My Turn: When global warming stares you in the face

  • Hermist Peak Wildfire, May 2022. CONTRIBUTED/DANIEL A. BROWN

  • Daniel A. Brown FILE PHOTO

Published: 1/18/2023 2:53:20 PM
Modified: 1/18/2023 2:53:02 PM

I collect old LIFE magazines and was recently surprised to see a two-page advertisement in a February 1962 issue by Esso (Later Exxon) boasting that each day, they “Supply enough energy to melt 7 million tons of glacier!” Those were the exact words voiced with obvious pride. Fifteen years later, Exxon scientists issued a report to company executives warning that fossil fuel emissions were warming the planet. Exxon not only suppressed the report (and others) but funded a denial strategy.

I was reminded of this during a dinner with friends here in Taos, one of whom shared a 2007 Nobel Peace Prize for her work on global warming, where we discussed why it’s so hard for people to take such a crisis seriously. “It’s all about the messaging,” she observed, “Somehow we’re just not getting through.” While I agreed, I couldn’t help thinking that the messaging has been very straightforward, voiced over the decades since 1977 by leading scientists across the globe. But some ideas are too complex for people to comprehend. Facts only become reality when they stare you in the face.

It stared me in the face this past summer. While wildfires are abstractions when viewed on the evening news, it’s another thing to stand on your patio and see on the horizon a plume of smoke that resembles a volcanic eruption.

The Hermits Peak wildfire in May 2022 was the worst in New Mexico’s history and would eventually consume about 350,000 acres of land (about 550 square miles, three quarters of Franklin County). Despite no loss of human life, several small rural communities, some with long Hispano and Native American roots, were evacuated with over 900 homes destroyed. Ironically, the fire began with a prescribed burn. Prescribed burns are a big thing in the Southwest, a technique used by the National Forest Service of setting intentional fires to burn off potential forest fuel hazards.

Unfortunately, this particular burn began in April, also known here as “Wind Month.” By wind, I’m not talking gentle spring breezes but a strong sustained maelstrom that gets on your nerves and can cause havoc with fire. Taos sits on a vast plateau that bangs up against the Rocky Mountains directly to our east. So the western winds have a nice long runway with which to gather speed. Periodically, Taos is cloaked with wildfire smoke from Arizona, California and even from the Pacific Northwest. Although the epicenter of this wildfire was 60 miles away, the cloud of smoke arising from the south grew larger every day. When the wind shifted, we could smell it in our living room and our skies resembled smoggy Los Angeles. Wildfires of this intensity often create their own weather systems as this one did. And what burns is more than wood. Consumed structures release toxic chemicals from burnt plastic, insulation, arsenic from treated lumber, household cleaners, CFCs and heavy metals.

As we learned from the horrific 2018 Paradise fire in California, there can be little time to escape a massive conflagration. Burning embers can travel up to two miles and with our drought-plagued foliage dry as tinder, they could easily consume the thick conifer forests that surround our home. Despite our clearing for defensible space, we finally got to work on creating a “Grab and Go” bag.

In the end, the fire receded only to be followed by heavy rains during the summer monsoon season. With the woodland buffers decimated, flooding was equally catastrophic, especially when they filled the irrigation ditches, the lifeblood of our farming communities, with silt and debris.

I’m past the point of debating climate change and those who choose to deny will learn the hard way. Extreme wildfires, drought, floods and hurricanes don’t respect who you voted for in 2020 or your positions on guns or abortion. However, I’ve never cared for the phrase “Saving the Earth,” an aberration of baby-boomer narcissism. Our Earth is over three billion years old and has survived worse disasters than Republican politicians. The asteroid that blasted Earth 66,000,000 million years ago not only wiped out the dinosaurs but caused 75% of all species to disappear. With trillions of tons of carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, sulphur compounds and methane spewed into the atmosphere, the air itself became as toxic as Venus.

In conclusion, the Earth will survive global warming. We, however, might not or if we do, it will be with unheard of social, political and economic disruptions. Fighting climate change will cost millions. Ignoring it will cost trillions.

Do the math.

Daniel A. Brown lived in Franklin County for 44 years and is a frequent contributor to the Recorder. He lives in Arroyo Seco, New Mexico with his wife, Lisa and dog, Cody.


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