Who is the Arsonist Behind the California Wildfires?

firefighters in a wildfire

california wildfires break records this season

California wildfires are severe this season.  Around 70,000 people were ordered to evacuate Orange County to escape the Silverado Wildfire, which has burned over 2,000 acres. Over 22 square miles have burned from the Blue Ridge Fire near the Santa Ana Mountains.

More than 8,200 wildfires have broken out and charred 4 million+ acres this wildfire season.  Those figures double the previous record. 

are you the arsonist?

man lights campfire with matches

I’m sure you didn’t intentionally ignite a wildfire in California. You probably didn’t leave a campfire burning or drop a cigarette in the brush.  So you’re not responsible. Right?

But I’d argue that we’re all responsible. 

We may not suffer the consequences the way 70,000 Californians have this week, or the 2 firefighters recovering from second- and third-degree burns.  But, in some small way, we are connected to these fires and their causes.

And that’s because our habits contribute to climate change.

And since climate change is at least partially to blame for this extreme wildfire season, we should look at how we contribute to climate change in our daily lives, and what we can do differently.

california wildfires in a changing climate

Climate change is the effect of a warming planet.  As our planet warms, certain areas experience high temperatures.  This hotter weather evaporates moisture from the ground, soil, and organic matter in forests and across plains.  Vegetation becomes more flammable, and human activities (dropping a lit cigarette or having a campfire) can spark a wildfire in an instant.  In the right conditions, this small spark can burn acres upon acres, jumping from fallen trees to dry vegetation, easily spread by breezes and strong winds. And climate change is creating the right conditions more frequently.

Wildfire seasons may last longer and experience more fires as the climate changes.  Extremes in heat, soil dryness, and dry forest fire fuel are all attributed to a changing climate.

contributing to climate change

So, how are we to blame for the fires in California?

What daily habits do we have that, when accumulated with the 7 billion+ people in this world, play a role in changing the climate of an otherwise stable planet?

Driving: Today’s vehicles, with the exception of the electric ones, run on gasoline.  Gasoline is a petroleum product.  Petroleum is a fossil fuel.  Fossil fuels are carbon-based.  When fossil fuels burn, they release that carbon back into the atmosphere. 

Carbon dioxide (CO2) naturally occurs in our atmosphere. In fact, it’s a key element of keeping our earth’s climate stable.  It traps enough heat to maintain a steady temperature, helping maintain life as we know it.  But we are adding CO2 to the atmosphere when we drive.  And it’s still doing its job- trapping heat.  But now, we have more molecules of CO2 doing that job.  So, we are trapping more heat.  And, yep, that means our average global temperature is rising.

According to The New York Times, driving 10% less than we do now would remove from the atmosphere “roughly 110 million metric tons of carbon dioxide, or the same as taking about 28 coal-fired power plants offline for a year.” They go on to say that simply combining errands, walking or biking for short trips, and taking public transport could easily reduce your carbon footprint. 

Buying:  Fossil fuels aren’t just used in consumer vehicles stuck in traffic jams across developed countries.  They are a key energy provider for extraction, manufacture, and shipping of goods.  When was the last time you received a box from Amazon?  Went shopping for a little retail therapy?  Bought something you really didn’t need?  Then, you’ve contributed to the fossil fuel-based economy that is polluting air, water, and soil, and kicking out more carbon dioxide into our atmosphere.

One way to reduce your contribution to climate change is to buy secondhand where possible.  Clothing is a perfect example, as the fast fashion industry contributes to environmental degradation, social injustices, and loads of carbon emissions.  Just extending the life of a garment by 3 months can reduce carbon footprints by 5-10%.

The other option, which is better for your wallet, is to just say no.  Don’t buy things you don’t need.  Or don’t really, really want.  We impulse buy for instant gratification.  Just don’t.  It takes some practice.  But your wallet, and California, will thank you.

Eating:  Sorry to tell you this, but last night’s dinner may have contributed to climate change.  Our global food system not only relies heavily on the fossil fuel industry to ship produce and meats across thousands of miles, but it releases its own greenhouse gas.  Nitrous oxide, N2O, is seldom discussed, singing backup to the lead greenhouse gas, CO2.  But N2O is a hugely impactful greenhouse gas.  The agricultural sector’s use of fertilizers laden with N2O is releasing N2O into our atmosphere more rapidly than predicted.  This unexpected rise in emissions threatens to exceed even the most extreme of our climate models if we don’t address the issue ASAP.

Eating Beef: On top of that, eating beef also contributes to climate change.  Cows release methane, another greenhouse gas, potent, but with a shorter lifespan.  But even more consequential is deforestation associated with cattle farms. According to the Rainforest Partnership, around 80% of the deforestation in the Amazon is due to cattle ranching. (They point out that this doesn’t include cleared acreage used to grow our food’s food.  It is only the grazing acreage for ranching.)

Forests sequester carbon.  By cutting down forests and clearing land to make room for herds of cattle, we release carbon into the atmosphere.  And we remove a carbon sink, a natural means to soak up excess carbon.  So, deforestation is doubly harmful.

So, what can you do? You can either quit beef entirely – which to some feels extreme – or you can eat half the amount when you do eat beef.  Another option is to skip the beef and replace it with a lower carbon footprint meat, like chicken.  Or reduce the frequency of meat-based meals.  Start depending on vegetables to be the star of the plate, with meat just playing a supporting role.  There are plenty of ways to reduce your beef intake without flipping your dietary world upside down.

the consequences of living

There’s no free lunch- everything we do has consequences.  But when billions of people ignore the consequences, and those consequences are a changing climate, more wildfires, droughts, severe weather, sea level rise, mass species extinction, hurricanes, and an unlivable planet, we all need to consider what role we play.

Thanks for taking the time to think about your behavior and owning your part in our future.  I hope you and yours are safe, healthy, and enjoying progressing on your sustainable journey.

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