After the Fire

Climate-change science shifts into damage-control gear


Since the Mount Charleston fire burned itself out in late July, a few commentaries have noted that, in some ways, it was a best-case scenario. Although it torched 28,000 acres of natural habitat, it took few human structures and no human life. Residents of Nevada should get used to such silver-lining thinking, because this won’t be the last time we see our forest go up in flames.

Climate change is setting the stage for more extreme weather events, such as the Mount Charleston fire, prompting climate scientists and policy-makers to move beyond simply convincing people that climate change is factual and focus on damage control. Among the experts speaking at the yearly National Clean Energy Summit on August 13 at Mandalay Bay will be a panel addressing the topic of resilience in the face of extreme weather. They’ll set out to connect the dots between investment in clean energy and the growing incidence of severe hurricanes, floods, tsunamis, wildfires and the like.

Daniel J. Weiss, who directs climate strategy at the Center for American Progress, says it lays out like this: Power plants are among the two biggest carbon polluters, along with motor vehicles; carbon in the atmosphere contributes to climate change, heating the planet; recent research links climate change to extreme weather events. Therefore, we must reduce the carbon that power plants produce in order to slow down climate change and the extreme weather related to it.

Unfortunately, the extreme weather train has already left the station. “While we’re reducing the carbon responsible for climate change, we’ll continue to see change in climate,” Weiss says. “So we need to prepare communities to withstand these extreme weather events.”
Of course, natural disasters happen without climate change; lightning strikes caused the Mount Charleston wildfire, for instance. What climate change does, however, is put these natural events on steroids. In our case, drought adds fuel to wildfires, causing them to burn more ferociously.

If humans slowed the cause-effect chain of climate change, it would take the steroids away from the storms. In the meantime, however, we have to prepare for them to continue. Citing data from various U.S. government departments and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Weiss notes that the feds spend six times as much on disaster relief for extreme weather events related to climate change as on preparedness. At the same time, every dollar invested in preparedness saves $4 on future damages. What does this preparedness look like? Often, it has to do with infrastructure. Take wildfires: Planners could incorporate buffer zones between burn areas and the built environment.

Pat Mulroy, general manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority, says extreme weather is the problem that keeps her up at night. SNWA was one of the founding members of a climate alliance among water utilities formed in 2007, and Mulroy says the authority—one of the largest power consumers in the state—has been working to reduce its carbon footprint by implementing more energy-efficient operations and installing solar panels at pumping stations. At the same time, she says, Southern Nevada has made impressive strides in water conservation.

But that won’t stop the slow-moving disaster of drought that’s sapping our water sources, she says. “The Colorado River system, which is where 90 percent of our water comes from, has been devastated by drought, and it’s not abating; it’s getting worse,” she says. “I think we’re headed into two very ugly years.”

SNWA began talking about adaptation to climate change 13 years ago, Mulroy says. When many other utilities were ramping up efforts to reduce their carbon footprint and mitigate impacts, SNWA was focusing on the damage already done. The third intake at Lake Mead is one example of planning for contingencies that once seemed extreme and now seem inevitable. Cities, Mulroy says, are operating on a 19th- and 20th-century infrastructure that wasn’t built for the current environment. Everyone will have to change the way they deliver, consume and manage resources; just look at the impact of Hurricane Sandy on New York and New Jersey. As millions of residents floundered without power—some for weeks on end—utility executives talked of smart meters, redundancy and other upgrades that would prepare the area for similar future disasters. These improvements are costly, cumbersome and a tough sell, because they entail disruptions to current systems and cost increases to rate/taxpayers.

“Sometimes you feel like Sisyphus,” Mulroy says. “It just keeps getting worse as you put measures into place. And you can’t build these projects overnight.”

But consider how Sisyphus’ task would have gone if an entire city of 2 million lined up behind him to help push that boulder. That’s what would happen if every citizen of Southern Nevada did his part to reduce the carbon that’s leading us to disaster.


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