the combine harvester machines to incorporate a bailer, which harvests and bales in one pass. Such a technology is already available for corn. If only NGT had tried to make it mandatory for the combine harvesters to bring in the new technology, crop burning would have been easily relegated to the past.
Devinder Sharma is founder trustee, Centre for Sustainable Agriculture, Hyderabad
The views expressed are personal
WITH 17 LARGE wildfires in California igniting in 24 hours this week, October is shaping up to be a brutal month for wildfires, as it often is. It’s too soon to know what caused multiple conflagrations spreading across Northern California’s wine country, but elsewhere in the state dead and dying trees have been the subject of much concern. The five-year drought in California killed more than 102 million trees on national forest lands. That is a gigantic problem in itself that will lead to huge wildfire risks in the future and big changes in wildlife habitat.
With that huge number in mind, it is easy to forget that the forests were already in a sorry state. It’s now widely understood that a century of misguided – but well-intentioned – policies over the past 100 years produced forests that are too densely packed with small trees and too vulnerable to possibly catastrophic fires.
Water supplies are also a concern, because the forests are nature’s water-storage sponges. They capture snowfall and release it slowly, helping Californians survive long, dry summers. But there’s also a concern that overgrown forests consume too much water, and that thinning some forests could generate more runoff.
A new report by the Public Policy Institute of California proposes some different approaches to begin chipping away at the problem. It recommends some changes in state law and new contracting practices, among other things. It also suggests some changes in public attitudes.
To learn more, Water Deeply recently spoke with Van Butsic, the study’s lead author. Butsic is a land system scientist with a Ph.D. in forestry; he works as an assistant cooperative extension specialist in the University of California, Berkeley, Department of Environmental Science, Policy and Management.
Water Deeply: How are California’s forests doing in the wake of the drought?
Van Butsic: The drought, coupled with the last century of management actions, caused a huge pulse in tree mortality. There are always dead trees in the woods, but the additional dead trees in the environment due to the drought is about 15 million a year.
One hundred years ago many, many large trees were harvested. Then we have a century of fire suppression, so we take fire out of the equation. So new trees are coming back and they’re not burning. Then, about 30 years ago, we stopped harvesting on most national forests. So we have a condition where the forests are of a much higher density than they’ve ever been before. Then we have the drought, and lots of trees on the landscape are susceptible to bark beetle outbreaks due to lack of water.
Water Deeply: How much additional prescribed fire is needed to bring the forests back to a healthy state?
Butsic: We didn’t quantify that ourselves. But what I would say is, the statistics we’ve seen from a number of good scientists have put the number of additional acres that need to be treated at somewhere between 200,000 and 500,000 per year. So a very large amount. The numbers in those studies come from a historical look at what was normal 100 or 150 years ago. That’s more than a doubling of what’s going on now. So it’s a substantial increase. I want to say that right now the Forest Service is doing somewhere between 100,000 and 200,000 per year.
Water Deeply: There’s also a need for more mechanical thinning, or logging. How do we get past the controversy over that?
Butsic: One thing that has happened in California is sort of a distrust of mechanical thinning. Often, when the Forest Service or private landowners say they’re doing mechanical thinning, certain environmental groups think that’s code for clearcutting. One thing we try to say in the paper is this is a valuable tool and it needs to be on the table if we want to get this work done. So making sure mechanical thinning is not written off as code for clearcutting is going to be important if we’re going to manage forests.
Water Deeply: How do we ensure that it’s not clearcutting?
Butsic: There are very strong forest practice laws in California. My understanding of the current regulations governing forest management on federal lands is that in Forest Service Region 5, which California belongs to, it’s really nearly impossible to harvest trees [with a diameter] over 30in (76cm). So these trees are not really at risk, I would say, as long as the Forest Service follows its own recommendations. And yet this is still a stumbling block in conversations about mechanical thinning. People are still very worried about these trees because they’ve seen in the past some large trees disappear. That’s a difficult situation to work with. The laws are in place to protect those trees, and yet people don’t really trust them.
Water Deeply: You recommend state and federal land management agencies justify their continued fire suppression. Why do you suggest that?
Butsic: Most ecologists would agree the long-term suppression of fire has led to a change in forest structure, and probably a decline in forest health. Typically, when agencies do any activity that might cause environmental harm, they need to justify it. We don’t see that for fire suppression. And there’s good reason why you wouldn’t do this on a case-by-case basis. If a fire breaks out around a house, you want to go and put it out. But making sure agencies explain their management choices around wildfire would lead them to use some of their tools, like managed wildfire, more often.
Water Deeply: You report that state law treats wildfire and prescribed fire differently in regard to air quality. Is that still appropriate?
Butsic: There’s a growing body of evidence that prescribed fires are less harmful to humans than non-managed wildfires, because they burn at lower severity, typically. And we know an area burned with a prescribed fire is less likely to burn at high severity in the near future. So clearly, there are long-term air quality benefits to prescribed fire.
But with prescribed fires, there are short-term costs caused by regulation. There’s a lot of planning that needs to go into conducting a prescribed fire for air-quality reasons. And the air-quality reasons are real. We’re not saying people with asthma are not affected by smoke. But we can manage it with prescribed fire and know when the fire is going to happen and know that in the future, we’ll have less risk of severe wildfire. Or we can just leave it to chance and, eventually, we’ll probably get a severe wildfire anyway.
So treating those differently under state law is just problematic.
Water Deeply: What kind of additional mechanical thinning are you calling for?
Butsic: We think mechanical thinning can be really useful in a few ways. If you’re near homes or near roads, mechanical thinning has a very key role to play in those instances. The other is where there are logs that could be harvested that could offset the cost of other treatments. Prescribed fire and managed wildfire are both costly.
There is a number of studies that show mechanical thinning with removal of some sawlogs can be a net profit in certain areas, and the largest trees we looked at removing in the report are 16in (in diameter).
Water Deeply: So why isn’t it happening?
Butsic: There is a number of barriers that we’ve identified to getting the work done. Part of it is the history of distrust. One roadblock is that it is somewhat risky for leadership to try to do these big treatments. If you’re going to do big prescribed fires or let wildfires be managed, there’s risk to the leadership that things could go wrong. And if they do, they look bad. So I do think these groups do not have a risk-taking culture. That’s just not the Forest Service culture. I do think that’s probably hindered them a little bit.
Another barrier is there still are issues with the infrastructure. In some parts of the state, there just are not great places to take the material: sawmills and biomass plants. Some people have said that’s the main roadblock. I’m not sure we agree with that.
Water Deeply: Will these things improve water supply?
Butsic: We think there’s real potential. There’s probably more uncertainty in that science than in other areas. But we do think there’s real potential for the maintenance of the quality and quantity of waters we have today under a healthy forest regime versus an unhealthy one.
Water Deeply: What’s the public’s role? Do we need to be more open-minded about prescribed fire and some kind of logging?
Butsic: I think understanding the role of fire and the necessity of it in the landscape, having the public appreciate the role that fires plays in keeping forests healthy, is something we could improve upon. We need to build the social license to do treatments.
The media often portray fire in the forest as a total destruction. After a fire goes through, it’s not pretty. You see a lot of charred and dead trees. It’s not an appealing landscape. But understanding the long-term importance of having that disturbance on the landscape is certainly something the media could help educate the public on.
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