How Will West Coast Wildfires Impact the U.S. Economy?
By Timothy Rooks
The many wildfires roaring through America's West Coast don't just look scary, they are bad for people's health, bad for public and private lands, and bad for the economy.
The plumes of smoke have pushed air quality to hazardous levels forcing residents to stay indoors. Now some of the dirtiest air on Earth is wafting along the Pacific Ocean from Los Angeles up to the Canadian border. Millions of people are at the mercy of merciless flames.
So far, well over 5 million acres have burned across California, Oregon, Washington State and neighboring Idaho. Many of the fires are still not under control and tens of thousands of people have been forced to leave their homes and at least 27 people have died. Many of the survivors have nothing to come back to.
In August, California was pummeled by an incredible heat wave. Temperatures in Death Valley reached 130 degrees Fahrenheit, "possibly the hottest temperature ever measured on Earth," according to the New York Times.
Not surprisingly, up until now most of the talk has been about climate change and how the fires may impact the U.S. presidential election. On September 14, Joe Biden called Donald Trump a "climate arsonist." Ominously one day later, smoke from some of the fires was actually visible above Washington, D.C.
When the smoke finally clears, the economic impact of so much destruction will be at the top of many people's list.
Counting Up the Losses
The costs around wildfires are multifold. Besides the irreplaceable loss of life and the enormous costs to put out the fires, there are many tangible elements like the damage to vehicles, homes and other buildings. These costs can be roughly calculated by looking at insurance claims.
Over the years, all of the top 10 costliest wildland fires in the country have been in California. The costliest of all was Camp Fire in 2018, which set insurers back over $8.5 billion, according to numbers tallied by the Insurance Information Institute.
But the Camp Fire was just one fire. Reinsurer Munich Re estimates the costs for all the wildfires that year to be over $20 billion. So far this year's fires should bring in a similar calculation.
Currently in California alone, thousands of structures have been damaged or destroyed. The state is known for building on steep slopes in rural areas surrounded by forests that are hard to access. And since the fires are still burning with no end in sight, it is impossible to tell how many will be damaged in the end and what the final costs will be. Add to that the fact that not everything is insured, and many things are underinsured and the actual costs get a little fuzzy.
Counting the Tourists
It is important to remember that these numbers just include personal property. Damage done to public lands like parks is not added in. What is a single tree worth or a beautiful forest view in a state park anyhow?
What can be calculated though is how many tourists stay away based on past visitor numbers. The West Coast is world-famous for its natural wonders, wine country and lively cities, so there is no worse publicity than burning trees and a sky filled with smoke to keep tourists away.
These frightening images have gone around the world and made a deep impression. A bad reputation is hard to get rid of. The travel industry was already suffering because of COVID-19 restrictions, now a recovery on the West Coast will be even harder.
Fear and Loathing in LA and Beyond
Other elements more difficult to tally are the costs of things that didn't happen like canceled flights, trains stopped in their tracks, workers on sick leave with respiratory problems, long-term health issues and other lost economic activity, either because a shop or warehouse burned down or there is no one left there to buy the goods.
Personal safety is also something to consider. Though U.S. housing sales are on a high, after so many natural disasters California may soon been seen as too dangerous a place to live or do business. In the end people may leave the coast for other, safer places.
Rebuilding is a lot of work and some may not be up to the challenge and may never come back as happened in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Higher insurance premiums for risky areas could help with these decisions.
In many ways these wildfires could not have come at a worse time. Besides scorched land, the coastal states will have less money to spend since their economies have been hit by coronavirus-related downturns. California in particular is dependent on global trade and needs huge sums of cash to run the state, invest in more costly firefighting and beat COVID-19.
Not Out of the Woods
The wildfires in California have gained a lot of attention because of the apocalyptic sky around San Francisco. Yet 2015 was the worst year for wildfires, according to numbers gathered on annual wildland fires in the U.S. by the National Interagency Coordination Center. That year there were over 68,000 fires that destroyed over 10 million acres in the U.S. In a close second place is 2017. Looking at the decades of collected data, the general trend is pointing toward ever more fires.
So far this year, the fires have not reached the level of 2015. Still experts point out that current higher temperatures, droughts and shorter winters all add to the possibility of more fires. A report issued by the National Interagency Fire Center on September 15 outlined the problem.
"Generally, most areas across the West received less than 25% of average precipitation in August. The precipitation received was mostly associated with thunderstorms and provided little benefit," according to the report. Not only that, temperatures were generally 2-4 degrees Fahrenheit above normal.
This all means that the traditional fire season is longer than in the past. Frighteningly, in California it has now been extended to cover all 12 months. For years there has not been a month without a wildfire. These extra firefighting missions cost a lot in terms of manpower and equipment and take time away from fire prevention.
California Has Huge Economic Impact
California has the highest economic output of any American state, accounting for around 14% of the entire country's tab. Add in Oregon, Washington State and Idaho and the region accounts 19% of U.S. output. With increasing temperatures, climate change and less cash to invest because of the current downturn, the area needs to prepare for more uncontrollable fires.
Residents and businesses there will need to put fear aside and get used to higher insurance premiums and stricter building codes, or move to less turbulent places. The hot glow of embers may permanently reshape the dynamic West Coast and turn it an unwelcoming place — that would be an economic tragedy and make these wildfires truly costly.
Reposted with permission from Deutsche Welle.
By Richard B. Primack
Weather patterns across the U.S. have felt like a roller coaster ride for the past several months. December and January were significantly warmer than average in many locations, followed by February's intense cold wave and a dramatic warmup.
The leaves on this cherry tree have suffered damage from a late frost. Richard Primack, CC BY-ND
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EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
By Jeff Masters
The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) gave America's infrastructure a C- grade in its quadrennial assessment issued March 3. ASCE gave the nation's flood control infrastructure – dams and levees – a D grade. This is a highly concerning assessment, given that climate change is increasingly stressing dams and levees as increased evaporation from the oceans drives heavier precipitation events.
Figure 1. Debris fills the Feather River from the damaged spillway of California's Oroville Dam, the nation's tallest dam, after its near-collapse in February 2017. The Oroville incident forced the evacuation of nearly 190,000 people and cost $1.1 billion in repairs. California Department of Water Resources
Figure 2. The L-550 levee on the Missouri River overtopping during the spring 2011 floods. USACE
By Jacob Carter
On Wednesday, the Department of the Interior (DOI) announced that it will be rescinding secretarial order 3369, which sidelined scientific research and its use in the agency's decisions. Put in place by the previous administration, the secretarial order restricted decisionmakers at the DOI from using scientific studies that did not make all data publicly available.
Science Rising at Interior<p>The rescinded secretarial order is not the only notable victory we have seen from the DOI recently. The Biden administration has moved swiftly to <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2021/03/02/climate/biden-interior-department-haaland.html" target="_blank">restore consideration of climate change</a> in its decisions, <a href="https://www.nationalgeographic.com/environment/article/biden-expected-to-reverse-trump-order-to-shrink-utah-national-monuments" target="_blank">reverse assaults on our public lands</a>, and <a href="https://www.audubon.org/news/biden-halts-trump-rule-gutted-landmark-bird-protection-law" target="_blank">taken actions to protect our nation's wildlife</a>. These decisions, unlike many made at the DOI over the past four years, have been informed by science—and President Biden's pick to lead the DOI, Representative Deb Haaland of New Mexico, has <a href="https://www.cnn.com/2021/02/22/politics/haaland-confirmation-remarks/index.html" target="_blank">promised in her confirmation hearing</a> to continue to make decisions that are guided by science.</p><p><strong>Saving Migratory Birds</strong></p><p>One of the parting gifts of the prior administration was a <a href="https://blog.ucsusa.org/jacob-carter/outgoing-administration-gave-thumbs-up-to-migratory-bird-massacre-its-time-to-reverse-the-damage" target="_blank">reinterpretation of a long-standing rule that protected migratory bird species</a>. For decades, the <a href="https://www.fws.gov/birds/policies-and-regulations/laws-legislations/migratory-bird-treaty-act.php" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Migratory Bird Treaty Act</a> (MBTA) had protected migratory bird species, which are in decline in the US, by allowing the DOI to fine industries that failed to take proper precautions to protect migratory birds. For example, <a href="https://www.fws.gov/birds/bird-enthusiasts/threats-to-birds/entrapment-entanglement-drowning.php#:~:text=An%20estimated%20500%2C000%20to%201,trays%2C%20and%201%25%20spills." target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">not placing proper netting over oil pits</a>, which can result in the death of migratory birds. The rule, however, was reinterpreted by the prior administration such that industries could only be fined if bird deaths were "intentional" and not if they occurred incidentally due to a lack of precautions.</p><p>The prior administration, in its final days, also <a href="https://www.motherjones.com/environment/2021/03/endangered-species-recovery-interior-deb-haaland/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">eliminated protections for the northern spotted owl</a>, which is currently listed by the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) as a threatened species. More than 3 million acres of the owl's habitat were removed from protection to pave way for timber harvesting. Susan Jane Brown, a staff attorney at the Western Environmental Law Center, <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2021/03/02/climate/biden-interior-department-haaland.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">stated that she had received</a> "…several calls from wildlife biologists who are in tears who said, 'Did you know this is happening? The bird won't survive this."</p><p>The Biden administration, following the best available science, has delayed the implementation of both rules.</p><p><strong>Restoring Public Lands</strong></p><p>In 2017, two national monuments, Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante of Utah, <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2017/12/04/us/trump-bears-ears.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">were reduced in size by some two million acres</a>, the largest reduction of federal land protection in our nation's history. Later, <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2018/03/02/climate/bears-ears-national-monument.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">internal emails at the DOI</a> would show that these actions were not a product of following the best available science, and were instead guided by a push to exploit oil and natural gas deposits within the boundaries of the protected land. In particular, the decision did not consider the archaeological importance of the protected lands or their cultural heritage. Sidelining these facets of this decision is likely what <a href="https://www.motherjones.com/environment/2021/02/biden-orders-review-of-trumps-assaults-on-americas-natural-treasures/?utm_source=twitter&utm_campaign=naytev&utm_medium=social" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">prompted a review of the reductions</a> by the Biden administration.</p>
Bringing Science Back Across the Administration<p>Beyond the Interior department, the Biden administration has taken quick steps to bring science back to the forefront of decisionmaking across the federal government. In January, President Biden signed a <a href="https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/presidential-actions/2021/01/27/memorandum-on-restoring-trust-in-government-through-scientific-integrity-and-evidence-based-policymaking/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">presidential memo</a> to strengthen scientific integrity and evidence-based decisionmaking. The memo, among many other positive steps for science, has initiated a review process on scientific integrity policies that should be finalized toward the end of the year. Given the <a href="https://www.ucsusa.org/resources/attacks-on-science" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">unprecedented number of times we documented political interference in science-based decision-making processes</a> over the past four years, such a review, and the subsequent recommendations arising from it, are clearly warranted.</p><p>The Biden administration also has formed multiple scientific advisory groups to help make choices informed by the best available science to protect public health and our environment. This includes advisory groups on critical issues such as <a href="https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/presidential-actions/2021/01/27/memorandum-on-restoring-trust-in-government-through-scientific-integrity-and-evidence-based-policymaking/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">scientific integrity</a>, <a href="https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/press-briefings/2021/02/10/president-biden-announces-members-of-the-biden-harris-administration-covid-19-health-equity-task-force/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">COVID-19</a>, and <a href="https://www.americanprogress.org/issues/green/reports/2021/02/04/495397/mapping-environmental-justice-biden-harris-administration/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">environmental justice</a>. The administration also is moving quickly to <a href="https://www.npr.org/sections/biden-transition-updates/2020/12/17/938092644/biden-to-pick-north-carolina-regulator-michael-regan-to-lead-epa" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">appoint qualified leaders</a> at science-based agencies and has asked the heads of agencies to expeditiously establish scientific integrity officials and chief science officers.</p><p>In addition to rescinding the secretarial order at DOI, the Biden administration has also rescinded several other anti-science actions taken over the past four years. Among the <a href="https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/presidential-actions/2021/02/24/executive-order-on-the-revocation-of-certain-presidential-actions/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">many anti-science executive orders reversed by President Biden are </a>an order that directed agencies to arbitrarily cut their advisory committees by one-third and another that required agencies to cut two regulations for every new regulation they issued.</p><p>There has been a lot of progress for science-based decisionmaking over the past six weeks, with more expected as qualified individuals are appointed to head science-based agencies. And yet we know through our research that <a href="https://www.sciencepolicyjournal.org/uploads/5/4/3/4/5434385/berman_emily__carter_jacob.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">every administration has politicized science-based decisionmaking to some extent</a>.</p><p>We will continue to watch, demand, and ensure that science guides the critical decisions being made by the Biden administration. Our health, our environment, and our safety depend on it.</p><p><em><a href="https://blog.ucsusa.org/author/jacob-carter#.YED_bRNKjt0" target="_blank">Jacob Carter</a> is a research scientist for the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists.</em></p><p><em>Reposted with permission from the <em><a href="https://blog.ucsusa.org/jacob-carter/science-wins-at-the-interior-department" target="_blank">Union of Concerned Scientists</a>.</em></em></p>
At first glance, you wouldn't think avocados and almonds could harm bees; but a closer look at how these popular crops are produced reveals their potentially detrimental effect on pollinators.
Migratory beekeeping involves trucking millions of bees across the U.S. to pollinate different crops, including avocados and almonds. Timothy Paule II / Pexels / CC0<p>According to <a href="https://www.fromthegrapevine.com/israeli-kitchen/beekeeping-how-to-keep-bees" target="_blank">From the Grapevine</a>, American avocados also fully depend on bees' pollination to produce fruit, so farmers have turned to migratory beekeeping as well to fill the void left by wild populations.</p><p>U.S. farmers have become reliant upon the practice, but migratory beekeeping has been called exploitative and harmful to bees. <a href="https://www.cnn.com/2019/05/10/health/avocado-almond-vegan-partner/index.html" target="_blank">CNN</a> reported that commercial beekeeping may injure or kill bees and that transporting them to pollinate crops appears to negatively affect their health and lifespan. Because the honeybees are forced to gather pollen and nectar from a single, monoculture crop — the one they've been brought in to pollinate — they are deprived of their normal diet, which is more diverse and nourishing as it's comprised of a variety of pollens and nectars, Scientific American reported.</p><p>Scientific American added how getting shuttled from crop to crop and field to field across the country boomerangs the bees between feast and famine, especially once the blooms they were brought in to fertilize end.</p><p>Plus, the artificial mass influx of bees guarantees spreading viruses, mites and fungi between the insects as they collide in midair and crawl over each other in their hives, Scientific American reported. According to CNN, some researchers argue that this explains why so many bees die each winter, and even why entire hives suddenly die off in a phenomenon called colony collapse disorder.</p>
Avocado and almond crops depend on bees for proper pollination. FRANK MERIÑO / Pexels / CC0<p>Salazar and other Columbian beekeepers described "scooping up piles of dead bees" year after year since the avocado and citrus booms began, according to Phys.org. Many have opted to salvage what partial colonies survive and move away from agricultural areas.</p><p>The future of pollinators and the crops they help create is uncertain. According to the United Nations, nearly half of insect pollinators, particularly bees and butterflies, risk global extinction, Phys.org reported. Their decline already has cascading consequences for the economy and beyond. Roughly 1.4 billion jobs and three-quarters of all crops around the world depend on bees and other pollinators for free fertilization services worth billions of dollars, Phys.org noted. Losing wild and native bees could <a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/wild-bees-crop-shortage-2646849232.html" target="_self">trigger food security issues</a>.</p><p>Salazar, the beekeeper, warned Phys.org, "The bee is a bioindicator. If bees are dying, what other insects beneficial to the environment... are dying?"</p>
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