Joe Biden ended his tour of neighborhoods devastated by Colorado’s most destructive blaze by emphasizing the link between America’s escalating wildfires and the global climate crisis, saying that the US can “no longer ignore the reality” of weather conditions that have “supercharged” blazes.
Biden’s trip to Boulder county on Friday marked his sixth climate disaster tour since taking office a year ago, underscoring the growing threat of global heating in the US and the need for radical action to cut greenhouse gas emissions.
Last week’s prairie grass fire destroyed almost 1,100 homes and some businesses after hurricane-force winds drove flames through two densely populated Denver suburbs, forcing 35,000 people to flee.
The cumulative effect of unusually wet conditions last spring followed by extremely dry and warm conditions through December – weather patterns linked to global heating – enabled the rare winter fire to scorch over 6,000 acres, engulfing residential neighborhoods and commercial districts alike.
After meeting some of the affected families, Biden praised the courage of survivors and said: “We can’t ignore the reality that these fires are being supercharged. They’re being supercharged by changing weather.”
Biden pledged not to abandon families as they try to rebuild, saying “we’re here with you and we’re not going away”.
The Colorado disaster capped a catastrophic year for the US in which at least 650 people died from climate disasters including heatwaves, hurricanes, fires and floods. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the estimated economic cost of the destruction had topped $100bn even before the Colorado blaze.
A 69-year-old construction worker, Robert Sharpe, has been confirmed dead, while another person remains unaccounted for. The cause of the fire remains under investigation.
Biden’s latest disaster tour underlines the stakes of his teetering Build Back Better (BBB) legislation, which earmarks $550bn to tackle the largest sources of global heating gases – energy and transportation. The bill’s passage has been impeded by the fossil-fuel friendly senator Joe Manchin, who angered his Democratic colleagues by opposing the historic social spending package that includes major investments in forest restoration, wildfire resiliency, and mitigation as part of what would be the country’s largest ever climate crisis investment.
Experts say that without the bill it will be impossible to meet the administration’s target of reducing greenhouse gas emissions to at least 50% below 2005 levels by 2030.
Globally, the US is the second-largest emitter of greenhouse gases, after China, and scientists warn that even halving emissions by 2030 may not be enough to avoid a catastrophic rise in atmospheric and oceanic temperatures, which elevate the risk of wildfires, intensify drought and rainstorms, and exacerbate flooding.
“In the last few months we’ve seen vivid examples of the extraordinary costs the country is shouldering because of climate change, and the problem is worsening day by day,” said Vijay Limaye, a climate and health scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) Science Center. “The tremendous benefits of the adaptation and mitigation measures in BBB would far outweigh the costs.”
As the Biden administration battles to rescue the legislation and get it through the Senate, there are growing calls to accelerate reforms needed to modernize government agencies so that they are equipped for climate disasters and extreme weather events. Manchin’s vote is crucial as the bill is opposed by Republicans.
On Friday, the Colorado Democratic congressman Joe Neguse, co-chair of the bipartisan Wildfire Caucus, unveiled a new bill to help prevent future wildfires, fund state-of-the-art firefighting equipment and programs, and support recovery efforts for communities and forests affected by fires across the west.
“As we endure increasingly worse wildfire seasons, it is critical for the federal government to lend a hand in stopping fires before they start, fighting them if they spread, and helping our communities fully recover after they’ve been contained … We cannot expect our communities to bear the burden of these disasters on their own,” said Neguse.
The Western Wildfire Support Act, co-sponsored by Senator Catherine Cortez Masto of Nevada, would direct the departments of the interior and agriculture to create fire prevention, management and recovery plans for federal land across the western US. It would also provide $100m in funding to help communities impacted by wildfires conduct long-term rehabilitation projects.
Neguse, whose district includes Boulder county, launched the Wildfire Caucus after the unprecedented 2020 season, when more than a thousand fires destroyed 665,454 acres of land in Colorado. Last year, more than 8,600 fires were recorded in California – a historic high that caused over 2.5m acres to burn.
Exposure to wildfire smoke can cause serious health problems such as asthma attacks and pneumonia, can worsen chronic heart and lung diseases and can increase the risk of lower birth weights if pregnant women are exposed. Yet while damage to property is well tracked, there are no national statistics on hospital admissions or other health impacts of wildfires – or any climate disasters.
“Climate-related health tracking is in very poor shape nationally. We barely have a handle on the physical health implications, never mind the impact on mental health,” said Limaye.
Yet the scale of the health and social costs are likely to be substantial given that in 2021 alone, more than four in 10 Americans lived in a county struck by climate disaster, according to an analysis by the Washington Post.
The Post’s analysis found that about 15% of Americans live in counties where fire disasters were declared in 2021, and the conditions necessary for fire – high temperatures, low rainfall, and high winds – last on average more than a month longer than they did four decades ago. If the planet continues to heat up, research suggests that by mid-century the fire season could lengthen by another 23 days.
As BBB stalls and the drilling of fossil fuel continues apace, it’s a race against time to ensure government agencies, regulations and standards are fit for purpose as drought, flooding and other extreme weather events will almost certainly continue to escalate.
Biden has reinstated some climate-smart standards rescinded by Trump, such as requiring all federally funded projects to take into account the long-term risk of flooding and sea level rise, but most building and land use standards remain woefully outdated, according to the NRDC analyst Rob Moore.
Learning from past mistakes is also key.
A group of lawmakers from states bearing the brunt of extreme weather events (Hawaii, Louisiana and California) support creating a National Disaster Safety Board (NDSB), modelled on the body that investigates aviation accidents, to help identify and correct the factors that contributed to a hazard, such as a storm or wildfire, becoming a full-blown climate disaster.
Moore said: “The board would be a tremendous addition to coping with climate disasters nationally and accelerate climate adaptation efforts. Extreme weather events are no longer an act of God, they are systemic and endemic problems which we need to plan for.”