Climate change is the most pressing challenge of our time, yet meaningful action to address this global threat seems increasingly elusive. What’s standing in the way? There are numerous individuals, organizations, and corporations that actively work to obstruct attempts to cut our carbon emissions, advance clean energy, and prepare communities for the devastating impacts of climate change. Here is a list of just a few of these thwarters who stood out in 2013.
Currently the city of Los Angeles gets about one-fifth of its electricity from renewable resources. By the end of the decade this will increase to one-third. As the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP), the largest municipal utility in the United States with over 4 million customers, slowly phases out coal and some natural gas, solar parks in the deserts to the east are filling the void.
Utility-scale solar offers the cheapest and most practical form of clean energy for Los Angeles. But the forecast is not all sunny. As these solar parks come into view, so does the range of associated concerns. On the Mojave National Preserve, Oakland-based BrightSource Energy Inc.’s Ivanhoe Solar Complex has made ongoing and exceedingly costly efforts to accommodate the fragile desert tortoise population. Earlier this year, the Genesis Solar Energy Project in Riverside County, Calif., was held up when Native American burial remains were found on multiple occasions during construction, indicating the presence of sacred burial grounds.
Donna Charpied, a 57-year-old farmer who’s lived in Desert Center, Calif. (an aptly named town of 200 an hour east of Palm Springs on the I-10), for 30 years, has a number of issues with her new -- and only -- neighbor. “My heart aches every time I look out my window and see the construction over there,” says Charpied, gazing out from her recently renovated trailer towards the barren Coxcomb Mountains that define the eastern portion of Joshua Tree National Park in Southeastern California. “It’s just unbelievable, the destruction.”
I meet Tom Swetnam, director of the laboratory of tree-ring research at the University of Arizona in Tucson, on a Sunday morning because he’s leaving for Siberia in a few days and is otherwise totally booked. As part of the paleofire team that will be traveling to the “Alaska of Siberia, if you will” to study fire and climate, Swetnam will spend a few weeks immersed in the burn history -- and possible future -- of some of the largest forests on Earth.
“We’re trying to understand fire, climate change, and carbon emissions out of Siberia because of the huge carbon pool contained there in the soil, permafrost, bogs, and forests,” says Swetnam, a sturdy middle-aged man with an outdoorsy white beard. “This giant pool of carbon is beginning to burn in a massive way -- the amount of area burning in Siberia is startling.”
Here in the Southwest, the same could be said. Already this year fires have scorched unprecedented swaths of New Mexico and Colorado, and although Arizona is yet to feel anything approaching last year’s record-breaking blazes, the hiatus offers little more than a breath of fresh air. Of course Swetnam knows all this and much more. As an expert in dendrochronology, or tree-ring dating, he’s been determining historical drought, climate and fire patterns as revealed by forests across the Southwest and beyond for upwards of 30 years. Dendrochronology, said to be the only science native to the Southwest, originally gained widespread attention in the early 20th century as a way to date ruins from lost cultures in the region, such as those found at Chaco Canyon and Mesa Verde.
Swetnam runs through the fire history of the West like it’s his usual Sunday sermon. Dry years have traditionally led directly into large burn years. Fire patterns tend to correlate with precipitation patterns in the region such as those associated with El Nino and La Nina. Climate change is likely intensifying weather extremes and causing hotter and drier weather, both exacerbating fire danger.
Then he gets into the less established theories.
“It’s not just the drying and not just high temperatures that are increasing burns, but the extraordinary wind events happening as well,” says Swetnam. “It’s possible that this is associated with weather pattern changes. Kind of like massive cold fronts, with lightning.”