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Our Country Isn’t Built to Withstand the Climate Crisis

Out-of-control fires destroy homes, threaten wildlife, and pollute our air — and they’re getting worse.

Last October, many Orange County, California, families, including mine, woke up to the smell of smoke and a sky tinted orange. As the COVID-19 pandemic continued to force people to shelter at home, tens of thousands of our neighbors had a few hours’ notice to evacuate. With a wildfire approaching, their homes were no longer safe.

What came to be called “the Silverado Fire” burned nearly 13,000 acres and threatened more than 69,000 buildings in the Congressional District I represent. Orange County Fire Authority Chief Brian Fennessy said at the time, “Fire spread is exceeding more than anything I’ve seen in my 44 years.”

This is not just happening in Orange County; this is a problem throughout our state and country. California’s most recent wildfire season was the worst on record, with over 4 million acres burned last year. That’s larger than the state of Connecticut and more than double California’s previous record for the most land burned in a single year. Across the United States, we saw nearly 60,000 wildfires last year.

Worsening wildfires are not a coincidence; they represent a direct consequence of the climate crisis. Every year, wildfire “seasons” extend longer and burn with more intensity. Nationwide, other climate catastrophes, such as drought and extreme heat, are also increasing in frequency every year. Communities across the West Coast recently suffered through scorching heat waves. In some places, such as Spokane, temperatures reached triple-digit figures that had never been previously recorded.

Californians and fire victims across the United States understand from firsthand experience that the need to act on climate is urgent. Scientists tell us that we have to significantly lower emissions by 2030 to avoid the worst harms of the climate crisis. To meet this deadline, we need to enact policies in the next few years that invest in sustainable infrastructure and hold polluters accountable.

The good news is that conversations about environmental protection are happening in Congress and at the White House today. I serve on the House Natural Resources Committee, and during a hearing earlier this year, I confronted a fossil fuel executive when he tried to claim that his industry does not get any special tax provisions. In reality, we subsidize these polluters with our tax dollars to the tune of tens of billions per year.

President Biden’s American Jobs Plan, which Congress will write into legislation, proposes eliminating these giveaways to fossil fuel companies and instead spending taxpayer dollars more sustainably. This plan represents the largest investment in climate action in our nation’s history. It features several key provisions to address the climate crisis and modernize our infrastructure, including:

  • Electrifying school buses and strengthening our network of electric vehicle charging stations;
  • Expanding offshore wind power to add enough energy to the grid by 2030 to power 10 million homes;
  • And advancing racial equity by providing better jobs and better transportation options to historically excluded communities.

President Biden understands that environmental protection and infrastructure investment go hand in hand. When making policy, do we move toward electric vehicles or continue to rely on gasoline-powered cars? Do we invest in renewable energy or keep propping up Big Oil? Do we right the disproportionate harm of climate change on communities of color or do nothing? How we choose to modernize our infrastructure can safeguard our environment if done right, or it can harm our environment if done wrong.

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