Wildfires Cause Climate Change, Climate Change Causes Wildfires

An obvious question about the raging wildfire in Santa Barbara is whether  climate change is the cause.  While it’s impossible to blame any individual fire on increasing temperatures, we know that climate change is responsible for more frequent and more intense wildfires in the southwest.  But less obvious and at least as troubling is that wildfires cause climate change by burning vegetation that acts as a carbon sink.  So wildfires are related to climate change in two important and related ways:  they cause and are caused by increases in greenhouse gas emissions.

Here’s the evidence about more frequent and more intense fires.  Scripps Institute scientists have found that the principal reason wildfires have increased dramatically over the past thirty years is because warm temperatures cause earlier snowpack melting and resulting drier summers.  Over the past twenty years fires in the southwest United States have consumed six times more land than in previous decades.    California is expectedto see temperatures rise by as much as 10 to 12 degrees F by the end of the 21st century, to face large declines in Sierra snowpack and to experience more frequent and more  prolonged drought.   Thus the trend we’re already witnessing will intensify.  The only question will be by how much, which depends in large measure on whether we can slow the accumulation of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

Here’s the evidence about how wildfires cause climate change.  A team of 22 scientists from around the world just published a report assessing the global impact of wildfires.  The combination of  intentional and unintentional fires — by burning carbon-storing vegetation — has contributed a whopping 20 percent of all human-caused greenhouse gas emissions since the industrial revolution.  Moreover fires create black carbon soot, which then absorbs the sun’s energy and heats the ground, adding to climate change.  Much of the burning is done intentionally, as fire is a cheap and easy way to clear forests for agriculture and other development.   But unintended wildfires, though part of a natural process, have now increased in magnitude and frequency because of human contributions to climate change.  The combination means that fires are increasingly contributing to greenhouse gas emissions.

What to do about the increase in fires is a complicated question.  Communities prone to wild fire will need to consider controversial policies like banning building in particularly vulnerable areas.  They’ll also need to be vigilant about vegetation maintenance and will need to ensure that their building codes require the most  fire resistant materials.   But at the heart of the problem is our need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions dramatically from virtually every source.  As the world’s leaders prepare to convene in Copenhagenin December to negotiate over a new climate agreement to replace the Kyoto Protocal,  the topic of widespread deforestation needs to be at the top of the list.

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Reader Comments

4 Replies to “Wildfires Cause Climate Change, Climate Change Causes Wildfires”

  1. It’s important to point out, however, that we would have a wildfire problem in this state even without climate change. Our land management practices (through fire suppression) have been abysmal for a century now, and without regular controlled burnings we can expect more of these “hot fires” that devastate the land. Native Californians (the ones who have lived here for at least 12,000 years) burned the land constantly, which created a park-like environment throughout the state that most modern Californians would hardly recognize. It featured cleared understory (adios, chaparral) and large trees such as redwoods and oaks in the coastal areas and pine in the high Sierras. The burning actually made germination of some of these species (like Redwood and Sequoia) possible. The California we live in today is a far cry from the carefully managed environment we had before the European invasion.

  2. I don’t disagree at all. Thanks for amplifying. The larger point is that climate change will make it all worse.

  3. “An obvious question about the raging wildfire in Santa Barbara is whether climate change is the cause. ”

    With all due respect, you are a complete idiot. If you had bothered to do 1 minute of research on the subject you would have learned that the underbrush of the Santa Barbara foothills had not been cleared out for at least 70 years and that fires burn out of control in that area all the time, including well before “global warming” or “climate change” even existed as pop phrases.

    Your writing lends proof to the stereotype that lawyering requires absolutely no intelligence whatsoever but instead a moral vacauum which allows its “professionals” to not care about the consequences of lying to their fellow humankind.

    You really should be ashamed of yourself for systematically attempting to misinform thousands of people for profit and/or ego. Its an intellectual travesty that anybody believes a word you have to say about this matter.

    PS: I’m a liberal.

  4. Finding it a bit hard here to figure out where the “with all due respect” fits in. I think I’ll leave it at that.

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About Ann

Ann Carlson is currently on leave from UCLA School of Law. She is the Shirley Shapiro Professor of Environmental Law and was the founding Faculty Director of the Emmett I…

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About Ann

Ann Carlson is currently on leave from UCLA School of Law. She is the Shirley Shapiro Professor of Environmental Law and was the founding Faculty Director of the Emmett I…

READ more