By Thomas D. Elias
Just in case anyone missed one of the key points of this summer's still simmering siege of California wildfires, it is this: Climate change is here, it's real and it is time to stop quarreling about the causes and get on with doing something about it.
If anything, the actions proposed by the state's Air Resources Board as part of California's response to global warming are too little and too late. Yes, as President Bush noted at midsummer, China and India are large and growing contributors to climate change, with China now emitting even more greenhouse gases than our own country, the previous leader. But no, that does not - as Bush implied - mean America's responsibility to do something and California's need to do its part, have ended.
Rather, what's happened here ought to be a call to even greater actions than those proposed by the ARB, whose plan aims to cut the state's emissions of gases like carbon dioxide by 30 percent before 2020.
For it seems there's a reason California endured an unprecedented June start to the longer-than-ever fire season, with as many as 1,400 naturally started blazes going simultaneously at its peak. That forced firefighters to choose which flames to fight, since there was neither manpower nor equipment to battle them all at once.
The reason was clear: Even though last winter saw spells of extreme wet weather, with flooding and mudslides in some areas, climate change has made this state drier than ever. It doesn't matter much whether that's due to things like industrial emissions and automotive smog, as environmentalists say, or it has natural causes like sunspots and the position of planet earth in our galaxy, as some others insist.
Whatever the cause, it's incumbent on the entire human race to mitigate the change, or else. The fact that some huge nations refuse to recognize this because they've been beaten down or mistreated in times past, as China and India both feel has happened to them, is largely irrelevant. Their refusal to act doesn't mean we can't or should not.
It's not merely the risk of ever worsening fire seasons that threatens us, although that is apparently the coming reality. It's not just drought that figures to afflict us, as it already does, with water rationing now considered likely in large parts of California sometime next summer. This is linked both to dry weather and a court decision favoring the minnow-like delta smelt fish over human consumers of water.
Once confined to the months between July and November and centered on the late fall, wildfire season in California now runs at least 10 months, with massive sieges of flame having consumed thousands of homes in three of the last five years. Many fire chiefs believe the fire season will soon be year-'round.
But there are even greater threats, outlined in two reports released during the summer. One study by scientists from UC Berkeley, Duke University and other institutions predicted that climate change within decades might kill off 2,300 plant species found only in California.
Plants have moved higher and higher on mountainsides as lower altitudes became gradually warmer over the last 20 years, the scientists found, with 11 of the last 12 years being the warmest on record in the state.
Eventually, they said, those plants - including scrub oaks, blue oaks, manzanita and many others - will run out of mountains to climb, some becoming extinct before others.
Even more potentially threatening is the other report, from United States intelligence agencies. This one, released by the National Intelligence Council, warns that horde of migrants might head north from tropical climates that become uninhabitably hot if global warming persists. National governments could fail, the study says, with the result a human tide dwarfing any current or past wave of illegal immigration.
These forecasts were greeted with derision by congressional skeptics of global warming. They blasted the intelligence agencies for "a pathetic misuse of…resources."
But not even the skeptics can deny the ever-worsening fire scene in California and the summer's massive, record-level flooding along the Mississippi and Missouri rivers. Both are aspects of global warming; two sides of the same coin, as different as they may look.
It all means that while it's fair and accurate to criticize Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger for his frequent favoritism of business over consumers, his never-ending fund-raising and his frequent policy aid to campaign donors, he's been dead right on global warming - perhaps even too soft on it, even though he's been more active in pursuing remedies than any other American politician.
For there's no longer any point in denying the reality of climate change, which has now burned its way to the doorsteps of many Californians.