Thursday, July 25, 2013 | 2 a.m.
A panel of Democratic state lawmakers and renewable energy advocates Wednesday endorsed comments from Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., who said last week that climate change contributed to large wildfires in Nevada this year.
“The people who deny climate change are just like the flat-Earth folks,” said Scott Rutledge, executive director of the Nevada Conservation League, who spoke with eight others at the Springs Preserve about renewable energy, climate change and energy policy.
Reid had said twice last week that Nevada needs more money for fire prevention and firefighting, arguing that warmer climates in the Southwest are contributing to fiercer wildfires.
“The West is being devastated by wildfires. Millions of acres are burning. Millions of acres have burned. Why? Because of climate change!” Reid said last Thursday, a day after telling Nevada reporters that because “we have climate change, things are different.”
A Southern Nevada Water Authority official who spoke at the Springs Preserve event Tuesday said he has no doubt that climate change is real and that droughts on the Colorado River could be symptoms.
Hotter climates could also put stress on the power supply, which would be a major concern for a large power user such as the water authority, said Richard Holmes, an adviser to the authority.
Steve Sebelius, a columnist for the Las Vegas Review-Journal who moderated the panel discussion, asked if any members of the nine-member panel disagreed with Reid’s assessment that recent wildfires in Nevada were related to climate change. He waited for a moment, hearing no answers.
“OK, no one is willing to do it,” he said.
While some panelists tacitly agreed with Reid, others endorsed outright what the Senate majority leader had said last week.
Lydia Ball, executive director at the Clean Energy Project, told the audience that “climate change is making these fires and droughts worse.”
Climate change certainly didn’t start the fires. For instance, lightning struck and ignited the Mount Charleston fire that ravaged about 30,000 acres in the Spring Mountains earlier this month.
But a drier climate could make it easier for a fire to spread because low moisture levels in plants would to lead to more flammable kindling.
Outside of the panel discussion, scientists take a more cautious approach to the link between wildfires and climate change.
“The question out there, and I think the question the public needs to evaluate, is: Are these all precursors of climate change — the drought that we’ve been having, the increase in wildfires that we’ve been having?” said Tom Piechota, a project coordinator at UNLV with the Nevada Infrastructure for Climate Change Science, Education and Outreach, a federally funded group studying the effects of climate change in Nevada. “These are the types of conditions that we would have under changing climate conditions. Are they attributed to climate change or not? That's the question that we have to evaluate.”
Piechota and his colleagues have sensor stations in Nevada that will gather climate data during the coming years.
He said he didn’t know if climate change contributed to the largest wildfire in recent history in Southern Nevada and another large wildfire in Northern Nevada.
“I don’t think I have a set opinion on it,” Piechota said. “I would say that they seem to be consistent with what studies show that climate change impacts would be for regions in the Southwest.”
The Western Regional Climate Center in Reno measures climate change in the West. Data from the center shows an upward tick in mean temperatures from 1885 to 2010.
Members of the panel at the Springs Preserve tied talk of climate change to renewable energy, noting that Nevada’s Legislature passed a bill this year to phase Nevada out of the coal market and invest in renewable energy.
Panelists included Rutledge; Ball; Holmes; Sen. Justin Jones, D-Las Vegas; Sen. Kelvin Atkinson, D-Las Vegas; Assembly Speaker Marilyn Kirkpatrick, D-North Las Vegas; Fernando Romero of Hispanics In Politics; Bobby Hollis of NV Energy; and Brandon Weigard of Focus Commercial Group.