WASHINGTON – Recent increases in severe weather and natural disasters stem from changes in the environment and climate, and affected communities must take steps to prepare for the continuing nature of the incidents, a panel of top government experts from the United States and Australia said Wednesday.
Tom Tidwell, chief of the United States Forest Service, noted that nine of the warmest years in recorded American history have come in the last decade, and those same years saw the most severe wildfires in recorded American history.
“The changes we’re seeing in our environment today have put us in this position,” Tidwell said. “And a lot of this has been brought about recent climate change.”
These environmental changes are causing affected communities – like those hit by tornadoes and Hurricane Sandy — to adjust their emergency preparedness practices, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Deputy Administrator Katheryn Sullivan said. “People are experiencing change in terms of the frequency of events in their lives and are understanding … that we can work to reduce them, (and) that they can develop plans for resiliency in their community,” Sullivan said.
Tidwell said populations affected by disasters also must accept that efforts to lessen the severity of the weather may have some negative side effects, such as reduced air quality during controlled forest burns, which intentionally destroy areas that are susceptible to wildfires before a fire can occur.
This acceptance is starting to come from communities that have been impacted by multiple disasters, he said.
“One area that we’re making significant progress is in denial, and denial that these are one-time events,” Tidwell said. “What we’re seeing in a lot of communities and locations where we work is an acceptance of the frequency of these events.”
Anthony Slatyer, an assistant secretary in the Australian government Department of Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities, said his nation has responded to climate changes by establishing a new agency that created a standing reserve of water in case of emergency droughts or fires.
“We’ve recorded last week the hottest average national temperature maximums in our recorded history,” Slatyer said. “So we’re getting quite accustomed to smokey sunsets in Australia.”
The speakers repeatedly cited natural and environmental disasters in recent years, including the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy, and severe droughts in Australia, to illustrate their points.
The panel, which also included a science adviser at the National Parks Service, was at the National Council for Science and the Environment’s annual conference.