Pictures of the big fires and orange skies on the US West Coast have been published worldwide as unmistakable evidence of climate change. The Los Angeles Times wrote on its full front page: “California’s climate apocalypse.” People from California Governor Gavin Newsom and Democratic US presidential candidate Joe Biden to most of the media tell us that the cause is climate change, and anyone who thinks differently is in denial.
Climate change is real, man-made and something we need to deal with smartly. But the claim that the fires are caused by climate change is dramatically misleading and steers us toward the worst way to help.
One way to realize this is that California wildfires used to be much bigger. This past decade, California has seen 0.7 percent of its area on average burnt. Before 1800, California typically saw between 4 to 12 percent of its land area burn every year, up to 17 times more than the last decade. Unsurprisingly, the academics who did these studies conclude that back then, “skies were likely smoky much of the summer and fall in California.” Indeed, old newspapers across the US are filled with descriptions of terrible fires. In 1781, the New York Times tells us, “the smoke was so dense that many persons thought the day of judgment had come.”
This all changed after 1900 when fire suppression became the norm, and fire declined precipitously. In the last half of the twentieth century, only about 0.2 percent burned annually. But because most fires were stopped early, this left more unburnt fuel in the forests. One estimate is that there is now five times more wood fuel debris in California forests than before Europeans arrived.
Clearly, we used to have much more fire before global warming. Even this year’s record-breaking 2.2 percent burnt area is about half the lower end of a typical year in earlier times. And the main reason we are now seeing more and bigger fires is that our century of fire suppression has left what researchers call a “fire deficit” — all the fuel that should have burnt but didn’t. It is now waiting to burn even hotter and fiercer.
Climate does play a part. It does create a more favorable fire environment by increasing hot and dry conditions. But experts estimate this plays a minor role. The much more critical role is how we manage lands and build many of our new houses where fire is frequent.
When we keep suppressing fire, we ask for bigger and fiercer future fires. And we know how to fix this. We simply have to make many more prescribed burns that eliminate the built-up fuel. This is doable, smart and would help reduce fire risks in just a few years. Unfortunately, it is also unpopular because of increased smoke and risks from uncontrolled fires.
One prominent study published in Nature Sustainability earlier this year estimates that California will have to burn about 20 percent of its area to get rid of all the excess fuel. But because of widespread opposition, legal challenges and regulatory limits, California prescribes burns for less than one-thousandth of that.
At the same time, many more Californians are building homes in fire-hazard zones. It is likely that over the past 70 years, the number of houses built in the highest hazard zones has increased more than 10-fold and will likely increase 50 percent more by 2050. One of the best ways to prevent fires from destroying lives and property is to ensure that people don’t put themselves in harm’s way by building homes in high-risk areas.
Building codes matter, too. California has strict codes for new buildings, but older homes with more flammable roofs are quicker to catch fire, endangering the houses around them. Indeed, the state’s so-called wildland-urban interface code highlights how to build safer houses by ensuring better placement, more fire-resistant building materials, sprinklers and less vegetation.
When fires are explained almost exclusively in terms of climate change, it is not surprising that virtually no attention is given to the solutions that could actually help — prescribed burns and lower vulnerability. Instead, everyone is pushing climate policies that will help trivially. California’s Governor seriously suggests that the answer to the fires is to speed up California’s promise to go to 100 percent renewables.
But climate policy will not fix the fire problem. With any policy, temperatures will still go up, only less. Even if you believe that only temperature is driving fire, the fires would still get worse, only slightly less so. Even if the entire rich world were to cut all its emissions tomorrow and for the rest of the century — an incredibly fanciful and enormously expensive assumption — UN climate models show temperatures would still climb steeply, reduced by just 0.4°C at the end of the century.
California fires are slowly coming back to their prehistoric state because of the enormous excess fuel load. Putting up solar panels and using biofuels will be costly but do virtually nothing to fix this problem. Vulnerability reduction and prescribed burns will. What we choose depends on the information we receive.
The writer is president of the Copenhagen Consensus and visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University. His new book is False Alarm - How Climate Change Panic Costs Us Trillions, Hurts the Poor, and Fails to Fix the Planet.
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official stance of The Jakarta Post.