In Alberta alone more than a million acres of forest have been consumed by fire this year.
Calgary Alberta just achieved the dubious honor of being labelled the Most Polluted City on Earth.
The forest fires that have raged through southwestern Canada and western United States for the past forty years have one feature in common: carbon emissions.
A new study links the 19.8 million acres burned by forest fires since 1986–37% of the total area — to increases in drought- and fire-danger conditions caused by heat-trapping emissions from the largest global carbon producers.
The study was published in Environmental Research Letters, a high-impact, open-access meeting place of the research and policy communities concerned with environmental change and management. It is a peer-reviewed journal.
Between 1990 and 2021, the warming effect on our climate by long-lived greenhouse gases rose by nearly 50%.
It was led by experts at the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS). They traced the emissions to the world’s 88 largest fossil fuel producers and cement manufacturers. Emissions from these companies also contributed to nearly half of the observed increase in conditions that raise the risk of large, severe forest fires across the region since 1901, the study found.
The findings provide new data that can advance efforts to hold companies accountable for past, present, and future climate damages and risks.
The carbon emissions had two impacts on the potential for forest fires. They raised the overall global temperature, lowering the trigger-point for the eruption of forest fires. They also created a rise in vapor pressure deficit (VPD), a measure of the atmosphere’s drying power that is significantly influenced by human-caused climate change: “The increase in VPD in this region is linked to both increased fire activity and the region’s current and prolonged megadrought.”
Kristina Dahl, report author and principal climate scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists, summed up the findings: “Over the last several decades, human-caused climate change has turned routine Western wildfires into exceptionally destructive events. Towns are turning to ash and livelihoods are being destroyed. Our study offers scientifically backed answers to questions of who bears the responsibility for this gut-wrenching destruction. We’re hopeful that with new evidence in hand, policymakers, elected officials, and legal experts will be better equipped to truly hold fossil fuel companies accountable in public, political, and legal arenas.”
“This study represents a significant breakthrough in attribution science — directly linking wildfire destruction in a specific region to the largest global carbon producers,” commented report author Carly Phillips at UCS.
In related carbon-emission accountability news, the U.S. Supreme Court has just delivered another win for climate accountability, rejecting fossil fuel corporations’ attempt to quash lawsuits filed by the city of Hoboken, New Jersey, and the state of Delaware.
The suits from Hoboken and Delaware — like those filed by dozens of other municipalities and states — take aim at companies including BP, Chevron, ConocoPhillips, ExxonMobil, and Shell for fueling the climate emergency. The fossil fuel industry has repeatedly tried to evade accountability by shifting such cases from state to federal court.
These cases will now move forward in state court.
Commenting on the decision, Democratic Delaware Attorney General Kathy Jennings noted: “As we stated at the time of filing this case almost three years ago: “It didn’t have to be this way.” The fossil fuel industry knew for decades that their products would lead to climate change with potentially ‘severe’ and even ‘catastrophic’ consequences — their words, not ours. But they didn’t clean up their practices or warn anyone to minimize the peril they were creating. Instead, they spent decades deliberately and systematically deceiving the nation about what they knew would happen if they carried on with business as usual.”
Fossil fuel companies are one step closer to being held accountable for the damages they knowingly caused.
Interestingly, Justice Samuel Alito, who owns stock in some fossil fuel companies, did not participate in the decision about these two cases — but Justice Amy Coney Barrett, whose father spent nearly three decades as an attorney for Shell, did participate.
Not that any of this fine detail will matter to the folks who are running from the forest fires today.
Ironically, many of the homes they are leaving behind, have a parting gift from the petro-chemical industry.
Many of their exterior walls are clad in plastic siding.
Firefighters say that vinyl catches fire much more rapidly than an inert material like stucco or brick, because it is a plastic product. In normal circumstances fires do not usually start on the exterior of a house, but being surrounded by a forest fire’s embers changes the picture. Vinyl siding can cause a “flashover” where the flames take only a few minutes to engulf a house. The siding also releases toxic chemicals and it melts easily.
All of which contributes even more to the release of carbon emissions.
One of the more serious emissions that researchers are focusing on is carbon dioxide, which has reached levels today that have not been seen in over 800,000 years according to recent research conducted by the Scripps Institution of Oceanography.
Carbon dioxide increases have major long-term effects, which include:
- Heat Waves — Already the deadliest type of extreme weather, an increase in CO2 directly leads to increased Earth temperatures. And the hotter it gets, the harder it is to reverse the effect.
- Pollution — Higher levels of CO2 increase global pollution levels, which currently kill 9 million people per year. More people die for every degree increased.
- Insect Illnesses — Ticks, mosquitos and other disease-carrying insects thrive as weather gets warmer. Formerly susceptible to winter kill-off, they are now living in greater numbers through the milder winters. They thereby expand their territory and remain longer, increasing the opportunities to infect people and pets.
- Fires and Storms — As temperatures rise the level of water in the Earth’s lakes and rivers gets lower. This ultimately impacts our natural weather patterns, causing an increase in hurricanes and large storms. Another effect of warmer weather, as has been noted, is an increase in forest fires burning for a longer period because the trees and vegetation are dryer and more flammable.
Short-lived climate pollutants, such as methane (CH4) and hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), are also known to be very potent with relatively short lifespans. Immediate action to reduce these particular greenhouse gases can have significant benefits for curbing near-term climate warming.
The momentum of the wildfire threat is increasing, as the rate of wildfires accelerates. All but three of the 20 largest fires on record in California, for example, occurred within the past two decades, and 10 of them came in 2018 or later.
Hopefully, the new court actions will help slow down the pendulum, and allow us to take back control of our adverse impact on nature.
There are for example some modest things we can do, which might seem odd at first glance.
In southern Chile, hit hard by wildfires earlier this year, locals have brought on special helpers: a herd of goats.
Employees of the Good Goat) project, an initiative to control dry pastures and other vegetation that fuel forest fires in the summer, nibble on foliage in Chile.
The goats have already saved the native forest of the Bosques de Chacay once, preventing the park from being consumed by February forest fires — fueled by heatwaves and a punishing drought — that left dozens dead, thousands injured and almost 440,000 hectares destroyed in south-central Chile.
“The park was surrounded by fires, but it ended up being the only green spot left,” said Rocio Cruces, cofounder of the 16-hectare (40-acre) park, and “Buena Cabra,” a project that uses goats to build firebreaks.
“The fire reached our forest but only the first line of trees was really affected, less than 10% of the park,” Cruces said, adding that small fires broke out but did not advance due to minimal brush.
The technique, also used in Portugal and Spain, relies on grazing goats to control dry pastures and other vegetation that fuel forest fires in the summer. Goat droppings also help enrich the soil and prevent further erosion.
Cruces started the project after deadly wildfires in 2017. Her flock has since grown from 16 goats to 150 and she hopes to inspire others to follow suit.
The technique would be beneficial in North America as well. Earth’s warming climate has made the recent western drought about 40 percent more severe, making it the region’s driest stretch since A.D. 800. And there’s a very strong chance the “mega-drought” will continue through 2030, even if there are pulses of years where normal rainfall returns. Articles like the one published on sites like Job One For Humanity- an independent climate change think tank — go into depth on the threat of the mega-drought, which is made all the more menacing by human actions that add fuel to the fires.
In California land managers traditionally used herbicide and human labor to thin brush in order to reduce the amount of flammable material that can burn in a fire. But mountain terrain in California can be tough to access. Also, such traditional clearing practices can leave behind seeds that germinate the next year.
Some California companies company have started to contract out goat herds to organizations that need to reduce undercover fuel loads.
One of my neighbours owns goats, and I love to watch them eat. When they feed on grass they get down on their front knees so their face is at grass level at they have no need to stretch their necks. Very smart animals.
They are adventurous and curious, and can eat plants toxic to other livestock. They also are hardy and can climb steep hillsides and terrain inaccessible to other animals.
They have stomachs that can process anything. When goats eat plant seed, it goes through their digestive tract, and it becomes nonviable.
A recent study in Australia confirmed that goats are especially effective at reducing fuel loads, especially small flammable vegetation such as pine needles. Pine needles can form a continuous bed of fire, so controlling them can greatly help limit the spread of wildfires.
“Grazing is the most widespread vegetation management we have in California,” says Lynn Huntsinger, professor of rangeland ecology and management at the University of California, Berkeley.
Typically, after a few years of grazing the ecology of a site has changed from being out-of-control noxious weeds to being low-growing grasses.
One solution will not solve all problems. No doubt goats would have to be supplemented by mowing and herbicides where they are not practical. But it is heartening so see that — literal — smalls-scale answers can help reduce the impact of large-scale human errors.
In the case of goats, it may be that part of the solution had always been at our side, looking up at us, begging to be used. All we need to do is reign in our mistakes and deploy small four-legged friends. As goat-herders say: “When setting out upon a journey, it’s good luck to meet a goat.”
Safe travels, and may a goat be with you.
This article was written by Barry Gander, who is solely responsible for all its content.
Follow Barry on Mastodon @Barry
To help do something about the climate change and global warming emergency, click here.
Sign up for our free Global Warming Blog by clicking here. (In your email, you will receive critical news, research, and the warning signs for the next global warming disaster.)
To share this blog post: Go to the Share button to the left below.