Wildfires Show Cost of Climate Change

Photo: Jason E. Kaplan
Smoky skies over Portland

As wildfires lay waste to thousands of homes and businesses, the cost of climate change is accelerating a shift in investor behavior.

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As fires that began in California cause unprecedented damage across the Pacific Northwest, Tom Potiowsky, director of the Northwest Economic Research Center, says the catastrophic effects of the fires show we have entered a new era of climate change.

“We’re at the point now where dealing with climate change has become less expensive than not dealing with it,” he says. “But we’re still dragging our feet on carbon emissions.”

A rapid transition – fueled by battery technology, pure necessity and widespread consensus that progress is not going fast enough to curb the rate of global warming – could be on the horizon.

In addition to warming oceans and more frequent storms, a recent analysis from the U.S. Drought Monitor found more than 90% of Oregon is considered “abnormally dry” and more prone to wildfires.

The Chinook winds, which are warm, moist air that blows from the Pacific Ocean and which typically do not arrive in Oregon until November, have blown in early, causing the wildfires to spread more quickly. The burning of trees releases even more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, and the lack of water due to drought has made fighting fires even more difficult.

Downtown Portland is obscured by smoke.  Photo: Jason E. Kaplan

Gov. Kate Brown tweeted that the fires burning across the state – that now reach from the Medford area in the south, to the Willamette Valley and Clackamas County areas – could lead to the greatest loss of lives and property due to wildfires in the state’s history.    

As of Thursday, the wildfires had claimed four lives in Oregon. Several fires are burning across the state simultanously, covering 900,000 acres. This is unprecedented. Over the past 10 years, an average of 500,000 acres burn in an entire year.

More than 500,000 people, 10% of the state’s population, have been forced to evacuate.

In Clackamas County all county office buildings were closed to the public and most employees due to heavy smoke. Evacuees from the fires were asked to shelter in the Oregon Convention Center in Portland.

The Department of Environmental Quality announced hazardous smoke conditions, which mean everyone should avoid any outdoor activity, in Silverton, Lyons, Corvallis, Sweet Home and Cottage Grove.

On Friday smoke from nearby wildfires created dangerous air conditions in Multnomah County. Thick smoke hangs over Portland, the engine of the state’s economy.   

“I wish the 2020 wildfires were an anomaly – but this will not be a one-time event,” cautioned Gov. Brown in a tweet.

“Unfortunately, it is a bellwether of the future. We are seeing the devastating effects of climate change in Oregon, on the entire West Coast, and throughout the world.”

Hillsboro Winco JKA smoke cloud over Winco in Hillsboro   Photo: Jason Kaplan

Potiowsky notes that despite pressure from the Trump administration to continue with coal, investors have seen the writing on the wall.

“The proportion of power generated by coal has been coming down, and that’s not a trend line that’s going to stop. We’ve hit a speed bump these last four years, but the trend will pick up once you have an administration that wants to speed up the process.”

In addition to innovations in wind and solar energy storage, Potiowsky says hydrogen fuel cells, already popular in Europe, will likely make their way to the U.S. in the coming years.

There can be no denying wildfires will be the new normal for the foreseeable future, as the delayed onset of the effects of climate change mean the problem will get worse before it gets better.

But the days of heavy-duty carbon emissions are coming to a close, says Potiowsky.

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