Western wildfires: A foreshadowing of what is to come?

Throughout last week, hazy skies descended across the North American continent as record-breaking wildfires continued to burn throughout the West Coast. The wildfires have caused activists, scientists and politicians to speak out about the ongoing climate crisis with some warning that this is only a foreshadowing of what is to come. This environmental catastrophe should concern many people, not just those who follow environmental news.

The wildfires and resulting poor air quality issues should come as no surprise to the American population. We have collectively ignored the recommendations of experts and now we will face certain consequences. 

That does not mean that we should give up hope and accept the new reality of more and worse natural disasters. It also does not mean that we should focus on individual actions which are so often centered in discussions of environmental sustainability —specifically, I mean the narrative which stated that if enough individuals reduce their environmental impact enough our environmental problems will disappear or be mitigated. 

While this narrative is compelling and individuals can make a small impact, we should make no mistake in naming responsible parties and holding them accountable for their actions. To be more specific, the large corporations and the politicians they have bought are accountable for the destruction we have seen and will see in the coming years.

Our political system is bought by those who rely on polluting to maximize the profits of their firms. For an example let’s take a look at who funds one of Pennsylvania’s senators, Pat Toomey. 

According to the Center for Responsible Politics, one of the largest individual sources of Toomey’s campaign funding from 2015-2020 comes from individuals employed by or owners of Apollo Global Management. Apollo is a private equity firm that owns a host of oil and gas companies including American Petroleum Partners, which is based in Pittsburgh and dedicated to developing oil and gas development in the Appalachian Basin. 

These campaign contributions provide Toomey with a pretty big incentive to allow these companies to pollute our environment, causing increased carbon dioxide emissions and exploit natural resources. This is ridiculous and should not be allowed because the interests of Apollo Global Management do not align with the interests of Toomey’s constituency, but nonetheless there is a strong incentive for politicians to take these donations. After all, if they do not do it, someone else will. 

So, what can average Americans do about this? Is there a way for us to combat the organized money and powerful special interests that have caused?

A common answer to this is changing the politicians who represent us. I know I have seen a lot of voting advocacy on social media. But at the same time, many are skeptical of our electoral systems as agents of positive change. This can be seen in low voting turnout rates even in 2016 which was a very consequential election. 

I am not at all arguing against voting; rather, I am recognizing legitimate skepticism of voting as a means of substantial political change. If both parties’ politicians are bought and sold before voters have a real say I think it is legitimate to ask what the point of voting is in the first place. 

I think a good way to look at it is that voting should be just part of advocacy and organizing efforts. The idea that all we need to do is vote for the right people and our problems will be taken care of does not lead to the transformative changes we need to mitigate the multiple crises we face. 

So with the 2020 election looming, how should those who like breathing clean air and drinking clean water react? 

Well, the answer is complicated; it seems as though Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden has signaled a willingness to spend on climate-related actions. Many environmental organizations, such as the Sunrise Movement, are advocating for Biden with an asterisk —  that is, as soon as a democratic presidential victory comes, they will hold Biden accountable. This also assumes a Biden victory, which is by no means a given. 

To be clear, if we take actions that continue to prioritize unlimited economic growth over preserving our ecosystem services, then things like smoke covering a continent are bound to keep occurring at a rate and severity that is not normal. 

It is clear that something needs to be done soon. The record breaking Western wildfires can be a moment in history where things changed. We need an effective environmental movement which is  able to force those in power to listen to the demands, recognize the intersectionality of environmental issues and stand up for those who are affected by these preventable natural disasters. Environmentalists need to change what is possible at every level of government to avoid more severe fires, more frequent hurricanes, less stability in food systems and an extinction crisis which may threaten ecosystems across the planet.