Wildfires in western North America have been worsening over the past few decades, causing severe damage to communities and ecosystems. A recent study led by researchers at the Union of Concerned Scientists has linked these wildfires to carbon emissions traceable to the world’s largest fossil fuel and cement companies. The research found that over a third of the total area burned by forest fires in the western United States and southwestern Canada since 1986 is attributable to the “Carbon Majors” – the 88 largest fossil fuel and cement companies that have contributed a majority of the carbon emissions warming the planet.
The findings offer new insights into corporate actors’ responsibility for the climate impact of worsening wildfires. This article explores the study’s implications and its significance in the context of climate accountability lawsuits targeting fossil fuel producers.
Connecting Fossil Fuel Emissions to Wildfire Risks
The new analysis is the first to link emissions from the carbon majors to wildfire conditions and burned area, connecting pollution sources to observed climate impacts. The study found that emissions from these top 88 fossil fuel and cement companies are upping the drying power of the atmosphere, which elevates severe fire risk. The research also found that these companies’ emissions account for nearly half of the long-term rise in a metric of atmospheric drying that indicates the atmosphere’s ability to dry out vegetation, making it more flammable and leading to bigger fires.
Implications for Climate Accountability
The study has important implications for corporate climate accountability and may help bolster litigation aimed at holding fossil fuel producers liable for climate-related damages. The findings provide clear and compelling evidence of how emissions from the fossil fuel industry worsen wildfires, making it easier to hold them accountable for the impacts and costs of climate change.
Responsibility and Accountability
The study raises questions about who bears responsibility for wildfire-related harms, especially the financial burden that is currently borne by the general public. The authors of the study argue that at least some of that responsibility should be placed on the fossil fuel industry, which has known since the 1960s about the impacts of their products on the climate but worked to publicly deny these dangers and disseminate disinformation on climate while blocking policy action in this area.
Strengthening Climate Lawsuits
The research can strengthen climate accountability lawsuits by providing clear evidence linking emissions from the world’s leading carbon producers to wildfire events across western North America. Nearly half of the lawsuits filed by more than two dozen cities, counties, and states in the United States seeking to hold fossil fuel producers liable for their campaigns of deception and worsening climate impacts mention wildfire. The study can serve as a valuable resource to inform and support climate accountability lawsuits targeting fossil fuel producers.
The study’s findings provide further evidence of the consequences of fossil fuel emissions on the climate and the environment. The research highlights the importance of corporate accountability in addressing climate change and the need for urgent action to reduce carbon emissions. The study’s implications go beyond the legal sphere and underscore the need for policymakers, businesses, and individuals to take action to mitigate the impacts of climate change. As wildfires continue to ravage western North America, the study offers a stark reminder of the urgent need to transition to a low-carbon economy and protect our planet for future generations.
Here are some answers to frequently asked questions about wildfires:
Q: What is the definition of a wildfire?
A: A wildfire is an uncontrolled fire that occurs in an area of combustible vegetation, such as forest, grassland, or prairie.
Q: What can cause a wildfire?
A: Wildfires can be caused by a variety of factors, including lightning strikes, human activity, and natural events such as volcanic eruptions.
Q: Where are the worst wildfires in the world?
A: The worst wildfires in the world have occurred in various locations, including Australia, the United States, Russia, and Canada.
Q: Where has the most wildfires?
A: The United States has the most wildfires of any country in the world.
Q: Where was the biggest wildfire in history?
A: The biggest wildfire in recorded history occurred in Siberia in 2020, burning over 2.4 million hectares.
Q: Where and when was the biggest wildfire?
A: The biggest wildfire on record occurred in Alberta, Canada in 1950, burning over 1.4 million hectares.
Q: What is the longest wildfire in the world?
A: The longest wildfire on record occurred in Australia in 1974, burning for over six months.
Q: What is the biggest wildfire in the world?
A: The biggest wildfire on record occurred in Australia in 1974, burning over 4 million hectares.
Q: What is the world’s largest forest fire?
A: The largest forest fire on record occurred in Siberia in 1910, burning over 16 million hectares.
Q: What is the most famous wildfire?
A: The most famous wildfire in recent history is likely the Camp Fire that occurred in California in 2018, which destroyed over 18,000 structures and claimed 85 lives.
Q: What forest fire killed the most people?
A: The deadliest forest fire in recorded history occurred in Peshtigo, Wisconsin in 1871, claiming an estimated 1,500 lives.
Q: Why does California have the most wildfires?
A: California is prone to wildfires due to its dry climate, high winds, and large areas of vegetation that can fuel fires. Human activity, such as accidental ignitions and power line failures, also contribute to the high number of wildfires in the state.
Q: Which region in Europe has the most wildfires?
A: Southern Europe, including countries such as Greece, Portugal, and Spain, is the region in Europe that experiences the most wildfires.
Q: How many wildfires does California have a year?
A: The number of wildfires in California varies from year to year, but on average the state sees around 7,500 wildfires annually.
Q: What is the summary of wildfires?
A: Wildfires are uncontrolled fires that can occur in areas of combustible vegetation such as forests and grasslands. They can be caused by a variety of factors and can have significant impacts on the environment and human health.
Q: How long have wildfires been around?
A: Wildfires have been around for millions of years and are a natural part of many ecosystems. However, human activities can exacerbate wildfire frequency and severity.
Q: How can we prevent California wildfires?
A: Some measures to prevent California wildfires include reducing the risk of power line failures, managing forests to reduce fuel loads, and implementing restrictions on outdoor burning during high-risk periods.
Q: How long do California wildfires last?
A: The duration of California wildfires varies widely and depends on factors such as weather conditions, fuel availability, and firefighting efforts.
Q: How long is fire season in California?
A: Fire season in California typically lasts from late summer to early autumn, although wildfires can occur at any time of the year if conditions are favorable.
Q: What are the effects of wildfires on the environment?
A: Wildfires can have significant impacts on the environment, including loss of vegetation and habitat, decreased air and water quality, and soil erosion.
Q: Effects of wildfires on humans?
A: Wildfires can have a range of negative impacts on human health, including respiratory problems from smoke inhalation, injuries from burns or falling debris, and mental health issues such as anxiety and PTSD.
Q: Wildfires are not caused by climate change?
A: While wildfires are a natural part of many ecosystems, climate change can exacerbate wildfire risk by creating drier and hotter conditions that increase the likelihood of ignition and fuel availability.
Q: Where are wildfires most common?
A: Wildfires are most common in areas with dry climates, high winds, and combustible vegetation, such as forests and grasslands. Some areas with high wildfire risk include California, Australia, the Mediterranean region, and parts of South America and Southeast Asia.