Climate Change, CA’s Fires and Why It’s Up to Us to Fix Things

Climate Change, CA’s Fires and Why It’s Up to Us to Fix Things (As fires rage on throughout California, one teen wonders how she can help. (Photo by Thomas Ehling on Unsplash))

This story was updated on Aug 25, 2020.

The 2018 Camp Fire in California burned more than 153,000 acres and killed 85 people, making it the deadliest wildfire in state history.

Now, the state is on fire again, with 18 fires being tracked across the state, and several in Northern California more than double the size of the Camp Fire.

Climate change is playing a role in creating larger fires in California and the western U.S. in general, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. California has gotten hotter over the last 100 years. "That extra-warmed air sucks water out of plants and soils, leaving the trees, shrubs, and rolling grasslands of the state dry and primed to burn," Daniel Swain, a climate scientist at UCLA, told National Geographic.

The earth's global temperature is expected to rise by at least 1.5°C by 2030, according to a report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)  A one-degree change has already led to sea levels rising, ice caps melting and harsher weather conditions like hurricanes and wildfires. 

As a teen, adults constantly tell me that it's my generation’s responsibility to solve global warming. That’s a big task with very little guidance. I’m left with a question that has countless answers: Where do I start?

I try my best to walk or take public transportation, turn off the lights before I leave a room, and use reusable bags at the grocery store, but the results are invisible to me. I talked to Bruce Riordan, the program director for the Climate Readiness Institute at UC Berkeley, about how people my age can start to contribute.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length, and was originally conducted in 2018.

Sarah Ng: What were your reactions to the IPCC report?

Bruce Riordan: Well, I thought it was very good because it got a lot of play in the media about the urgency of the situation. It's not that time is running out, they'll always be more time, but we are putting off solutions and postponing strategies that should be implemented and funded.

SN: What kind of impacts from climate change have we seen in the Bay Area?

BR: We're going to see a longer wildfire season. We're going to see more extreme heat. We're going to see therefore more drought...which is a big problem for water supply.

SN: What should we do as a country to keep temperatures from rising?

BR: The impact of climate change is becoming more real to people. And as that happens, we will get more of a movement. We have the science knowledge. We have most of the technologies that we need but we could be much further along in implementing them. And that gets to politics and to economics. If there's a price on carbon and other things are cheaper because they're not carbon-based, we'll see a huge shift. But until we get that, it's going to be slow going.

SN: I took AP Environmental Science and my teacher told the class that we cannot make a significant change by just doing what people are telling us, like using reusable bags or taking shorter showers. Do you agree with this statement?

BR: I think what's helpful about those kinds of strategies is it gets people started and it gets people thinking about energy inefficiencies. By themselves, they are not enough. We need to convert all of our electricity production in the next 15 to 20 years in California to solar and wind and other renewables. That's on a big scale and that's the level of the problem that we're dealing with. So small things again are good, but you're not going to see the impact that we need to make on the size of the issues that we're dealing with.

SG: Why do you think it is important for my generation to be in charge of reducing carbon emissions?

BR: Well, the simplest answer is because our older generations have not done it. We have started some things in various countries and started to make progress, but currently in this country the progress has been slowed tremendously by the Trump administration. I wish it wasn't this way, but you’re going to have to step in as you grow into young adulthood and demand the change from the older people. The impacts are going to be very serious for the next couple of decades. You and your friends and cohorts are going to be living longer than we are and you're going to see very, very severe and serious changes in your world. There are a lot of adults working on this but not enough.

SN: Many of the recommended changes to reduce carbon footprints are large-scale projects like installing solar panels and changing to electric vehicles. As a teen, I feel helpless. Is there any way that I can start reducing my carbon footprint?

BR: Every single thing that we buy has carbon embedded in it, whether it's a phone, computer, chair, or car. Just using fewer things, consuming fewer products, is always going to reduce emissions somewhere. So reducing your own carbon footprint can be something that you can start on no matter what age you are.

SN: And what kind of changes do you want to see people in my generation make in the future? 

BR: Elected officials will pay attention if big numbers of young people speak up and start pushing them. It's happened on other issues, like civil rights decades ago, and on same-sex marriage in recent years. Young people can be a very powerful voice. Kids can be very persuasive with their parents. So push the parents to do things differently and to think about things differently.

This story was originally published on November 19, 2018.

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