This op-ed article by Dr. Karl Hutterer, CEC’s Board Treasurer, originally appeared in the Santa Barbara Newspress on January 7.
The Thomas Fire gave us a “December to Remember.” It was the largest conflagration in California history: over 282,000 acres burned in Ventura and Santa Barbara Counties, over 1,000 homes and businesses destroyed, including a hospital and an apartment building, the life of a firefighter lost, and firefighting costs at $200 million and counting. We still don’t know the full economic scope of the property losses, the relocation costs incurred by evacuees or their hosts, or the business losses from tourism to Christmas retail. We will never know the costs of the disaster in terms of damaged health, human anxiety and panic, or grieve over the loss of irreplaceable treasures and memories.
Inevitably, the question arises whether the enormity of this inferno was, in any sense, a “normal” phenomenon. Sober analysis in the months and years to come will show, without doubt, that a number of factors, both natural and human, contributed to create the monster. But one particular question surely must, and will, be asked as well: did climate change play a role?
Scientists are notoriously reluctant to attribute any specific natural disaster to climate change. Even when they do address the issue, they point to the great complexity of climate systems and hedge their opinions in conservatively calibrated and cautiously stated probabilities. This is as it should be, even though many of us long for straight forward and simple answers. Science does not operate like a court of law where, in the end, answers are almost always starkly black or white, in the process sometimes mangling a more nuanced attribution of responsibilities.
The question of whether climate change played a role in fueling to the enormous size and ferocity of the burn is nevertheless important for planning measures of protection and prevention of similar events in the future and, indeed, in providing us with guidance on a wide range of policy issues. The question assumes particular weight in the face of other major natural disasters that visited us within the past year: the gigantic Santa Rosa Fire in northern California, and hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria among them. Each of these events, as well as a number of other calamitous weather events elsewhere in the world that caused vast destruction, thousands of deaths, and enormous economic losses, was deemed to be unprecedented in their scope and the severity of their impact.
The past year was a particularly bad one for wild fires. Much of the American West was aflame in 2017, with multiple large conflagrations burning simultaneously in almost all western US states and provinces of Canada, all the way up to Alaska. Ecologists know that wildfires are natural occurrences in the West, especially in regions with long dry seasons, where fire adapted plant communities have evolved that are not only able to tolerate fires but even require them for regeneration.
The epic “Big Burn” of 1910 consumed three million acres of forest in the Coeur d’Alene Mountains of Idaho and was probably the largest wildfire in known US history. It led the then nascent US Forest Service to develop firefighting strategies and methods. These strategies have seen some well-deserved criticism in recent decades and have been extensively revised. The firefighting methods, on the other hand, consist of a continuously evolving and growing set of techniques that are highly sophisticated and include, besides reliance on a vast repertoire of accumulated experience, careful analysis of weather conditions and forecasts. In southern California, some of the most critical weather variables include the occurrence of sundowner and Santa Ana winds, which tend to raise temperatures, lower humidity levels, and drive flames forward.
There was an interesting theme that recurred in the early daily briefings by the Thomas Fire incident command. While the commanders were prepared to deal with sundowners and Santa Ana winds, it was said that the severity and continuity of the wind conditions was “unique,” “unprecedented,” and “not previously experienced.” It was these conditions that propelled the flames forward at an unprecedented speed, caused so much damage early on, and literally drove people to flee for their lives.
For those of us following climate science, those comments struck a chord. We keep hearing those and similar characterizations in connection with the many severe weather disasters that occurred during recent years around the globe, whether it is huge wildfires, unprecedented deluges causing vast flooding and landslides, unparalleled heat waves, record droughts, and more. Almost all these events came with labels like “historic,” “unprecedented,” “record,” and “unmatched.” What meteorologists and climate scientists had once defined as being “100-year,” “500-year,” and “1,000-year” events has become commonplace, occurring far more frequently than the historical climate record would lead us to expect.
“Climate” is a statistical abstract, describing more or less reliable seasonal patterns of daily weather for given geographical regions. For hundreds of years, farmers, merchants, sailors, builders, and anybody whose business is to some degree weather dependent had been able to rely on a certain level of statistical predictability of seasonal weather patterns. This is no longer possible. Indeed, climate scientists talk, in their technical jargon, about “the end of stationarity,” meaning that they are no longer able to forecast future weather patterns by extrapolating from the historical record. Things have changed, and they have changed in the form of increasing instability and unpredictability.
So, while we may not be able to ascribe the monstrosity of the Thomas Fire in any specific sense to climate change, the larger picture is clear. The world’s climates have become a wild ride, and it is this very wildness and weirdness of weather patterns that are a clear sign of climate change. Climate change is no longer something in the future, but it is upon us, it is happening right now. The truly disconcerting part of this insight is that, as the world continues to warm, the impacts of climate change we are experiencing now are just the beginning of a building trend, they are still modest by what may await us in the future as the world continues to warm.
What can and should we do? The lesson is clear: We have been too timid and vacillated too long in taking truly decisive steps in addressing global warming and climate change. We now are faced by a dual task: we must both develop meaningful measures to improve our resilience in the face of already happening climate change (in the case of wildfires, improved methods of forest management, new approaches to regulating human settlement at the urban/wildland interface, etc.), AND seriously increase our efforts to slow down global warming by rapidly reducing all human sources of greenhouse gas releases.
We are not doomed, but the task at hand has grown in scope and urgency and has become truly critical. As we go into the New Year, the most important, most far-reaching, and most urgent New Year’s resolution should be to do our utmost to fight global warming in order to preserve a livable world for future generations.