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Editorial: The West Coast fires should mean something to anyone planning to vote

As every major news outlet in the nation directs its attention to the record-setting wildfires up and down the West Coast, one word seems to unify the reactions of denizens from California to Washington: “apocalyptic.” As of Sunday, there have been 23 confirmed deaths and hundreds of thousands of people have been evacuated from their homes. While this disaster may seem far removed from the lives of Mainers, the phenomenon that set the stage for these fires, climate change, is at our front door. 

The New York Times reported on Saturday that one reason the fires have been so devastating in Oregon is because of unprecedented dryness in areas that are usually less vulnerable due to moisture coming off of the Pacific. Climate change has affected both the precipitation and temperature patterns in these environments in such a way that invites the rapid spread of fire. However, not all of the havoc is entirely because of the changing environment; excessive sprawl and a lack of controlled burning effectively built up the fuel for these fires to get completely out of control. 

In an interview on “Meet the Press,” Gov. Jay Inslee of Washington rebuked President Trump for framing the wildfires as caused entirely by forest mismanagement, and urged Americans to account for climate policy when casting their votes. While Gov. Inslee was likely making a thinly veiled reference to the presidential election, his plea applies to all Americans and all levels of government.

Just last February, the University of Maine’s Climate Change Institute (CCI) published its 2020 update of the “Maine’s Climate Future” report in an ongoing effort to inform Maine residents of the effects of climate change being recorded in their own state. The CCI reports that rates of air and sea warming, precipitation and sea level are all increasing, which are significant findings in a state with a natural resource-based economy. Farmers are fundamentally changing their planting methods to adjust to increased variability and uncertainty in weather that can ruin crop yields, and sea warming “over the next 30 years is expected to lead to a decline in lobster abundance.” 

With an important Senate election approaching in November, it is vital that Mainers consider which candidates are dedicated to climate change prediction and mitigation. On Sept. 11, Sen. Susan Collins, Maine House Speaker Sara Gideon, independent candidate Max Linn and green independent candidate Lisa Savage all participated in a televised debate sponsored by News Center Maine, Portland Press Herald and Bangor Daily News. There was only one question about the candidates’ positions on climate change; Speaker Gideon framed her goals of reducing carbon emissions and increasing renewable energy in terms of the benefits for Maine’s natural resource industries, while Sen. Collins discussed her support for off-shore wind energy and research efforts at UMaine. Despite their partisan differences, both candidates seemed to recognize that deferring on the question of climate change would not serve them or their constituents. 

Out of the four candidates, only one, Lisa Savage, aligned herself with the Green New Deal movement, made popular by Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York. During the debate Savage argued that “we also need to stop altering things that drive climate change, and instead turn our capacity to building things that will mitigate… climate change,” framing the policy as a way to create jobs and promote sustainable energy. The Green New Deal may seem too far left to actually attract voters, but at the beginning of September, Sen. Ed Markey, who introduced the original resolution to Congress with Sen. Ocasio-Cortez, won his democratic primary against a very popular Joe Kennedy III. 

The president describes the Green New Deal as a product of “the new radical left Democrat Party,” and while it is certainly a product of a significantly progressive ideology, it might not be that Democrats are drifting further left or right, rather climate change is becoming a more significant concern in the eyes of Americans. However horrifying the fires in California, Oregon and Washington are, they are nothing if not a call to action, or at the very least a reconsideration of the way that this country is currently operating. In an interview for UMaine News, Ivan Fernandez, a professor of soil science and forest resources and the lead author of the “Maine’s Climate Future” report, summarizes the global situation about as simply as possible when he concludes, “business as usual is not an option.” 

Scientists are predicting that there will be more, not less, of these severe environmental events. Americans need representatives who will give those warnings the attention and respect that they deserve.  Safeguarding the homes, lives and livelihoods of constituents should not be considered radical or partisan, and it will be the responsibility of every voter, come November, to determine which names on the ballot represent those interests.

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