WASHINGTON (CN) – On track for a future of escalating wildfires as climate change continues to dry out the U.S. landscape, House lawmakers wrangled Wednesday about course corrections the government must now take.
“If this administration will not lead the way, this committee will,” said Rep. Deb Haaland, a Democrat recently inducted as chairwoman of the House Natural Resources subcommittee on national parks, forests and public lands.
The congresswoman’s home state of New Mexico is a prime example of climate change’s impact. Public lands are facing unprecedented aridity there,
and in the American Southwest parks are drier and hotter than twice the average rate.
Haaland noted that conditions in these parks may always have been extreme — a factor that tends to accelerate the impact of climate change — but said federal or state officials still have a duty to work on solutions that could mitigate or even stabilize the damage.
She warned that stable conditions are unlikely to return without a concerted pushback against fossil fuels, and that the Trump administration’s push to “achieve energy dominance at all costs” in particular has to go.
From forest ecologist Patrick Gonzalez, the committee heard several examples Wednesday of lands where the writing is on the wall.
“Rocky Mountain has experienced some of the most severe impacts of climate change,” Gonzalez said of the Colorado national park.
A climate scientist at the University of California Berkeley, Gonzalez tied the park’s growing wildfires to higher temperatures. He said bark beetles tend to survive the park’s now mild winters, leaving them to feast on trees in the summer, ultimately killing trees that could have served as carbon sinks.
Gonzalez also described how wildlife has shifted “upslope” in pursuit of cooler climes as snow cover has reduced along the Rockies.
“That shifting may go off the top of the mountains, and some mammals will completely lose their habit and disappear,” Gonzalez said.
Another example described by Gonzalez was Glacier Bay National Park in Alaska, where 640 meters of ice has recently melted off the Muir glacier.
“That’s 2,100 feet higher than 1 World Trade Center,” said Gonzalez, who will serve as a lead author in 2021 when the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change publishes its Sixth Assessment Report.
Gonzalez testified that carbon dioxide is at its highest levels in 800,000 years thanks to cars, power plants and deforestation.
The U.S. cut emissions 8 percent from 2007 to 2015, and the U.S. Climate Alliance helped 19 states cut emissions by 14 percent, putting those states on track to meet Paris Accord emission goals. Gonzalez said America needs to bring such priorities back into focus today.
Another issue the panel tackled Wednesday was the expectation that wildfires, like those that ravaged the west coast last year, will increase. This is problematic not only because wildfires pose an obvious threat to the landscape and public safety, but because they increase carbon emissions.
Lara Hansen, with the nonprofit climate research group EcoAdapt, said there is an economic factor to consider as well.
“The cost of the impacts are already upon us and if unchecked, the impact to our economy is catastrophic,” she said.
Rep. Alan Lowenthal, D-Calif., asked the panel about whether it would help to pause new permits or leases for onshore and offshore drilling. He also suggested placing a fee or tax on fossil-fuel extraction at existing sites in national parks and on public lands to fund programs.
Hansen agreed that such steps would be prudent, “especially when the injury from those actions affects the very place that energy is being extracted from.”
She also noted that government scientists once invested considerable time and resources into outlining policies that would help the U.S. adapt to climate change. Under the Trump administration, however, Hansen said those adaptation committees fell to the wayside.
Most Republicans on the committee agreed on the importance of better forest management, especially in areas prone to wildfire.
But some conservative members accused Democrats of using today’s hearing to publicize the Green New Deal, which calls for net-zero emissions and investment in environmentally friendly infrastructure.
Labeling Wednesday’s hearing as a “publicity stage,” Rep. Jody Hice, R-Ga., said the resolution would “destroy federalism and restrict individual liberties.”
“[The Green New Deal] recalls FDR’s New Deal, which arguably intended to put Americans back to work,” Hice said. “This resolution does just the opposite, new regulations would regulate the manner in which we breathe. This deal calls for a massive mobilization of resources, resources that could be used to pay down $11.6 billion in park service backlog. It’s a rainbow and unicorn fairytale of an idea.”
Rep Joe Neguse, D-Colo, denied the charge.
“This hearing is an opportunity for members of the committee to hear from world-renowned scientists and experts in their respective fields,” he said. “This is hardly a publicity stunt, or stage as you put it. In fact, this is an important hearing on the defining issue of our time – the planetary crisis we find ourselves in.”
Rep. Joe Neguse asked Gonzalez to explain what would happen if the United States failed to take adaptation policies seriously or failed to develop preventative maintenance for forests prone to wildfire.
“If we don’t reduce carbon emissions from human activity, wildfire could substantially increase in places like Yellowstone, for example, from 300 to 1,000 percent,” Gonzalez said.