Except for a few smaller-scale — yet still important — volunteer cleanup events on beaches, in parks and in communities, much of Earth Day 2021 is again online, with remote meet-ups that attempt to keep the message going regarding the importance of efforts to heal the environment, save threatened and endangered species and slow the march of climate change and its looming catastrophes.
Yet, maybe that helps to make the point that Earth Day can’t be a one-day public event; instead it’s an everyday commitment each can make to reduce adverse impacts on the environment, and practice and support efforts to reduce carbon emissions in our own lives, personally and collectively.
And it’s a message — after four years of inaction, backsliding and a lack of international leadership on these issues at the federal level — that is all the more imperative as time ticks away for our actions to have sufficient chance to limit the worst of consequences that are more than barreling down on us but have in many ways already arrived.
Because of the inertia behind climate change even our best efforts won’t quickly stop warming global temperatures, melting ice caps and glaciers, changes in precipitation, more droughts and heat waves, more crop failures, stronger and more intense hurricanes and other storms and sea level rise.
The Northwest itself, which many might hope to be more protected from the worst consequences of climate change, can expect - according to assessments from the U.S. Global Change Research Program - reduced water supplies from mountain stream-flows, sea level rise for many coastal communities and risks to infrastructure, increasing ocean acidity and its harms to marine life, and increased damage to forestlands from insects and disease that heighten an already growing threat from longer and more intense wildfire seasons on both sides of the Cascades.
While many are sufficiently motivated by images of gaunt polar bears stranded on ice floes, others are more likely to be influenced by the effects they experience in their own lives, especially when weighing what they perceive to be the costs of confronting climate change against their livelihoods, local economies and their taxes.
That accounting may misjudge costs and benefits.
By way of example: Last year, Washington lost some 812,000 acres to wildfires both in Western and Eastern Washington, resulting in more than $150 million spent in fighting those fires, a sum that represents only 9 percent of the season’s total costs, including losses in property, adverse health impacts and lost business. Tragically, one late summer fire in Central Washington claimed the life of a one-year-old boy and left his parents with third-degree burns. And 2020 was second only to the losses suffered in 2015, when Washington wildfires claimed 1.1 million acres.
Nationally, wildfires caused nearly $100 billion in damages to property, businesses and infrastructure, compared to an average of $18 billion annually in the 1980s, according to a climate Q&A in The New York Times.
What Washington state intends on spending over the next two years to address the growing threat from wildfires can illustrate the bargain represented by investments in climate initiatives.
A Guest Editorial