Forest Fires and the Bush Dry Spell

Are U.S. forest fires a hint for the Bush Administration to change its environmental policy?

June 12, 2002

Are U.S. forest fires a hint for the Bush Administration to change its environmental policy?

The Bush Administration has always faced a distinct political weakness when it comes to the environment. So far, the President has deftly maneuvered around this problem — by picking and choosing how and when to show concern.

In this regard, the rather abstract nature of the U.S. environmental debate has been a big help to the President. Americans are no fans of abstract ideas. A society devoted to instant gratification, the United States is less concerned by trouble that is far in the future — or happening in places far away.

But it is much harder to avoid tough environmental decisions when the consequences of inaction start to show up on one’s front door. And, unfortunately for the Republicans’ political agenda, the weather in the United States has not been cooperating in the past months.

Scientists and environmental activists were horrified in late March 2002, when the Larsen B ice shelf in Antarctica suddenly disintegrated. An enormous 5,000 square kilometer iceberg — the size of the U.S. state of Rhode Island — broke off and slid into the ocean.

You could not ask for more dramatic proof of the damaging impact that warmer global temperatures are having on the world’s climate. U.S. politicians are used to pooh-poohing such environmental debacles — especially when they occur so far away.

And Antarctica certainly meets the distance requirement. Ordinary U.S. voters won’t feel any immediate impact on their living standards simply because a few million tons of frozen water fell into the sea.

Thus, the collapse of the Antarctic ice shelves joined other abstract environmental concerns — such as the hole in the ozone layer or the emission of greenhouse gases. Although these are real problems, they do not affect U.S. voters directly — and are therefore not considered an issue on the U.S. campaign trail this fall.

And yet, environmental problems are slowly creeping closer and closer to home. How? In the United States, last winter was among the warmest and driest on record.

There was hardly any snow — and the thawed ground absorbed the meager rainfall. At present, severe drought conditions persist along the East Coast of the Unites States, in parts of the nation’s South — and in a huge swath of the Midwest portion of the country.

According to the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, 30% of the United States is currently experiencing drought conditions — even though summer has not quite begun.

Restrictions on water use have already been introduced in such populous states as New York, Connecticut and New Jersey.

Out west, the state of Wyoming has been declared a drought disaster area. And back in April near Denver — when one would expect the ski season to just be finishing — there were already wildfires.

Now, the situation in Colorado has gotten worse. And in the northern parts of the United States, the situation also looks bleak as the last few weeks of spring give way to summer heat.

Warmer ocean temperatures in the latitudes around the equator presage a return of El Niño. In its previous appearances, El Niño was characterized by low rainfall in the northern United States and excessive rain and storms in the south.

Yet, Americans regard unlimited use of water as their birthright. In fact, U.S. water use rivals the nation’s use of another vital liquid — gasoline. Americans use 52,000 gallons of water per year per capita in their homes.

That’s 30% more than Canadians do — and much more than anybody else in the world. The average U.S. household runs the dishwasher, the washing machine, waters the lawn and washes at least two family cars — in addition to taking liberal daily showers.

A typical family of four uses a whopping 350 gallons per day, of which 100 gallons goes to watering the lawn. Clearly, Americans will not be happy when their beautiful green lawns turn brown during the inevitable bans on water usage during the hottest months of the summer.

On the other hand, the U.S. South and the Southwest may get too much rain for their own good — if the previous appearance of El Niño in the mid-1990s is any guide. It was marked by excess rainfall and severe hurricanes in the South of the United States. And even those melting Antarctic ice shelves might come into play.

Scientists have been warning that the melting ice cover could raise the ocean level, making even mild storms highly damaging. The human toll, the property damage and the cost of the cleanup during the U.S. hurricane season is likely to skyrocket in such a scenario.

The worst effects may come in late summer and early fall — just ahead of the November elections in the United States.

Who knows, but with the effects on the environment finally becoming visible on everybody’s front lawn, people around the United States may finally be less inclined to pretend that environmental concerns are either invisible, unproven — or too far away.

It is one thing for Republicans in the United States to argue that the scientific evidence is “inconclusive.” Politically speaking, that is a statement the average American likes — because it absolves them of any need to make changes in their consumption patterns due to environmental concerns.

It is quite another matter if Americans are told by their state governments — as happened recently in Maryland — to let their lawns go brown. Even the most oblivious or happy-go-lucky American may realize that something is up when the local police issues fines for turning on the hose in your garden because of the dry spell.

George W. Bush must have his fingers crossed that the rains will soon come across America. Otherwise, his long-standing neglect of environmental issues may come to haunt his administration — and the Republicans in Congress.