In October, we choked down smoke from Colorado fires. In June, we suffered a record-breaking heat wave. In recent days, we again saw the sky turn white from smoke, this time from California fires. And we dealt with I-70 closures in Glenwood Canyon, caused by mudslides resulting largely from previous fire damage. Aerial footage of the once-gorgeous Hanging Lake overwhelmed with mud from the same rains was heartbreaking.
Although you might not guess it in our overheated partisan climate, Colorado’s leading politicians share remarkably similar views about the most pressing policy regarding the fires: mitigation of risks through better forest management.
Don’t believe me? Try to guess which politicians made the following statements: 1) “Our forests need to be actively managed.” 2) “This [I-70 closure] is another important reminder of the role fire mitigation plays in preventing devastation,” a strategy that includes “forest restoration.”
The first remark comes from an op-ed by Representative Lauren Boebert, who is, among Democrats, probably the most-loathed Republican in the state (I’m no fan myself). The second comes from an address by Democratic Governor Jared Polis. Of course the two officials disagree about various details regarding forest management, and they disagree about broader strategies to confront climate change, but they do share substantial common ground.
The necessity of mitigation
Many of the most dire predictions involving climate change rest on the obviously false presumption that people will not make serious efforts to mitigate the damage. So, even though climate change increases the risks of forest fires, good forest management can bring those risks back down. Similarly, to deal with drought, people can adopt new agricultural practices, desalinate ocean water, and so on. Such measures are expensive, but what we need is a reasonable balance of prevention and mitigation.
Even if we somehow stopped all human emissions of greenhouse gases right now, the climate would continue to warm. As Axios summarizes, “The time lag effect of climate change means that actions taken to reduce carbon emissions will only begin to noticeably bend the curve decades from now.”
And of course we cannot and should not instantly stop all human emissions of greenhouse gases. Even the most-ambitious plans involve many years to transition to less-polluting energy. Realistically, we’re looking at decades. A world of energy poverty is vastly more dangerous to human well-being than is the status quo.
The ideal outcome is hyperabundance of cleaner energy, either through nuclear power or widespread use of solar panels plus backup batteries. Although American environmentalists often ignore the possibility of nuclear power, we should bear in mind that France generates around 70% of its electricity this way. Jason Crawford has a good primer on the technology and politics of nuclear energy. As we reach for cleaner energy, and probably long after we achieve it, we’ll need to mitigate the damage of climate change.
Keeping cool in the smoke
Obviously forest management is a matter for the owners of forests, which around here mostly means government. The federal government controls around two-thirds of Colorado’s forests, so it needs to take the lead on forest management.
As individuals, we also have some choices to make. My wife and I have owned our current house for over a decade. Initially we did not do anything to cool the house except open the windows at night. That was miserable at times. A hundred-degree-plus day melting all our chocolate was the last straw. We put an evaporative (swamp) cooler in a window and have been mostly happy with this economical cooling technology.
But evaporative cooling sucks when the skies are white with the smoke of forest fires. (It also sucks when my neighbors light yard fires, but that’s a different story.) After two summers of substantial smoke in the air, we’re looking at alternatives. The most obvious choice is a standard air-conditioning unit attached to a natural-gas-burning furnace. We could also install a super-expensive heat pump that involves pumping fluids into deep holes or a moderately-expensive open-air heat pump, which probably could not by itself heat the house during cold snaps. (If I get a heat pump I’ll use it for heating and cooling.)
Denver is a big fan of heat pumps for cooling. The city (implausibly) predicts that “swamp coolers . . . will no longer suffice as the average temperatures increase” and (realistically) notes that swamp coolers bring “in outdoor pollutants from transportation or, increasingly, the smoke of wildfires.”
The upshot is that, because the government has not been willing or able to control wildfires, I am now seriously thinking about ditching my super-cheap, super-efficient evaporative cooler for a very-expensive alternative that will result in higher carbon-dioxide emissions. If the government will not better-control the quality of the outside air, I will better-control the quality of my indoor air.
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