You’ve seen the apocalyptic images from the Columbia River Gorge, Glacier National Park, and the Los Angeles Suburbs, but those fires are only a small part of the overall picture. Currently there are 13 active wildfires in Washington, 26 in Oregon, 23 in Idaho, 46 in Montana, and 38 in California. I could go on, but you get the idea. (You can find all the data on current fire conditions here.) Smoke from these fires currently envelopes an area stretching north to the Queen Maude Gulf, in the Canadian Arctic, west to Seattle, south to Waco, Texas, and east to Columbus, Ohio.
Why is this happening?
This year has also brought record heat to the West. Just last week, San Francisco recorded its highest temperature ever—106 degrees, three more than the city has ever seen before. It’s been the hottest, driest summer in Seattle—ever. It’s the hottest, driest summer Montana has ever had. When I drove past the La Tuna fire, the largest in Los Angeles’s history, the external temperature gauge in my Land Rover registered 114 degrees.
High temperatures bake out the moisture absorbed by forests during the extremely wet winter. Because heat leads to drier fuel, the relationship between each additional degree of temperature and the likelihood and severity of fire has been found to be exponential: every additional degree of temperature is more likely to lead to fire than the last.
The Drought Persists Despite a Wet Winter
While the historic drought that afflicted the West over the last five years officially ended this winter, its effects are still being felt. In the Sierra Nevada mountains alone, the drought claimed an estimated 26 million trees. Statewide, 102 million have been killed. Most of those have not been cleared, and their dried out husks clutter forest floors, and still stand on mountain sides, creating perfect fuel for wildfires. Forests that once had open ground under the trees are now so cluttered with dead logs that it’s become impossible to walk off-trail across much of the western Sierra.
All this winter’s rain also led to huge growth for grasses and underbrush, which this summer’s record heat then dried out, turning it into massive amounts of tinder. Stack dry grass under a dead log, and you have the perfect recipe for a campfire. Scale that across the entire west and you have our ongoing disaster.
Fire Management Meets Urban Planning and Politics
According to an analysis by the insurance industry, 60 percent of new homes constructed since 1990 are located in what’s known as the Wildland-Urban Interface Area. In short, we’re building our homes in areas that naturally burn. More than $500 billion of homes exist across the 13 western states in areas categorized as at extreme or high risk of wildfires. And that construction is making it more difficult to proactively head off massive fires in those areas with controlled burns.
The other big factor limiting wildfire prevention right now is budget. All these huge fires cost tons of money to fight, and that money is coming out of prevention budgets. Every time a state or the Forest Service has to fight a fire, its financial ability to prevent other fires diminishes.
“As more and more of the agency’s resources are spent each year to provide the firefighters, aircraft, and other assets necessary to protect lives, property, and natural resources from catastrophic wildfires, fewer and fewer funds and resources are available to support other agency work—including the very programs and restoration projects that reduce the fire threat,” reads the U.S. Forest Service’s 2015 budget report. Fifty-two percent of its money went to firefighting that year—a percentage that’s expected to grow to 67 percent by 2025. This year alone, the Forest Service is already $300 million over budget for fire fighting.
The Forest Service knows it needs to change the way it deals with fire, but it’s so busy trying to fight fires, and going so broke fighting them, that it can’t afford to.
Since 1970, the annual wildfire season has grown in duration by 78 days. Since 1984, the area annual burned by wildfire has doubled. The Forest Service estimates that area may double again by 2050.
Climate change is also bringing wildfires to new areas, and to a degree never before seen. Since the 1980s, the area burned annually in the northern Rockies has increased 3,000 percent. In the Pacific Northwest, it’s a 5,000 percent increase over the same period. Between 1978 and 1982, the average burn time of a fire was just six days. Between 2003 and 2012, it was 52 days.
“Warmer temperatures and earlier snowmelt have contributed to drier conditions,” reads the research behind those figures. “But cooler, more moist forests, such as those in the northern Rockies, have seen the greatest drying due to changes in the timing of spring, and the greatest changes in forest wildfire.”
“Observed warming and drying have significantly increased fire-season fuel aridity, fostering a more favorable fire environment across forested systems,” reads another study. “Human-caused climate change caused over half of the documented increases in fuel aridity since the 1970s and doubled the cumulative forest-fire area since 1984.”
How Do We Pay for This?
By the end of the century, the West is projected to warm by an additional 3.5 degrees Celsius. Given the exponential relationship between temperature and wildfire, that’s bad news.
The Forest Service elaborates:
“Changing climatic conditions across regions of the United States are driving increased temperatures—particularly in regions where fire has not been historically prominent. This change is causing variations and unpredictability in precipitation and is amplifying the effects and costs of wildfire. Related impacts are likely to continue to emerge in several key areas: limited water availability for fire suppression, accumulation at unprecedented levels of vegetative fuels that enable and sustain fires, changes in vegetation community composition that make them more fire prone, and an extension of the fire season to as many as 300 days in many parts of the country. These factors result in fires that increasingly exhibit extreme behavior and are more costly to manage. The six worst fire seasons since 1960 have all occurred since 2000. Moreover, since 2000, many western states have experienced the largest wildfires in their state’s history.”
To pay for part of this season’s suppression budget, $300 million for the Forest Service has been written into the Hurricane Harvey relief bill. But the agency is desperately in need of a major new source of funding. If it doesn’t get one, it’s estimated that the budget for other activities, like fire prevention, could shrink by $700 million annually between now and 2025.
This is not a problem we can afford to neglect. The solution to this funding shortfall is obvious—fires need to be treated like the disasters they are, and fighting them needs to be paid for in the same way we deal with other natural disasters, like hurricanes and earthquakes.
“Congress needs to step up and treat these infernos like the natural disasters they are,” says Senator Ron Wyden (D-Oregon), who introduced the Wildfire Disaster Funding Act to congress in 2013. The bill, which has since languished in committee, creates a federal fund dedicated to fire suppression, supplanting budgets drawn from states and the Forest Service’s general budget.
Now, state lawmakers are calling on Congress to revisit the bill. “Congress needs to act,” Oregon Senate President Peter Courtney wrote in a letter to Congress last Friday. “This is no time for politics. It’s time for action. My state is on fire.”
On the morning of November 5th, the highest astronomical tide of the year — the so-called King Tide — will swamp low-lying areas throughout Hampton Roads, with water peaking at 2 feet above mean sea level. By 2050, that is likely to be the new normal.
“King tides are increasingly viewed as harbingers of things to come as sea levels rise,” says Dr. Derek Loftis, an assistant research scientist at William & Mary’s Virginia Institute of Marine Science. “Where the tide reaches on November 5th is where you can expect the water to be just about every day at mid-century.”
Now, Loftis has teamed with environmental reporter David Mayfield of The Virginian-Pilot, which along with WHRO Public Media, the Daily Press, and WVEC-TV are sponsoring a “Catch the King” event that will encourage local citizens to measure the reach of this year’s highest tide using a purpose-built smart-phone app.
The freely available SeaLevelRise app was created by the non-profit Wetlands Watch and software developer Concursive, both based in Norfolk. It allows users to record GPS coordinates as they trace the landward reach of a flood event, whether due to a particularly high tide, a storm, or a combination of the two. The app then uploads these data points to an online map that anyone can see — whether in the app or on the Sea Rising Solutions website.
Supporting the Catch the King event is the Commonwealth Center for Recurrent Flooding Resiliency, a partnership between VIMS, Old Dominion University, and the Virginia Coastal Policy Center at W&M Law School. Professor Mark Luckenbach, Associate Dean of Research and Advisory Services at VIMS, describes the CCRFR as a “‘one-stop shop’ for scientific, socio-economic, legal, and policy analyses aimed at building Virginia’s resilience against flooding.”
The Center was established in 2016 by Virginia’s General Assembly through the support of chief patron Delegate Chris Stolle.
“The Commonwealth’s continued support enables Center researchers like myself to focus on flood-related issues that matter in Virginia,” says Loftis. “The Commonwealth’s investment in research allows me to address issues of national and even global scale, while applying solutions locally.”
Those interested in participating in the Catch the King event can download the SeaLevelRise app for either iOS or Android beforehand; to contribute pictures or GPS data requires establishing a free account. High tides on October 7-8 will provide good opportunities for practice.
Modeling the Tide
Loftis describes the Catch the King event as “a low-stakes dress rehearsal that will help us better understand the risk of recurrent flooding in Hampton Roads, while laying the groundwork for a volunteer data-collection network for use during more substantial flood events.”
In addition to helping local citizens visualize and recognize the threat of rising seas, the Catch the King event will provide critical data for improving the computer models that researchers at VIMS and elsewhere have developed to forecast the reach of coastal flooding.
“Participants will feed valuable data to scientists building predictive models for near-term events like storm surge and for long-term events like climate change,” says Loftis.
Modelers like Loftis and VIMS professors Harry Wang and Joseph Zhang can compare the landward extent of this year’s King Tide as mapped by the citizen-scientists with its extent as calculated in their simulations, using any discrepancies to improve model performance.
This process of “ground-truthing” a model with observed data is a long-standing and important part of model development, and has been used in fields as diverse as marine science, speech recognition, and finance.
“Tidal flooding, especially in urban settings and when compounded by wind and rain, is a complex modeling problem,” says Loftis. “It can be better understood with more field data, whether that’s collected by water-level sensors or citizen-scientists. We’re really excited to see how much ground data we can collect during November’s King Tide.”
San Francisco & Oakland’s Lawsuit Against 5 Oil Companies — More Depth & Context
4½ feet of sea level rise by 2100 would leave more than 75,000 people in San Francisco and Alameda County vulnerable to inundation. It would threaten $100 billion worth of existing property along the California coast
Courts & Climate Change
San Francisco and Oakland are the latest plaintiffs to take their grievances to court. The two cities have filed suit in California state court, alleging that Chevron, ConocoPhillips, ExxonMobil, Shell, and BP not only have contributed to climate change through their business activities but deliberately failed to disclose what they knew about the relationship between carbon emissions and global warming from the public. Those companies, along with three leading coal producers, have been responsible for nearly 15% of all greenhouse gas emissions released since the Industrial Revolution, according to a 2016 Union of Concerned Scientists study.
The San Francisco Bay Area is especially vulnerable to rising sea levels. According to the Pacific Institute, about 4½ feet of sea level rise by 2100 would leave more than 75,000 people in San Francisco and Alameda County vulnerable to inundation. That much rise is at the upper end of projections but not beyond the realm of possibility. It would threaten $100 billion worth of existing property along the California coast. This most recent lawsuit is asking the courts to order the companies to pay into a fund which would then be used to defray the costs associated with protecting San Francisco and Oakland from encroachment by the sea.
Using the courts is becoming more common. Our Children’s Trust has filed suit in federal court on behalf of several young people. That suit is scheduled to go to trial early next year. In addition, two California counties and one city have also filed suit against 37 fossil fuel companies. There is a strong link between these recent suits and the tobacco litigation in the US that ultimately resulted in a more than $200 billion settlement.
The Tobacco Connection
Starting in the 1950s, US tobacco companies created a strategy of denial and deception to protect themselves from liability for deliberately selling products they knew could cause cancer and premature death. Those tactics were subsequently adopted by the fossil fuel industry for the same purpose — to create doubt about the science of climate change. Helped by a welter of interrelated lobbying groups masquerading as “think tanks” or “institutes” funded by the Koch Brothers and other industry actors, their strategy has been to spin a web of deception and lies so they can continue to gorge themselves on the profits derived from their activities.
The Same But Different
Carroll Muffett, president of the Center for International Environmental Law, tells ThinkProgress the cities’ suit is “definitely a continuation of the trend, but it’s actually a very different suit both in scale and the legal strategy behind it. The real important thing in their doing this is that they both highlight the significant costs that cities are having to pay now, and they open up another new and really powerful legal avenue that other city, county, and state governments can pursue to recoup those costs from polluters that played a major role in creating those costs.”
Muffett recognizes the similarities to the tobacco litigation cases, but adds, “It took three decades for a court to find evidence of corporate malfeasance [by tobacco companies]. The real difference is that plaintiffs are going into court now with that evidence of malfeasance in hand. These plaintiffs are much farther along at this stage in litigation than tobacco plaintiffs were.”
Not only is the scientific evidence much stronger, but investigations by the attorneys general of New York and Massachusetts are uncovering damning information regarding what ExxonMobil knew and when they knew it. The evidence suggest that internally, the harm from burning fossil fuels was fully realized in the 1970s but kept from customers and investors in order to protect the value of the company’s stock.
Science Has Evolved Rapidly
“The science of climate attribution has evolved rapidly, both in the ability to attribute greenhouse gas emissions to specific producers of fossil fuels and the ability to actually map those increased emissions to changes in temperature, sea level rise, and ultimately, the harms from specific extreme weather events,” Muffett says. He notes that the tobacco cases began with individuals suing the cigarette manufacturers. Class action suits and involvement by state governments didn’t happen until decades later.
“If you look at the scale and speed of the litigation, while the parallels to tobacco are there, the truth is climate litigation is going much farther, much faster, and the universe of potential plaintiffs and the scale of their potential damages is much greater,” Muffett said. The science about sea level rise is strong today, but is now expanding to show a correlation between fossil fuels and other climate related harm.
In what may be a prophetic statement, Muffett says jurisdictions such as Puerto Rico, the US Virgin Islands, and states along the Gulf Coast could soon look to the courts for assistance in meeting the impact of climate change. Just this week, Puerto Rico and many Caribbean islands have been devastated by Hurricane Maria. Houston was inundated by Hurricane Harvey in August and residents of Florida are only now coming home to the aftermath of Hurricane Irma. “We will see more of these suits and we will start seeing them faster, and the scale of what they address is only going to grow,” he says.
A Legal System Versus A Justice System
The question remains whether the courts are capable or even willing to address the issues these suits raise. One reason San Francisco and Oakland chose to file their claims in state courts is that federal law is ultimately ruled by the 9 members of the US Supreme Court, 5 of whom are dedicated, dyed-in-the-wool, Koch brothers–funded climate deniers. The state courts, particularly in California, have yet to be infected with the Koch brothers virus.
One of the organizations heavily funded by the Kochs is the Federalist Society, which rigorously promotes an extreme corporate agenda. One of the fruits of its advocacy is Citizens United, the Supreme Court decision that opened the floodgates for corporate money to pour into American election campaigns. On its website, the group claims it is “Dedicated to restoring our government to citizens‘ control.” But the truth is, it is solely focused on the rights of corporations and considers the needs of people to be an inconvenient impediment to corporate wealth and exploitation.
With such ideologues waiting for climate change litigation to wend its way through the courts to the hallowed halls of the Supreme Court, there is strong possibility that that those federal suits will ultimately be decided in favor of the corporate defendants. Whether or not such an insult to justice and reason would sit well with the citizens or might trigger a second American Revolution is something only those who can foresee the future could possibly know. America has a legal system. Many would argue that it has been many a year since it had a functioning justice system.