Don’t Forget the Climate

Droughts and hot temperatures affect Oregon’s communities

One benefit of COVID-19 restrictions is, we learned we can make major life changes and still be OK. We are driving less, flying less and burning less fossil fuel. 

Unfortunately, even a year of coronavirus reductions is not enough to stop global warming. Climate change is still here. And it’s causing problems.

Prof. Erica Fleishman of the Oregon Climate Change Research Institute says we should be discussing the wildfires in Oregon and California. While the majority of them are human caused, recent summer storms and lightning strikes have been a factor, and those are unusual this time of year. Once the fires have ignited, she says, climate plays a role in the extent the fire is going to spread, and how far and how hot it’s going to burn.

Fires and their smoke affect air quality — something Lane County could face if a fire flares up nearby — and that’s one way climate change can disproportionately affect health risks in marginalized groups, and become a social justice issue. Combine a fire with bad air quality and COVID-19 and you have people who cannot breathe.

Sen. Ron Wyden is a politician not a scientist, but like Fleishman, he says climate change is a racial and social justice issue — “Black and brown communities are hit disproportionally hard,” he says. He points to the Green New Deal as a step to address both reducing carbon emissions and creating jobs. 

Wyden is also concerned about what he calls “clean air refugees” and points out that while people who are affluent can move away from bad air, those who are stuck in old housing and trailer parks can’t do that.

Larry O’Neill, an Oregon State University professor like Fleishman, is the state climatologist. He says snow drought is when we have less snow falling in the winter or when there’s enough snow but it melts too fast. Snow feeds rivers such as the McKenzie where Eugene gets its water supply.

In terms of summer drought, the Willamette Valley is in severe drought right now with low moisture in our soils, O’Neill says. One thing in our favor is that we didn’t have a snow drought this year. But if we have a dry winter, next year could be a problem, and that affects agriculture, recreation and more. 

There are things you can do. If you want to check Lane County’s drought status, O’Neill recommends the U.S. Drought Monitor. And if you are experiencing the impacts of the drought and want to contribute to the science you can submit Drought Condition Observer Monitoring reports. These reports allow scientists to look at not just drought conditions but their impacts on those who live and work on the land. 

Wyden says to stop climate change, concerned citizens can make calls, talk to elected officials and keep the issue from getting short shrift. “Political change doesn’t start in Washington D.C. or  Salem, and trickle down,” he says.

Find the U.S. Drought Monitor at and Observer Monitoring reports can be submitted anonymously at

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