As climate change intensifies wildfires, communities across the United States are facing more and more smoke pollution. Wildfire smoke is eroding air quality gains — even in regions far from where fires burn.
We are observing in real time how climate change is driving wildfires and smoke to new extremes. Burning fossil fuels produces greenhouse gasses that literally act like a greenhouse by trapping heat and warming the planet. As global temperatures rise, vegetation dries out and becomes tinder that allows fires to gain speed and power. Many of us living in California know all too well how fast-moving fires can directly threaten the safety of our communities, jeopardize property, and create huge amounts of smoke. Often, communities of color and lower income communities unjustly experience disproportionate health impacts from smoke exposure.
As environmental scientists, we are committed to addressing the effects of climate change and other threats to our health and environment. Although our research can feel daunting, we remain hopeful, particularly when our elected officials take action. In addition to California’s leadership in environmental policy, just this past August, President Biden signed the largest legislation our federal government has ever enacted to tackle climate change. The Inflation Reduction Act allocates billions of dollars to support clean energy and climate justice, creating thousands of jobs in renewable energy. While the IRA alone may not be enough to keep our communities safe from extreme wildfires and smoke, we believe it is a huge step in the right direction.
But, the path to climate action — particularly at the federal level — is not without roadblocks. For instance, last summer, the Supreme Court decided that the Environmental Protection Agency would not be allowed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions using “generation shifting.” This proposed regulation would have transitioned the energy sector from burning carbon-intensive fossil fuels to producing electricity using cleaner fuels or renewables. SCOTUS argued that because Congress did not specifically direct the EPA to use generation shifting to regulate greenhouse gasses, the agency did not have the authority to do so.
This ruling by SCOTUS undermined legal precedent. Previously, if Congress passed a law directing agencies to reduce pollution, but did not specify how, agencies were allowed to develop reasonable policies to get it done. In short, it may now be much harder for federal agencies to enact major environmental regulation without explicit direction from Congress, underscoring just how important it is that our elected representatives prioritize the climate crisis.
Our Senators and Congresspeople can act now to help our communities move toward climate and wildfire resiliency, or fail to act on the most urgent environmental issues of our time.
While some might perceive their vote in the midterms to be too small to make a difference, we believe voting is one of the most valuable steps we can all take to act on climate. Collectively, our votes can elect representatives to Congress who can enact the environmental legislation we urgently need. As every fire season reminds us, wildfire smoke is not contained by any state borders; fires in the west affect air quality in the east, illustrating just how interconnected we are in the face of climate change. We have the power as voters to make the November midterms a turning point in the wildfire crisis and to reduce our communities’s exposure to toxic smoke.
Wildfires are on the ballot this fall. Together, let’s elect Senators and Congresspeople who will protect our right to breathe clean air.
Dr. Olivia Sanderfoot is a postdoctoral scholar in the UCLA Department of Ecology & Evolutionary Biology. Her research is focused on understanding how wildfire smoke impacts birds and other wildlife.
Madeleine Siegel is a doctoral researcher at UCLA’s Institute of the Environment and Sustainability. Previously, she conducted research at the New York State Attorney General’s Environmental Protection Bureau and at Columbia University’s Sabin Center for Climate Change Law.
The Center for Diverse Leadership in Science at UCLA acknowledges the Tongva peoples as the traditional land caretakers of Tovaangar (Los Angeles basin, So. Channel Islands) and are grateful to have the opportunity to work for the taraaxatom (indigenous peoples) in this place. As a land grant institution, we pay our respects to Honuukvetam(Ancestors), ‘Ahiihirom (Elders), and ‘eyoohiinkem (our relatives/relations) past, present and emerging.