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Why Is the World on Fire?

From Seattle to Portland to the Bay Area, it seems like the whole West Coast is covered in bright orange skies and billowing smoke. Wildfires aren’t a new phenomenon, but we are seeing more and more of them each year.

Written by
Brightly Staff

Nearly 5 million acres in Washington, Oregon, and California are burning this week. Portland’s air quality is the worst globally right now, at 492 on a scale of 500. California is experiencing the most wide-spread wildfire event in recorded history. 

Wildfires might feel outside of our control, but there are ways that human behavior affects the likelihood of wildfires. One of those ways is global warming.

How Humans Are Causing Climate Change

“The primary driver of global warming is the human emission of greenhouse gases,” says Dr. Noah Diffenbaugh, Professor of Earth Systems Science at Stanford University and head of the Climate and Earth Systems Dynamics Group, a research group focused on how the climate system affects people and ecosystems.

Greenhouse gases are released into the atmosphere when we use fossil fuels like coal, petroleum, natural gas, and oil. Much of the energy we use to warm our homes, run our cars, and clean our water is created with the combustion of nonrenewable fossil fuels. 

We all benefit from modern energy sources. But the side effects of greenhouse gas emissions are the temperature swings. These differences in temperature differences cause extreme weather events—such as heatwaves, heavy rainfall, and tropical storms—and create favorable conditions for wildfires.

“We know from careful, objective, hypothesis-driven research that about half of that increase in area burned is attributable to global warming,” says Dr. Diffenbaugh. 

The scientific evidence clearly supports the fact that climate change is happening and actively contributes to these massive wildfires. For scientists, there is no belief in climate change. It’s a proven fact. 

“As I say in my introductory class every year: if you believe in thermometers, then you believe in global warming. If you believe we can measure the weather, then you believe that the frequency of extreme wildfire weather in California has been increasing. It's just a measurement,” says Dr. Diffenbaugh. 

Dr. Diffenbaugh also points out that just because the mean global temperature is rising doesn’t mean that other extreme weather events aren’t impacted by global warming. He says, “we have very strong evidence that, for many different kinds of extremes, global warming is putting a thumb on the scale to make those more likely...And we're certainly living through that right now, here on the west coast.” 

How Climate Change Contributes to Wildfires

Hotter temperatures draw moisture out of the soil and out of trees and ground cover. As the Earth’s temperature rises, dry vegetation becomes the tinder that fuels wildfires. 

The dry vegetation, combined with higher winds and delayed autumnal precipitation, creates the perfect storm of wildfire conditions. 

These conditions have contributed to astonishingly large blazes this year, especially in California. The largest single fire in California’s history is burning in Mendocino County, spanning 750,000 acres. That’s over one and a half times the size of the last record-breaking fire, also in Mendocino County in 2018. 

Of all previous and current wildfires in California, the state is battling four of the top ten most massive wildfires in history. The acreage burned on the West Coast has increased about tenfold in the last four decades. 

What We Can Do to Combat Climate Change

In order to end climate change, there are three main challenges: overcoming inequality in our access to energy, bringing the world’s greenhouse gas emissions to zero, and dealing with the current effects of global warming. 

Energy Access for All

Worldwide, there are 940 million people (about 13% of the world’s population) who do not have access to electricity. Dr. Diffenbaugh says that “to ensure that every person on planet Earth has access to sufficient energy...we're going to have to supply something on the order of four times as much energy as we do now.”

To achieve energy equality for all and reduce our greenhouse gas emissions, we need to look at the energy sources we use. Switching to a non-emitting energy source, such as solar, wind, or hydropower, would be the next step. 

You can check with your utility company to see if they offer a local green power source—nearly 600 utility providers in the US do. 

There are also utility companies that don’t offer their own green energy. Instead, they but buy credits for green energy from other sources. These are called Renewable Energy Certificates, or RECs, and can be purchased through your power provider or a third party. 

Decarbonizing the Planet

To stop global warming and stabilize the climate, all greenhouse gas emissions need to be eliminated. 80-85% of our yearly energy is from fossil fuels, so this would require a radical shift in how the world runs. This is one of the goals of the Paris Climate Agreement

“If the whole world...goes from the 40 billion tonnes of co2 per year that we're emitting now globally to net-zero emissions, in 30 years, then we'll have about a 50% chance of staying below two degrees celsius,” says Dr. Diffenbaugh.

Dealing With the Current Effects of Climate Change

Compared to the pre-industrial era, our global temperature has risen by 1 degree Celsius. Countries that have joined the Paris Climate Agreement are striving to keep that under 1.5 degrees. But as we’ve seen this week, the current effects of climate change are already having a massive impact on our communities. Learning how we can better respond to or mitigate the present consequences is an unanswered question.

Achieving these goals won’t be an easy task. Although everyone needs to do their part, our national and global policies will also need to change.

As Dr. Diffenbaugh says, “It goes well beyond not using plastic bags, it goes well beyond changing one's lightbulbs. Personal choices absolutely matter, [but] it will fundamentally require a restructuring of our energy system and our energy economy. That's just the basic arithmetic and the basic math of the global energy balance.”

Resources We Mentioned