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  • Tiago Costa

The forest is burning: what the fires in Portugal teach us about today's climate change and the

"Without trees, humans will die"

For several times, I wrote this sentence in essays about the topic of the environment and the climate change. The climate change characterized as a "hoax" by the American President Donald Trump is here and has been making trouble. We are living a time of changes, and I don't need any scientist to come and tell me that; I've been myself noticing that. The recent fires that occurred in Portugal are just one more sign that the climate change is real and has influence. The ecosystem is suffering from the climate change and we--humans--are going to pay a big debt.

Owen Martin talks to CBS News about the situation of the fires in Pedrogão Grande, Portugal. Martin and his wife flee their home when the fire got closer to them.

He explains why he left home and describes the situation as "apocalyptic". Fires in Pedrogão Grande killed over 60 people last June. © CBS News

Even without needing scientists to proof what is clear, scientists are important because they are the experts who explain us about the world and its changes. They also predict the future based in knowledge that general people don't have. For example, it's proved that with the global temperature rising, the quantity of snow is decreasing and the rainfalls are increasing. Snow is crucial for the soils, especially for the forests, because it works as an isolator and helps to keep the moisture. As a result, with less snow, soils are going to be more exposed and dry faster, creating better conditions for the "evil" to break the balance and turn everything into an inferno. During the summer, fires will be more intense and will burn regularly. No matter if for human or natural cause, the human-being is going to suffer the consequence for a negligent habit.

The question about the wildfires being caused by humans or by natural reasons--most common natural cause is the atmospheric lighting--is relevant to justify a lot of the events happening these days not only in Portugal, but also in many places around the globe.

Data from Earthdata NASA shows the dimension of the wildfire in Pedrogão Grande, Portugal. The first frame (above), dated on 18 June, shows the dimension of the smoky-clouds; while the second frame (under) is dated one month after, 18 July, and shows a brown area in the middle of the green forest in central Portugal. Fires in Pedrogão Grande killed more than 60 people, most of them trapped while trying to flee. Portuguese officials said the cause is natural, as they justified by lighting events during a dry thunderstorm and also the constant temperatures above 100ºF. However, environmentalists are pointing for negligence by the government.

A recent study in the United States shows that 84% of the wildfires occur by human cause and 44% of the area burned in wildfires, in the US, have human responsibility. Another study, conducted by the professors John Abatzoglou (University of Idaho) and Park Williams (Columbia University), shows that since 1985, the number of acres burned per year in the US more than doubled and there's a clear connection from these statistics to the climate change. In my opinion, more than just numbers, these two studies show a lot about the lack of the environmental concern around the globe. We all have to do more, be more concerned and don't expect only the politicians to solve the situation.

Some people may say that politicians in each country should be the first ones to introduce new policies; I agree, they should give a moral example to their people. However, if that doesn't happen, more people should take a step forward and participate actively. It's true that 195 countries signed the Paris Climate Agreement just recently, and that are good news. But, it's enough?

Indeed, there are a few countries making the difference and they should be valued. Sweden is committed to be the first country in the world to live out of fossil-oils. Denmark runs 40% of their country with energy produced by wind. Costa Rica, although being a small country, produced 99% of green energy in 2015. Nicaragua is considered one of the world's biggest investors in renewable energy and wants to have 90% of its internal energy produced by green energy in 2020. Germany is the world's leader in solar panel energy; and Portugal was on the news last year, after during four days running the country in just renewable energy. There are more countries investing in green energy and commited to find new solutions. But, it's enough? What in this present, people can do in order to save the future?

(above) After the sunrise, John Hildebrand leaves the tent that is setup by the Specimen Creek, in Yellowstone National Park. (under) On the Specimen Creek Trail, a bull moose walks in an area that suffered a recent wildfire. While in a recent backpack trip in Yellowstone National Park, the topic of the wildfires was constant in conversations between my group and I. During eight days and along 70-miles, the Yellowstone landscapes were filled by smoke and grey colors. © Tiago Costa

When the conversation about ecosystem brings the topic of the education, everything changes. For those who have money, it's easy to invest and show the world a care that may not have foundamental principles. It's more difficult to educate people, but this is what is important. People, especially the new generations, should understand the importance of processing trash and not throw away somewhere. They should understand the importance of using less fossil-energy and create conditions to rely just in renewable energy. However, when it comes to understand conservation and education, there are not many examples that I can rely and look to the future with positivity.

One example is the example of Saint Paul Public Schools in the city of Saint Paul, Minnesota, where around 50% of the trash is currently being recycled and they are working to get to the mark of 60% of recycled trash. Another example is happening in Southern Indiana, at the Hoosier National Forest, where high school teens work in conservation teams to help to preserve the area, especially around the trails. They clear brush, lay gravel, pound posts to redirect trails and pull invasive plants. They learn about topography, work directly with rangers and attend to safety meetings. Their main goal is to stop soil erosion. One third example is happening in South Carolina, where hundreds of elementary school students are being educated, by the National Audubon Society, about the importance of conserving and restoring natural ecosystems.

For other side, my personal experience in US is different. At the Southern Utah University, the college I study, there's almost no ecological concern. There is not a recycling system on-campus and the university is located in a city--Cedar City--that counts with only two groups of bins indicated for recycle. All of this is negative, especially because SUU was considered one of the best universities for activities in outdoor as an addiction of being located close to amazing national parks and other recreational areas that need to be understood and preserved.

Everything would be different if SUU had a good recycling system and could educate the students about the importance of re-using old materials. Everything would be different if SUU had a great investment in solar and wind energy, as well as an investment in electric cars. By doing that, they would be showing to their students the importance of using renewable energy instead of fossil energy. Everything would be different if among SUU students existed a bicycling culture, supported by the school with more bicycling lanes in town and rentable bicycles to ride. Everything would be different if at the school's Cafeteria, students were restricted to fill their plates with an amount of food that in the majority of the time they can't eat and by doing that, these students would be contributing for less waste of food.

These are small things. Things that don't require a big investment and make a whole difference. It's all about desire and vision to change.


The "Weekly Journal" blog is updated every Sunday.

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