By Tom Kenworthy, a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress Action Fund.
Even with a huge Exhibit A staring them in the face in the form of the 469,000-acre Wallow fire in Arizona — the largest in the state’s history — Senate Republicans on the Energy and Natural Resources Committee couldn’t be drawn into a discussion of the realities of climate change yesterday.
Committee chairman Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-NM) gave them an opening at the outset of the hearing on federal wildland fire policy. He drew the link between climate change and the four Arizona fires now burning that have in total burned over 663,000 acres – more than 1,000 square miles. With climate change, Bingaman correctly noted, “droughts will be more frequent in the Southwest and they will last longer than they have in the past.”
But committee Republicans Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), James Risch (R-ID) and Dean Heller (R-NV) preferred to talk about the federal government’s aging fleet of air tankers, this year’s heavy snowpack in the northern Rockies, the threat of an endangered species listing of the sage grouse and those (overblown) environmental lawsuits against forest thinning projects. Actually looking into a key driver of the last decade’s huge increase in big western wildfires? A non-starter.
That left it to Sen. Al Franken (D-MN) to draw out U.S. Forest Service chief Tom Tidwell, who unequivocally said his agency’s scientists see climate change at work in the desert southwest: more drought, quicker snowmelt, longer wildfire seasons. “I’ve been on a lot of large fires in my career,” said Tidwell, who flew over the Wallow fire last weekend. “It definitely topped anything I’ve seen before.” Franken noted that his colleagues should recognize that these fires are “the cost of climate change”:
A lot of what we are talking about today is the cost of climate change. And sometimes when we talk about energy and we talk about the amount of carbon dioxide that goes into our atmosphere, and we talk about cost, I think that it would be really good for members to take into account this kind of cost. This is a real cost. We’re talking about real dollars here. A lot of the focus of this hearing today has been the cost of this. And I think that it would be well and good for members to understand that this is related to climate change, and how important it is for us to address this and to take national action to reduce our carbon emissions.
The Wallow Fire is now expected to become the largest fire in Arizona history, bigger even than the 2002 Rodeo-Chediski fire that burned about 470,000 acres.
For years now, models and studies have predicted that climate change would bring more and larger fires. As Climate Progress’ Joe Romm pointed out recently:
Back in 2004, researchers at the U.S. Forest Services Pacific Wildland Fire Lab looked at past fires in the West to create a statistical model of how future climate change may affect wildfires. Their paper, “Climatic Change, Wildfire, and Conservation,” published in Conservation Biology, found that by century’s end, states like Montana, New Mexico, Washington, Utah, and Wyoming could see burn areas increase five times.
Here’s a figure from a presentation made by the President’s science adviser Dr. John Holdren in Oslo last year:
For completeness’s sake — and because I remain optimistic that someday the media will routinely make the connection between increased forest fires and global warming — let me note that back in 2006 Science magazine published a major article analyzing whether the recent soaring wildfire trend was due to a change in forest management practices or to climate change. The study, led by the Scripps Institute of Oceanography, concluded climate change is increasing wildfires:
Robust statistical associations between wildfire and hydroclimate in western forests indicate that increased wildfire activity over recent decades reflects sub-regional responses to changes in climate. Historical wildfire observations exhibit an abrupt transition in the mid-1980s from a regime of infrequent large wildfires of short (average of 1 week) duration to one with much more frequent and longer burning (5 weeks) fires. This transition was marked by a shift toward unusually warm springs, longer summer dry seasons, drier vegetation (which provoked more and longer burning large wildfires), and longer fire seasons. Reduced winter precipitation and an early spring snowmelt played a role in this shift.
That 2006 study noted global warming — from human-caused emissions of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide — will further accelerate all of these trends during this century. Worse still, the increased wildfires will themselves release huge amounts of carbon dioxide, which will serve as a vicious circle, accelerating the very global warming that is helping to cause more wildfires.