We have learned, once again this month, that the risk of fire presents a multi-fold danger to areas of California – even those locations where the risk of actual fire is comparatively low. On the one hand, the catastrophic fire this month has left more than 80 people dead. But more widespread is the risk of air quality and smoke which blanketed the region for several weeks – impacting people’s health, driving activities indoor and presenting a larger risk.
On Friday after Thanksgiving, the Trump administration attempted to bury a report that is at odds with the President’s position on climate change. Not only does it suggest huge warnings about the impact on the environment, and it finds that “damage will knock as much as 10 percent off the size of the American economy by century’s end,” but for us locally it warns of the potential tripling of the frequency large wildfires in the coming decades.
The New York Times writes: “The report, which was mandated by Congress and made public by the White House, is notable not only for the precision of its calculations and bluntness of its conclusions, but also because its findings are directly at odds with President Trump’s agenda of environmental deregulation, which he asserts will spur economic growth.”
While the administration did not try to withhold the report, they did attempt to downplay it, both in terms of release time – Friday after Thanksgiving – and also with a statement. The White House issued a statement which said that the report was “largely based on the most extreme scenario” of global warming and that the next assessment would provide an opportunity for greater balance.”
“There is a bizarre contrast between this report, which is being released by this administration, and this administration’s own policies,” said Philip B. Duffy, president of the Woods Hole Research Center.
“This report will weaken the Trump administration’s legal case for undoing climate change regulations, and it strengthens the hands of those who go to court to fight (for) them,” said Michael Oppenheimer, a professor of geosciences and international affairs at Princeton.
We in California, up until the rains came, suffered from the horrific tragedy of loss of life from the Camp Fire as well as from several weeks of disruptive smoke and air quality that caused schools to close and classes to be canceled, forcing the population indoors and into masks to filter out harmful particulate matter.
The Fourth National Climate Assessment, found that California and the West have already witnessed an increase of catastrophic fires due to climate change – by their estimates, about twice as much acreage has been burned by wildfire than would have without increased temperatures and other impacts from climate change.
“Higher temperatures sharply increase the risk of megadroughts—dry periods lasting 10 years or more,” says the report. The expectation is that these “megadroughts” will then trigger a whole host of impacts – including the tripling of the frequency of large wildfires.
The report argues such impact could be lessened if action were taken to sharply reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The report finds: “Greenhouse gas emissions reductions, fire management, and other actions can help reduce future vulnerabilities of ecosystems and human well-being.”
The report notes: “Climate change has driven the wildfire increase, particularly by drying forests and making them more susceptible to burning. Specifically, increased temperatures have intensified drought in California, contributed to drought in the Colorado River Basin, reduced snowpack, and caused spring-like temperatures to occur earlier in the year. In addition, historical fire suppression policies have caused unnatural accumulations of understory trees and coarse woody debris in many lower-elevation forest types, fueling more intense and extensive wildfires.”
Contrary to the President’s claims criticizing forest management, the study finds: “Furthermore, the area burned from 1916 to 2003 was more closely related to climate factors than to fire suppression, local fire management, or other non-climate factors.”
That comes in contrast to the President’s claims from last weekend, where he declined to link the fire to dry conditions exacerbated by climate change, and instead blamed them on lack of forest management, including “raking” of the forests.
And the President tweeted on Nov. 10, “There’s no reason for these massive, deadly and costly forest fires in California except that forest management is so poor. … remedy now, or no more Federal payments.”
In contrast, NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) reported last week that October was the second hottest on record worldwide and that conditions over the summer set the stage for the devastating fires in November.
“Summer 2018 was much warmer than average across the state — record warm in some places, especially at night — and in Northern California, precipitation ranged from below average to record dry,” NOAA said in a report last week.
“Precipitation across much of the state was less than 5 percent of average in September, and the summer dry signal extended into beginning of the fall wet season, with below-average precipitation in October as well. With all the heat and dryness, the ground was dry to start November, with vegetation turned into excellent fire fuel,” NOAA added.
Tim Palmer, a former land use planner, wrote in an op-ed in the San Francisco Chronicle that while we “all need to recognize that the principal cause of intensifying fires is climate change,” until we attempt to reverse the trend of global warming we need to change our land use practices.
He argues that “our local governments need to recognize fire hazard as a public issue,” and “areas most prone to fire should be identified and prospective home builders warned about investing and living in harm’s way.”
Mr. Palmer recommends: “Ordinances should require protective measures for new development. Further, planning programs need to favor and facilitate development within established communities — which are more defensible — rather than allowing a continued trend toward scattered development in remote and indefensible fire zones.”
The bottom line, though, is that our future will largely depend “on how swiftly and decisively the United States and other countries take action to mitigate global warming.”
The report projects the economic impact of climate change: “$141 billion from heat-related deaths, $118 billion from sea level rise and $32 billion from infrastructure damage by the end of the century, among others.”
It puts forward three potential solutions: “[P]utting a price on greenhouse gas emissions, which usually means imposing taxes or fees on companies that release carbon dioxide into the atmosphere; establishing government regulations on how much greenhouse pollution can be emitted; and spending public money on clean-energy research.”
Until then, it seems that wildfires will become the new normal – and not just here in California, but also in areas that were previously unfamiliar with such blazes.
—David M. Greenwald reporting