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October 25, 2014

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Use the Arizona fire tragedy as a wake-up call

The photos of those 19 firefighters killed while trying to tame a wildfire in Arizona will break your heart. Grinning, vigorous young men, all of them. One had four small children.

We mourn those deaths, and extend sympathy to the thousands of families who have lost their homes this summer as the western states burn. These are fresh troubles, coming on the heels of the lives lost in the Oklahoma tornadoes and the enormous property damage and substantial loss of life from Superstorm Sandy.

And on, and on. Joplin. Katrina. Isaac. Last year’s Midwest drought. The year before that, the Midwest flooding.

Can we talk about climate change?

There are those who would prefer we wouldn’t just now, just as we were told it was unseemly to discuss gun safety measures after children and school personnel died in a mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut on Dec. 14.

Nonsense.

It is no dishonor to brave men or innocent children to use a tragedy to call for measures to prevent further tragedies. The resistance comes only from people who will reject and deny the obvious.

It is obvious that climate change, accelerated by emissions of heat-trapping gases, is playing a role in natural disasters around the globe. That is the consensus of climate scientists, and we must not yield the debate to science deniers and the business interests that greet every suggested reform with a howl about “job-killing” regulations.

Reform is expensive but so are disasters. Just listen in the next time members of the U.S. Congress discuss aid for the region affected by the latest calamity.

Or ask the insurance industry, a business sector in which almost no one doubts climate change and the need to do something about it. As Frank Nutter, president of the Reinsurance Association of America, told Eduardo Porter of The New York Times earlier this year: “Insurance is heavily dependent on scientific thought. It is not as amenable to politicized scientific thought.”

Many experts believe we are nearing the point of no return, when devastating climate events become the new normal. That may already be the case in the U.S. Southwest, especially Arizona, which has warmed faster in recent decades than any other state.

We need a national climate change policy, but a Congress too much in the grip of corporate interests and, in some cases, junk science won’t give us one.

President Barack Obama presented a plan last week. He said the Environmental Protection Agency would set new standards, limiting the amount of carbon that can be emitted from electric power plants. He proposed speeding up work on clean energy supplies and energy efficiency measures. Significantly, he recommended that the nation become better prepared for catastrophic climate events.

What does that mean? Safeguarding natural resources, for one thing. And land use policies that don’t place people and buildings in the areas where wildfires and hurricanes are most likely to occur.

Even those measures will be controversial in Washington, where Republicans are already hatching plans to tie Democratic candidates to Obama’s “job-killing” climate change plan. Progress will be driven by the people and local leaders closest to the problems. In the West they’re focused on preserving water supplies. New York’s governor offered a voluntary buy-out program to demolish damaged structures and turn coastal property into natural barriers to protect against future storms like Sandy.

And the rest of us? We need to tell politicians that climate change is real and we need measures to limit emissions.

Weeping at funerals and collecting donations for disaster victims does not qualify as a plan.

Barbara Shelly is a columnist for the Kansas City Star.

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