More than 1,700 wildfires are burning across California, at a cost of greater than $200 million. Yesterday, CNN interrupted its breathless coverage of these catastrophic wildfires to ask, “Is this climate change? Is this global warming?” Miles O’Brien, CNN’s chief technology and environment correspondent, attempted to supply an answer, with a dithering, confusing, and chart-filled presentation, cautioning that “it’s hard to make a connect-the-dots moment here in all of this” and that his charts “will make your eyes glaze over.”
At the end, anchor Tony Harris responded:
Let me ask something crazy here. You know, nature’s been doing this, lightning strikes, whatever, for a gazillion years. Isn’t it it’s own sort of a natural pruning process? I know that we’ve got a hand in this, but this has always been the case.
As a public service for the reporters at CNN, here’s a “connect-the dots” moment. This season’s wildfires are coming on the heels of the four worst wildfire seasons in the modern era of wildfire control, begun in the 1960s with wildfire management and changes in land use and forestry. In 2006, nearly “100,000 fires were reported and nearly 10 million acres burned, 125 percent above the 10-year average.”
And global warming is at fault.
As the 2006 Science report Warming and Earlier Spring Increase Western U.S. Forest Wildfire Activity states unequivocally:
Thus, although land-use history is an important factor for wildfire risks in specific forest types (such as some ponderosa pine and mixed conifer forests), the broad-scale increase in wildfire frequency across the western United States has been driven primarily by sensitivity of fire regimes to recent changes in climate over a relatively large area.
Hence, the projected regional warming and consequent increase in wildfire activity in the western United States is likely to magnify the threats to human communities and ecosystems, and substantially increase the management challenges in restoring forests and reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
What’s more, multiple federal government agencies have been sounding the alarm for at least a decade, with the evidence for the building catastrophe growing starker year by year:
— “In most cases, climate change would lead to dramatic increases in both the annual area burned by California wildfires and the number of potentially catastrophic fires — doubling these losses in some regions.” [DOE Lawrence Berkeley Labs, 1998]
— “The warmer and windier conditions corresponding to a 2xCO2 climate scenario produced fires that burned more intensely and spread faster than current-day fires. . . California already spends $300 million per year on initial attack fire protection; it is conceivable that this might have to be increased by 50% or more to maintain the current escape rate.” [USDA Forest Service, 2002]
— “Virtually all future climate scenarios predict increases in wildfire in western North America, especially east of the Cascades. Fire frequency and intensity have already increased in the past 50 years, and most notably the past 15 years in the shrub steppe and forested regions of the West. USFS and CIG researchers have linked these trends to climate changes. Drought and hotter temperatures have also led to an increase in outbreaks of insects, such as the mountain pine beetle.” [U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service]
— “Higher temperatures in spring and summer and earlier melting of the snow pack in recent years have contributed to an increase in the frequency and duration of wildland fires. Recent studies have concluded that a changing climate, not previous fire suppression policies or land-use changes, is the major cause.” [U.S. National Park Service]
— “Climate change has very likely increased the size and number of forest fires, insect outbreaks, and tree mortality in the interior West, the Southwest, and Alaska, and will continue to do so.” [U.S. Climate Change Science Program, 2008]
In October 2007, blogs such as The Daily Green, Climate Progress, It’s Getting Hot In Here raised the alarm on the role of climate change as megafires forced the evacuations of one million people in California. But the news media and environmental organizations shied away. Meanwhile, the White House censored testimony from the Centers on Disease Control and prevented the Environmental Protection Agency from taking action.
The wildfire season of 2008 began early and will burn stronger than years past. It remains to be seen whether the response will be any different.
UPDATE: Today, at 1:30 PM, the Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming is holding a hearing on how global warming is changing and intensifying extreme weather.
You can watch the webcast here.