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Insider Insights: Articles

The connection between climate change and wildfires

By Scott Sutherland
Meteorologist/Science Writer
Wednesday, May 2, 2018, 6:00 AM

A video released on the U.S. government's WhiteHouse.gov website about four years ago featured then presidential science advisor Dr. John Holdren explaining the connection between climate change and wildfires. At that time, the White House was setting out to promote action against climate change, before the situation grew worse.


There is one simple fact embedded in the complex issue of climate change is that it affects nearly everything to some degree. As Dr. Holdren says (see video above), no single wildfire can be specifically said to have been caused by climate change. However, climate change is influencing weather patterns, changing them on an incremental scale, so that the patterns that lead to more wildfires happen more often, and for longer periods of time. Furthermore, rising global temperatures are shifting climate zones, thus changing soil moisture and access to snow-melt, and they are shifting the normal habitats of insects and diseases into places where the native plants and trees have not had a chance to develop defenses. This leads to more dead trees and plants, which influences the local climate while adding more detritus to the forest floor that can act as easy kindling for a lightning strike or a mishandled campfire.

The purpose of the video above was not only to illustrate the problem to the public, but also to those in the U.S. Congress who [at the time of its release] still denied there was a problem or were simply delaying action on climate change. It came out shortly after a report, titled The Cost of Delaying Action to Stem Climate Change, which made four important points:
1. Immediate action substantially reduces the cost of achieving climate targets
2. Climate change stemming from delayed action creates large estimated economic damages
3. The possibility of abrupt, large-scale, catastrophic changes in our climate increases the need to act
4. Enacting meaningful change in climate policy is analogous to purchasing climate insurance

The White House blog provided a quick summary of these points (click here), but the basic idea was that action now might be seen as costly, but delaying action will make things worse - not only the effects of climate change, but also the cost of dealing with it. The analogy of insurance is very appropriate. With other important parts of our lives - home, vehicle, possessions - we pay insurance premiums so that if there is ever a time when damage (or worse) occurs, we can repair or replace those items. If we didn't pay the insurance premiums, and just left everything to chance, repairing and replacing everything would be much more expensive for us. 

Credit: Wikimedia Commons

However, in the case of climate change, we're not dealing with a situation of "if" something will happen. To stretch the analogy, if the climate is likened to a car we're driving every day, delaying action is like ignoring the need for regular maintenance for the car's engine, saying that it's just too expensive. So, we don't top up the engine coolant and we don't change the oil, and we don't deal with the issues that arise from this neglect. Eventually, various indicator lights start coming on as we drive, telling us that coolant levels are low, oil levels are low and engine temperatures are rising. If we ignore them further, it's going to be the "Check Engine" light next, likely followed by something very abrupt, loud and destructive happening under the hood, and dealing with that is going to be really expensive.

At this point with the climate, we're getting up to the level of seeing indicator lights. Temperatures are running high. Northern glaciers, permafrost and Arctic sea ice are melting. Antarctic glaciers and land ice are melting, and consequently producing more Antarctic sea ice. There are longer, more intense heat waves and droughts. There are more wildfires. We are seeing unusually warm and cold weather patterns. 

Some of the indicators may still be in the yellow, but others are probably already in the red.

Also, just like with the analogous vehicle, any money invested in the climate will have its returns in a 'smoother ride' for our the future - a more plentiful freshwater supply, less impact on crop yields (in both volume and nutritional value), fewer forest fires, fewer and less extreme heat waves and droughts, and a more 'calm' atmosphere in general (meaning fewer extreme storms).

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