Wildfires and the Economic Woes of Global Warming

The Fourth Assessment of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) used some sophisticated computer models to indicate what conditions to expect as global warming continues. The combination of increasing temperatures and dry conditions predicted for some areas suggest that there will be more wildfires and they will be of longer duration. This will require increasing expense both to control the fires and to repair the damage they do. There’s convincing evidence that this trend, increases in both frequency and duration of wildfires, is well underway 

Recent events in Southern California give a tragic illustration of how ambient conditions can produce wildfires. Much of the region has had little or no rain, making the foliage extremely dry. High temperatures had been in the 90s, and there were strong winds over a period of several days, perfect conditions for the slightest cause to produce an intense and rapidly spreading wildfire. Investigations showed, for example, that a spark from an automobile, that wouldn’t have caused a major fire under other conditions, started a blaze that destroyed hundreds of homes.

In November of this year, day after day one fire after another broke out. As they raged on the enormous damage, the large number of persons displaced from their destroyed homes, and severe health-threatening air pollution caused Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger to declare a state of emergency in four counties

At about the same time as the first large fire began, researchers at the University of California at Berkeley released a report of a study on the economic consequences to California of climate change. According to the report, damage to public and private property caused by climate change, including wildfires, could come to as much as $23 billion a year.

Governor Schwarzenegger recently observed that the "wildfire season" in California had gone from a few months in the fall to a much longer duration. No doubt he recognized a connection to global warming. The increasing frequency of wildfires, and more generally the growing awareness of their cost, has made some of the public and a growing number of policymakers recognize that climate change is an important political issue. This recognition comes at a time when the economy is at the worst it’s been in decades. The cost of climate change will worsen the deterioration of the economy, both in the U.S. and globally, and the deterioration of the economy will make it more difficult to deal with climate change. 

Firefighters struggled valiantly to contain the blazes, but without much success while the intense winds were blowing. Gusts up to 70 miles peer hour, that often quickly changed direction, made the usual methods of fighting fires virtually useless. Embers, carried by the wind a quarter of a mile or more, were a special threat in spreading the conflagration; when they landed in a hot dry patch it went up like tinder, quickly forming a new blaze. 

By the time the winds abated and the firefighters began getting control, nearly a thousand homes had been destroyed and many more were damaged. In addition a number of commercial and medical structures, buildings on a college campus, and two churches were destroyed. The extensive burning of chaparral, trees, and other foliage, created air pollution even at considerable distances from the fires – this in a region where smog had been demonstrated to be a severe threat to health.

While there’s no way of putting a price on some of the irreplaceable possessions destroyed by the fires or the damage to health of particles entering the lungs, and possibly the blood, the cost of fighting the flames can be worked out. The governor and local officials gave assurances that they would spare no expense in fighting the fires and their consequences. But both the state and localities are already facing budget deficits that are requiring cutbacks in essential services. In the state, for example, deep cuts had to be made to balance out an anticipated multibillion-dollar shortfall in revenues. The cutting was painful; yet since it was completed just a few months ago the deteriorating economy has brought about new enormous shortfalls in revenues and the need for more cutbacks. 

Presumably the recession will end, but the UC Berkeley study forecasts unremitting gloom for California’s economy. Indeed the report warns that the current economic crisis should not stop the effort against global warming because there is a tradeoff: the more the temperature rises the greater the damage to real estate assets. Specifically, it urges that lawmakers not let the current economic crisis shift their attention away from the state’s progressive campaign to reduce emissions of greenhouse gasses and develop cleaner sources of energy. "The report is intended to awaken the public and particularly policymakers to the reality of climate risk," said David Roland-Holst, a UC Berkeley economist.

The study estimated that damage to public and private property in California from wildfires, rising sea levels, and extreme weather events would reach from $3.5 billion to $23 billion a year, depending on how much the temperature rises. The study covered a wide range of property at risk including homes, buildings, roads, bridges, reservoirs, airports, power lines, beaches, farms, and forests. In addition to considering these existing assets, the report urges policymakers to consider the effects of greenhouse gases when making decisions about where and how to build new bridges, buildings, and other infrastructure, and it warns of the need for more efficient use of increasingly scarce water.

What’s true for California is true for the rest of the country, and for many nations in the rest of the world. Economic hard times brought on by the recession will be made a lot worse by the effects of climate change. This is strong support for a proposal recently made by Mark Hertsgaard, environment correspond at The Nation magazine.

Hertsgaard is struck, not by the urgency shown for the financial crisis, but that the greatest emergency of our time, the climate crisis, receives relatively so little attention. He acknowledges that the financial crisis is "painful and severe" but it can be resolved, given time and wise policies. He’s correct, although so far there’s been little evidence of wisdom in dealing with it.

The climate crisis is a different matter. The climate system has tipping points; once passed there is no simple return. James Hansen of NASA, perhaps the country’s leading scientist concerning climate change, testified before Congress last June warning that the planet is on the verge of "disastrous climate change that spirals dynamically out of humanity’s control."  Averting this catastrophe, according to Hansen, "is, barely, still possible. It requires a transformative change of direction in Washington in the next year. One thing Hansen has in mind is the meeting in Copenhagen next year when the U.S. and other governments convene to negotiate new reductions in greenhouse gas emissions.

The path to making the significant reductions needed, if intelligently designed, can also have a profound effect on the financial crisis — not the financial crisis that Wall Street brought on itself but the deepening recession that threatens jobs and the standard of living. The solution is not pouring more money into banks but creating green jobs and green investments on an enormous scale. In Hertsgaard’s phrase this means making a "massive shift" away from fossil fuels and toward greater energy efficiency and renewable sources.

During the campaign President-elect Obama advocated spending money on "green" programs but not the massive amounts that Hertsgaard calls for. Obama originally proposed spending only $15 billion a year in this way. The deepening recession no doubt has convinced him that spending more money on pump priming is urgent, but will the chief goal be creating jobs and investing in programs aimed specifically at reducing global climate change? Obama’s appointments so far give no reason to think so.

Obama’s constant theme in campaigning was "change." Progressives will have to work tirelessly to assure that there really is meaningful change, rather than too much more of the same thing.

Also see the earlier Toward Freedom article by Al Huebner Burning Earth: Linking Wildfires to Global Warming

Photo from Treehugger.com