Four Reasons We Investigated the Fossil Fuels Behind Forest Fires: an Inside View of Latest UCS Report

May 16, 2023 | 12:01 am
US Forest Service, Pacific Northwest
Kristy Dahl
Principal Climate Scientist

New research led by the Union of Concerned Scientists and released today quantifies the contribution of heat-trapping emissions from the world’s largest fossil fuel producers and cement manufacturers to worsening wildfires across western North America. The first-of-its-kind study has two main findings, which we detail in a peer-reviewed study and a short report:

  • Nearly 20 million acres of the total area burned by forest fires across the western US and Canada since 1986 can be attributed to the emissions of 88 major fossil fuel producers and cement manufacturers. That’s an area roughly the size of the state of Maine.
  • Emissions from the major 88 fossil fuel producers also contributed roughly half the increase in drought- and fire-danger conditions across western North America since 1901.

What the report and study don’t tell you, though, is why we undertook this research. This post gives you a peek behind the curtains and explains why we did what we did (and what we hope comes out of it).

1 – People and places are struggling with wildfire
As a climate scientist living in California and witnessing the consequences of decades of unchecked climate change, my personal and professional lives often overlap. Last summer, my family and I went on a long, winding road trip through California and Oregon. As we crossed into the first national park on our trip, we were met by acres upon acres of blackened, dead trees—victims of the Dixie Fire, which burned nearly one million acres in 2021.

Acres upon acres of scorched trees in Lassen Volcanic National Park following the 2021 Dixie Fire in northern California. The fire’s footprint includes 69% of the park. Kristina Dahl

As a person, as a mom, these scenes are heart wrenching, and I wonder how on Earth my generation or my kids’ generation is going to cope with increasingly frequent fires like this.

But as a climate scientist, I know the reasons why these changes are happening—climate change and forest management, to name two—and I’m acutely aware of the evidence that’s shown how western wildfires are burning larger areas more severely and over a lengthening period of the year. And it’s within my purview to quantify this problem and advocate for solutions.

So a little over a year ago, I pulled together a group of colleagues and suggested we undertake an analysis that would shine a light on the root causes of the region’s wildfire crisis. It’s a project that came from our hearts as well as our science minds.

2 – Broadening the conversation around corporate accountability for wildfires
Equipment from Pacific Gas & Electric, California and the nation’s largest public utility, was found to have sparked the Dixie Fire (the state’s second-largest wildfire on record), the Camp Fire (the state’s deadliest wildfire on record), and dozens of other California wildfires. As a result, conversations about who should be held accountable for wildfire damages in California have focused squarely on PG&E’s culpability and its lack of maintenance on its equipment.

PG&E is being held accountable insomuch as they have had to pay billions of dollars in damages for claims related to recent wildfires. But in the process, they’ve declared bankruptcy and begun billing their customers for the costs of wildfire recovery.

But PG&E is just the source of the spark. There’s a much bigger set of corporate actors we’ve been ignoring: major carbon polluters around the world who foresaw the changes in climate we’re experiencing today and, instead of changing their business models or alerting policymakers, did exactly the opposite.

In designing our study, we wanted to answer one central question: How much of the increase in wildfire activity in western North America is attributable to emissions from the world’s largest fossil fuel producers and cement manufacturers?

3 – Connecting the dots on worsening wildfires

Going into the analysis, we knew two important facts from previous research:

  • Emissions traced to the world’s largest fossil fuel producers and cement manufacturers have contributed significantly to the increase in global temperature, global sea level rise, and ocean acidification.
  • Human-caused climate change is the primary driver of the rise in hot, dry fire-danger conditions across western North America over the last four decades. As those conditions ramp up, forest burned area increases exponentially.
  • We wanted to extend each of those lines of research so that they met in the middle. Was there a quantifiable relationship between the rise in global temperature and the rise in hot, dry fire-conditions in the western US and Canada? If so, how much had corporate emissions contributed to that rise and to the cumulative burned forest area in recent decades?
  • We knew that if we were able to connect those dots, that is, to link emissions from major carbon producers to the rise in wildfire activity we’ve experienced in western North America, the study could inform and bolster the growing number of lawsuits filed by cities, counties, and states against fossil fuel companies.

4 – Building wildfire resilience will be costly…who’s paying the bills?
For thousands of years, Indigenous communities across western North America lived alongside wildfire in part because they understood the importance of setting frequent, low-intensity fires for maintaining ecosystem health, encouraging the growth of certain foods, improving hunting areas, and other benefits.

As settler colonialists moved into the area, they banned, and in some cases, criminalized intentional burning, and “living alongside wildfire” came to mean “suppressing all fires.”  

It’s now widely recognized that suppressing every fire was a huge mistake because the buildup of vegetation in our forests is a factor in the region’s worsening wildfires. There’s also increasing recognition that there is much to learn from Indigenous groups with traditional ecological knowledge and cultural burning experience.

And so forest managers are again trying to figure out how to live alongside wildfire—this time in a climate that has significantly amplified wildfire risks and activity.

There is a lot we can do to build our resilience to wildfire at all scales from local and state to federal and international. While investments in wildfire resilience pay off in the long term, they will be costly in the short term.

To date, it’s largely been the general public footing that bill, whether it’s through surcharges on our utility bills or taxes that contribute to resilience-building efforts. In the meantime, fossil fuel companies are raking in record profits from a system they carefully crafted.

When I looked out at the millions of burned trees on our road trip last summer, those thoughts of “how are we going to deal with this?” were followed by a question that policymakers, legal experts, and communities are asking: “Who, exactly, is ‘we’?” Who is responsible for climate change and its impacts? How much responsibility does each entity bear? What is the obligation of those entities to contribute to the costs?

The research we released today in The Fossil Fuels Behind Forest Fires can’t answer all those questions. But it will help to inform those answers. By demonstrating that fossil fuel companies have long been fanning the flames of forest fires, this new research suggests it’s time they start paying their fair share.