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The West is living in climate hell. But there is still hope
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The West is living in climate hell. But there is still hope


You need to see the horrors of the climate crisis 2021. General Sherman, the world’s largest tree, wrapped in fire-resistant foilTo protect the legendary giant sequoia against flames that could cause destruction in the Sierra Nevada.

California’s so-called Ancient Ones evolved with fire. It’s crucial to their reproductive cycle. But they aren’t prepared for blazes like those of the last year, which are burning hotter and more intensely as Earth warms, mostly because of the combustion of fossil fuels. Last year, flames killed roughly 10% of the world’s giant sequoias.

The General Sherman tree's base is wrapped in protective foil.

To protect the General Sherman tree from the KNP Complex fire, it is wrapped in fire-resistant foil.

(National Park Service).

General Sherman, wrapped in foil, was seen this fall as a cry for help. It was also a sign of the American West’s new dangerous era of intense heat waves, ever-brutaler droughts, and a growing threat from violent extremism on public lands.

There’s still hope for the future. Experts warn that it will be difficult to manage the country alone in a region known for its rugged individualism. It will be necessary to work together with states, tribes, large cities, rural towns, liberals, and conservatives.

“I am just hopeful that people will recognize that they will live a lot longer if they work together and collaborate,” said Sally JewellThe Interior Department was headed by President Obama. He oversaw the management and administration of hundreds of million acres of Western lands. “Climate change has the potential to bring people together around a shared concern.”

Though climate continued to polarize Washington, D.C. — see the near total lack of Republican support for the clean energy investments proposed by President Biden — there were at least some encouraging signs west of the 100th meridian.

Consider the Colorado River and its tributaries. Their waters quench the thirst for tens of thousands of people and irrigate millions upon millions of acres of farmland, from Wyoming to Mexico.

The region has been prone to flooding and drought for centuries. But global warming is accelerating the cycle, leading to an overall drying trend scientists call aridification. Nearly 95% of the American West was affected by drought conditions as summer turned into fall. The “bathtub ring” at Lake Mead outside Las Vegas kept growing, showing how much water had vanished from the nation’s largest reservoir.

The so-called bathtub ring is evident on Lake Mead's mountainous shore

A boat navigates Lake Mead on June 11, where a white “bathtub ring” along the shore shows how far the level of the nation’s largest reservoir has fallen during the drought.

(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

Federal officials declared the August election. first-ever water shortage on the ColoradoThis led to cuts in Arizona, Nevada, and Mexico.

The shortage declaration, while scary-sounding, was the result of a landmark pact in which Southwestern states agreed to forgo some of the water to which they’d otherwise be entitled, in an effort to keep Lake Mead from falling even farther and prompting a true emergency.

California will also accept cuts if the situation gets worse. John Fleck from the University of New Mexico is a water resource professor. He described the agreement as a model of future cooperation as Colorado shrinks.

“The river’s future is not all dark,” Fleck and Eric Kuhn wrote. “Innovation, cooperation and an expanded reliance on science are now the foundation for basin-wide solutions.”

As the Biden administration noted, there were also signs of long-overdue actions on the wildfire side. raised pay for federal firefighters worked with California to reduce fire risk by thinning overgrown forests — a stark change in approach from President Trump, who bluntly blamed the Golden State for not “raking” its forests. California Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a $15-billion climate packageThis included money to combat fires, droughts and extreme heat.

Raluca Savu rolls luggage down a road

Raluca Savu (who works at Cedar Inn) evacuates as the Caldor Fire approached Lake Tahoe in august.

(Wally Skalij/ Los Angeles Times).

Officials also increasingly agreed on the need to set intentional, low-intensity fires — known as “prescribed burns” — of the type that helped protect Lake Tahoe this summer.

These solutions might pay off over decades and years, but the fires just keep getting worse.

California has more than 3 million acres went up in smoke by the end of November — fewer than the record 4.2 million that burned in 2020 but still the second-most in modern times. Three people died, and more than 3,600 buildings were damaged or destroyed.

The smoke from those conflagrations spread widely, making it dangerous for people to inhale the toxic air. Scientists have linked increased smoke exposure to greater susceptibility to COVID-19.

Record temperatures exacerbated the danger, drying out landscapes making it more difficult to put out fires. California, Idaho, Nevada and Oregon all had to endure theirs hottest summers on recordThe nation as a unit tied the Dust Bowl for being the hottest summer in modern-day history.

In the Pacific Northwest, a heat wave killed hundreds of people, whose bodies failed them as they roasted in their homes, or on the streets — a dark reminder that heat waves are deadlier than hurricanes and firesThese are becoming more dangerous.

After a village in British Columbia broke Canada’s all-time heat record, hitting 121 degrees, climate scientist Andrew Weaver said the province felt more like Death Valley.

“I’ve been in a lot of hot places in the world, and this was the worst I’ve ever been in,” he said.

The electric grid was affected by heat, fire, and drought. An interstate power line was destroyed by a fire in Oregon. nearly forced much of California into rolling blackouts. Pacific Gas & Electric and other utility companies sometimes shut off the power intentionally to prevent their infrastructure from igniting fires like the PG&E-sparked blaze that destroyed much of the town of Paradise and killed 85 people in 2018. Hot weather caused utility customers to lose power as late as Thanksgiving.

Declining reservoirs, meanwhile, produced less hydroelectricityUtility companies were forced to burn more natural gas as one of the fossil fuels that are heating the planet.

Federal officials warned that by 2023, there’s a 1 in 3 chance that Lake Powell on the Arizona-Utah border will fall so low that Glen Canyon Dam, one of the region’s largest producers of cheap, zero-emission power, won’t be able to generate electricity at all.

California kept trying to prove that it’s possible to wean society off fossil fuels, although success is far from guaranteed. The state’s 100% clean-energy mandateA 2045 deadline is required to avoid the worst effects of climate change. This deadline is ten years later than scientists believe. Activists say that the state should continue to isn’t moving fast enoughTo build solar and renewable farms, to finance the purchase of electric cars, and to reduce oil production.

LADWP's Pine Tree Wind Farm and Solar Power Plant in the Tehachapi Mountains.

The L.A. Department of Water and Power’s Pine Tree Wind Farm and Solar Power Plant in the Tehachapi Mountains in Kern County.

(Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

Even Jared Blumenfeld, who was appointed by Newsom to lead California’s Environmental Protection Agency, acknowledged the state needed to do more, faster.

“Everyone is realizing the front lines of the battle are a hell of a lot closer than we ever imagined. And the threat from the enemy is real and present,” he said.

Though some Western states at least tried to follow California’s lead on climate — Colorado, Oregon and Washington in particular — others followed a different playbook.

Arizona regulators backtrackedOn a plan to use 100% clean energy, only to backtrack again and offer a preliminary sign-off — but with a deadline of 2070, decades beyond what global climate commitments will require. New Mexico’s Democratic governor, Michelle Lujan Grisham, talked a big game on climate but also criticizedPresident Biden for his efforts to limit oil-and-gas production. Wyoming lawmakers continued to work for years on a long-term effort to limit oil and natural gas production. protect the state’s coal, oil and gas companiesEconomic headwinds

The Utah Governor was next. Spencer Cox responded to the worsening drought by declaring that there was a need for “divine intervention”Asking Utahns to pray that rain will fall.

This worldview led some elected officials dismissing the urgency of the climate crisis. However, it also fueled a burgeoning movement to protest pandemic-era vaccine orders, to demonize public health officers, and to seize control over hundreds of millions of acres public lands from federal government.

Many rural Westerners wanted to raise cattle, drive ATVs, and do other things on the American public’s land, which was unaffected by environmental regulations. This is not a new phenomenon. COVID-19 brought about new volatility. Prominent “sagebrush rebels” such as Ammon Bundy — who led the armed occupation of Oregon’s Malheur National Wildlife Refuge and whose father, Cliven, sparked an armed standoff with federal officials at Bunkerville, Nev. — used public anger over pandemic restrictionsto increase their following.

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Some experts believe that the antigovernment, white nationalist-tinged ideology propagated by Western militias also spread to the nation.

The day following the Jan. 6 insurrection in Washington, D.C., Richard Spotts, a former Bureau of Land Management staffer in Utah, wrote to High Country News that “there is a clear link with the Bunkerville showdown and Malheur Refuge occupation and what happened yesterday at our nation’s Capitol.”

Even without the threat armed standoffs were possible, precious Western landscapes were still subject to many challenges from global climate change, human visitation, and energy development.

The rising demand for large-scale solar and wind farms has created new pressure on public lands. This forced the Biden administration into action. balance the needs of conservation and climate action. Yellowstone was visited by 1 million people in July. This is a month later. fire-related forest closuresCalifornians were forced to leave their Sierra Nevada home.

A firefighter monitors a blaze in the Sequoia National Forest

Gustavo Cisneros is a member of the Sierra Cobras fire team and watches as the Windy fire moves through Sequoia National Forest, Sept. 16.

(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

Rising temperatures threaten iconic species, according to a federal judge ordering the Biden administrationIt should reconsider its decision not protecting Joshua trees under the Endangered Species Act.

Coastlines weren’t spared, either: The Pacific Ocean kept risingThis is accelerating the reality of disappearing beaches and dangerously eroding coastlines. saltwater intruding on precious groundwater supplies. Nobody wanted to confront the possibility of “managed retreat,” but some communities finally felt they had no choice. Overfishing and other pollution have already caused severe damage to ocean ecosystems.

A massive oil spill off the coast of Huntington Beach in October hammered home the reality that fossil fuels don’t just drive the climate crisis, but also pollute California’s water, air and soil, taking a toll on natural ecosystems and human health.

“With or without climate change, the benefits of getting rid of fossil fuels outweigh the costs,” said Drew Shindell, a climate scientist at Duke University.

Environmental activists rallied around the idea of “30 by 30,” a campaign to protect 30% of America’s lands and waters by 2030. The goal of the campaign is to conserve habitat, promote biodiversity and preserve landscapes that keep carbon in ground. Biden supported the concept.

“Protecting 30 by 30 is not something the U.S. government can do on its own,” Jennifer Rokala, executive director of the Center for Western Priorities, said after the Biden administration announced its “America the Beautiful” initiative. “It will take from-the-ground-up efforts in every state, using many different forms of conservation, to get there.”

Collaboration is key. This was evident in the last year. We will see if Westerners can unite to reduce emissions and prepare for the inevitable disasters.

A news crew is seen next to a giant sequoia in a smoky forest

A news crew is dwarfed in the smoke-shrouded Lost Grove of Sequoia National park by a giant, sequoia during the KNP Complex fire on September 17.

(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

In one positive development, firefighters managed to protect General Sherman and other iconic sequoias from this fall’s fires.

But there were still thousands of these giants killed by flames. And the climate emergency is only beginning. 2021 is likely to be one of the coolest and most memorable years in this young century. There’s still plenty of time for the rest of the Ancient Ones to meet their match.

This report was contributed by Tony Barboza, Anita Chabria and Ian James, Times reporters, Hayley Smith, Alex Wigglesworth, Rosanna Xia, and Anna M. Phillips, Times reporters.


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