Colorado Wildfire Climate Change Fail

The past couple of years have been rough on Colorado, in terms of climate change related disasters.  First a couple of record setting wildfire years, and then floods of “biblical” proportions.  At a gut level we know we have to respond, but our public discourse is having trouble addressing the root cause directly.  Instead we’re dancing around the issue, and failing to either adapt adequately to our new reality or to mitigate further climate change.

Adaptation?

Bills related to both the wildfires and last fall’s floods have been wending their way through our state legislature, and last week legislators and the governor held a press conference to highlight some of them, and a lot of the resulting commentary seemed to focus on the safety and well being of the firefighters and other emergency services workers that risk their lives on our behalf.  Largely absent from the discussion were the strong measures that the Governor’s wildfire task force put forward in the fall. They included:

  • Creating a wildfire risk map, and rating all properties on a scale of 1 to 10,  requiring that risk designation to be disclosed before any property sale, and making it available to insurance companies for use in setting their rates.
  • Charging those living in the “wildland urban interface” a fee based on their risk exposure, that would be used to defer some of the additional public costs incurred in protecting their private property.
  • Creating fire-resistant building codes for high risk areas, affecting both the materials used in construction, and requirements for defensible space around buildings.

Make no mistake: these are climate change adaptation measures, and Colorado has rejected them.

Firefighters in Waldo Canyon

As the Denver Post reported in September: developers didn’t like the idea of increased construction costs; the real-estate industry didn’t like the idea of making a lucrative market much less attractive; homeowners in high risk areas certainly didn’t like the idea of paying for the risks they’ve taken on, or making those risks transparent to potential buyers of their property.

Would the discussion be any different if people understood that the wildfire frequency and intensity is likely to just keep increasing as climate change marches on?  This is about as close as the article from September gets to mentioning climate change:

Colorado terrain ravaged by wildfire has quadrupled from 200,000 acres in the 1990s to nearly 900,000 acres in the 2000s.  “Scientists tell us this pattern isn’t going to change,” Hickenlooper said.

Why is the “pattern” there in the first place?  What kind of scientists was the Governor was talking to?  None of the press articles linked to from this post mention climate change even once, despite universally pointing out the trend.  For example: As Colorado wildfires continue to worsen, only moderate laws proposed.  And why are they worsening?  No comment.  Even the wildfire task force’s report mentions climate change only once in 80 pages.

Waldo Canyon Fire Aftermath

The only big risk factor we’ve talked about directly is where we choose to build our homes.  This is an important discussion too.  The overall wildfire risk — at least to human lives and property — is something like:

(human risk) = (area burned) x (pop. density in high risk areas)

Climate change will in large part determine how much of our state burns each year, but we have a choice about how many people and how much property to put in areas subject to burning.  Reducing our exposure to the increasing wildfire risk is an adaptation to climate change — an alteration of our behavior, in light of the expected risks going forward.  For the moment at least, we seem unwilling to listen to the warnings.

But hey, at least the state had a conversation, and decided not to do anything.

Cause and Effect

So what are the causes?  According to the US Forest Service, the enormous bark beetle kill is due in part to warmer winters, resulting from climate change.  These forests filled with dead trees are warm and dry for longer each year, lengthening the western US fire season by about 2 months.  So it’s perhaps unsurprising that the number of large wild fires per year has already increased from 140 in the 1980s, to 250 in the first decade of the 2000s.  This infographic from the Union of Concerned Scientists is a good cartoon summary:

Western Wildfires and Climate Change

(see this paper for the references behind the infographic)

The third panel is probably the scariest for Colorado.  The dark red swath covering most of the western half of the state means that we expect more than six times as much land to burn each year in the near future, with just 1°C (1.8°F) of additional warming — and as Kevin Anderson and many others have pointed out, it is virtually certain that we will see another 1°C of warming… if not 3°C, or even more.

So our elected representatives are right to be concerned about increased risk from wildfires, and about the safety of the firefighters who try to protect us from those fires.  But we’re still missing the point:  We control our exposure to risk locally, and we control the magnitude of that risk globally.

Mitigation?

Policies aimed at avoiding or reducing climate change (like putting a price on carbon) are mitigation efforts.   We’re not talking about them much, even in the context of an obviously climate mediated risk like wildfires.  This is bad.  If we can’t have a conversation about what’s increasing the wildfire risks, how can we hope to respond appropriately?  Is our refusal to respond to change related to our refusal to accept the cause of the change?  Or is it more a kind of landscape amnesia — an inability to even see the change?  Are we going to forget what normal fire seasons looked like, in the same way that we’ve started to forget what a normal winter feels like:

Cold

Double Climate #Fail

Right now we’re managing to fail doubly with respect to climate change.  We are both unwilling to adapt to the foreseeable risks, and unwilling to even mention that these risks are linked to our greenhouse gas emissions, let alone talk about what we might do to mitigate those emissions and the risks that they create.

If we really care about our firefighters, if we really are intent on avoiding ever more costly and tragic conflagrations in our state, we need to both adapt and mitigate.  We need to start building for a warmer world now, and we need to stop warming the world as quickly as possible.

If you agree, look up the contact information for your Colorado state legislators and let them know.

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