We Can No Longer Ignore the Link between Climate Change and Wildfires
November 18, 2019
The fires simultaneously raging across the western United States and southeastern Australia are a frightening reminder of the effects of climate change on our societies and a reminder of the importance of effective climate change communication. Politicians, civil society, and media outlets all need to improve how they communicate the short- and long-term effects of climate change if countries are to build the political momentum for genuine carbon mitigation and the institutional capacity for appropriate climate adaptation.
By Monday, November 11, more than 70 fires were raging across the state of New South Wales, prompting it to declare a state of emergency with fires already destroying over one million hectares and smoke plumes so great they could be seen across the Tasman Sea in New Zealand. While the fires in California are mostly contained, more than 5,000 fires across the state have destroyed over 125,000 acres this year, throwing hundreds of thousands of Californians into blackouts as the state’s largest utility tried to prevent further fires. Some have described this as the “new normal” for these fire-prone parts of the world; however, that wrongly assumes this is as bad as it will get.
Both Australians and Californians are engaging in a fierce public debate over the links between wildfires (or “bushfires” in the Australian parlance) and climate change. Australia has a history of fierce debate over climate policy, with the decision over whether to implement a carbon tax ending the tenures of three separate Prime Ministers and a battle over a coal mine costing its opposition party an ‘unlosable election’ earlier this year. Meanwhile, its current prime minister, Scott Morrison, is famous for bringing a lump of coal to parliament in support of its most carbon-intensive industry. More recently, Morrison and his fellow conservative politicians have hit back against journalists raising the links between climate change and wildfires by accusing them of politicizing a crisis.
This reaction is particularly extraordinary in a country that has already warmed by just over 1 degree Celsius since 1910 (see chart below) and is doing little to address the issue. Australia is ranked the country 36th most at risk of climate change-related extreme weather events and already averages 50 climate fatalities per year. According to a new report, Australia is one of three countries most off track to meet its already unambitious Paris climate targets. It has increased the share of fossil fuels in its energy supply, has some of the highest transport and buildings emissions per capita in the world, and continues to provide strong government support to coal exports. The CEO of Climate Analytics commented on the findings of the report that “The only high ratings [Australia] appears to have received in this assessment is for economic losses from climate impacts, and as one of the countries most exposed to days over 35˚C.”
California, on the other hand, is famous for its liberal position on the issue, including a historic commitment earlier this year to achieve economy-wide carbon neutrality by 2045. Even in California, however, linking climate change and wildfires is a touchy subject. A recent analysis by Media Matters showed that just 3 percent of major morning and nightly news shows mentioned climate change in their segments on wildfires. This sort of public education is especially important in the two regions with the highest concentration of economically and socially disastrous wildfire events in the world and with climate change models projecting a 20-50 percent increase in the number of days each year that are conducive to such extreme events.
Climate change increases global temperatures, leads to more intense rainfall events, more severe droughts, and greater variation in humidity, all of which help exacerbate wildfire risks. The National Academy of Sciences estimates that “human-caused climate change caused over half of the documented increases in fuel aridity since the 1970s and doubled the cumulative forest fire area since 1984” in the western United States. Between 2000-2016, wildfires burned an area larger than the entire state of Connecticut in 14 of those 17 years, including a record 10.2 million acres in 2015—an area greater than Maryland and Delaware—according to the U.S. government’s Fourth National Climate Assessment. Data from the National Interagency Coordination Center shows how even as the number of fires each year has remained relatively stable, the area burned has been steadily growing on average since the 1980s (see below).
Australia’s warming climate is increasing the frequency of extreme heat events and the severity of drought conditions, both of which contribute to more dangerous fire conditions. Australia is currently in a period of drought so severe that researchers have shown it to be without precedent over the past 400 years, helping to sustain the current onset, yet only 1 in 20 news stories even mention climate change. For what some have argued is the first time in recorded history, there was no rainfall predicted across the entire continent on November 11. The number of days each year where parts of Australia is in the most extreme 10 percent of “fire weather days” has been increasing, and a shift toward drier conditions across the south of Australia during April to October is consistent with the dangerous fire conditions seen in that part of the country still two months out from summer. There has been an increase in the damages from natural disasters since the 1980s, according to the International Disaster Database (see below), with a sharp rise noticeable since 2010.
Wildfires should be viewed within this context of more frequent extreme events and the rising costs of climate adaptation. In the United States, the number of extreme weather events costing in excess of $1 billion (adjusted for inflation) has increased from less than five a year during the 1980s to an average of 12 each year over the last five years, including 14 separate billion dollar climate disaster events in 2018, which cost a total of $91 billion (shown below). The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration estimates that the 254 weather and climate disasters since 1980 in the United States have cumulatively cost over $1.7 trillion dollars.
There is no new normal here. Even with current climate mitigation policies, not all of which are guaranteed to take place, the world is expected to warm by over 3 degrees Celsius by 2100. Each 0.1 degree Celsius further increases the length of wildfire season and the expected severity of each ensuing blaze. Individuals, communities, and governments should plan for this new reality and adapt to continually changing conditions. Potential reforms include retrofitting homes against embers, regularly managing potential fuels around homes, developing evacuation plans, and conducting risk awareness education initiatives. Greater attention should also be paid to land-use planning that guides fire-related building codes or restricts development in the most fire-prone locations. Finally, politicians and the media can help by being truthful about the links between climate change and natural disasters, better preparing communities for the new reality they face and better giving them the opportunity to prepare for what is to come.
Lachlan Carey is an associate fellow with the Energy and National Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C.
Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).
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