The American West has always had wildfires, but not like this one. The flames are spreading further and burning longer, burning villages and exposing millions of people to noxious smoke. While a century of fire suppression and other land management options contribute to the severity, climate change is a key factor fueling these fires. roughly doubling the area burned in the last 40 years. A new study takes this connection a step further, arguing that a significant portion of the forests burned, nearly 20 million acres, can be traced back to major fossil fuel companies.

The study, published Tuesday in the peer-reviewed journal Environmental Research Letters, is the first to quantify how corporate emissions have worsened wildfires. Experts say the new research could help advance growing efforts to take polluters to court.

“These companies should be held accountable for their fair share of the damage they have caused,” said Carly Phillips, a co-author of the new study and a research scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists’ Science Hub for Climate Litigation. “They lied and engaged in this orchestrated campaign of deception for years, and it didn’t have to be that way, right?”

Researchers from the Union of Concerned Scientists and the University of California, Merced found that 37 percent of the forests burned in the western United States and southwestern Canada since 1986 can be linked to carbon pollution from 88 of the largest oil, gas and coal producers in the world. companies. That group includes Chevron, ExxonMobil, BP, and Shell; state oil producers like Saudi Aramco and Gazprom; and cement manufacturers. The researchers considered the emissions emitted directly by the operations of these companies, as well as the indirect emissions from the products they sold.

Since 2017, cities and states have filed about 20 lawsuits against fossil fuel companies based on state laws that prohibit misleading advertising, seeking money to adapt to the effects of climate change. The lawsuits were triggered by investigations that showed that exxons, Shelland coal companies He knew of the dangers of skyrocketing carbon emissions for decades, but publicly downplayed the threat. After years of delayshe The Supreme Court refused to get involved. in these cases last month, clearing the way for them to proceed, potentially to jury trials.

The study comes as spring fires burn across western Canada during an unusually warm and dry spring, with about 1 million acres burning throughout the province of Alberta. An early heat wave pushed temperatures above 90 degrees in parts of the typically mild Pacific Northwest over the weekend, with Seattle and Portland breaking heat records at least three days in a row. The same dome of heat is expected to fan the flames of almost 90 fires burning in Alberta.

It is difficult to draw a direct line between global warming and forest fires. But recent advances in “attribution science,” the field that identifies the role of climate change in heat waves, droughts, sea level rise, and other phenomena, have made it possible to quantify its effect on fires. The new study is based on a key risk factor called “vapor pressure deficit”, a measure of how “thirsty” the atmosphere is. Higher temperatures cause moisture to be stripped from vegetation, turning forests into tinderboxes waiting for a spark.

Photo of dead trees in an ashen landscape
Wildfires ripped through western Alberta, Canada, leaving a burned landscape, on May 10, 2023.
Megan Albu/AFP via Getty Images

To find out how company emissions contributed to fire danger conditions in the West, the researchers relied on a previous study which linked emissions from 88 large fossil fuel producers to rising temperatures. They then compared two models of what dry forests would look like under different climate scenarios: one modeled in the real world, and the other excluding emissions associated with the 88 companies.

“The main contribution of this study is connecting all the dots between specific sources of human-related carbon emissions and recent increases in wildfire activity,” said Philip Higuera, a professor of fire ecology at the University of Montana. who did not participate. in the study. “Most of the links have been well known for a long time, but this is the first study to connect the dots quantitatively.”

Exxon and BP did not respond to Grist’s request for comment in time for publication.

Jessica Wentz, a fellow at Columbia University’s Sabin Center for Climate Change Law, thought the findings could be used to support existing lawsuits or provide the impetus for other local governments to file their own. Wentz said the investigation could be relevant to a case in Colorado, where the city and county of Boulder, along with San Miguel County, have sued Suncor Energy and ExxonMobil, seeking millions of dollars to upgrade their infrastructure to withstand climate change. “That’s the only lawsuit where wildfire-related damages are front and center,” Ella Wentz said.

However, translating the investigation into a specific court case could be tricky. The study looked at a large region, all of western North America, and the total emissions of 88 companies. Lawyers may be able to use the new research to estimate wildfire risk in a smaller area, say Boulder County, but it would require some extrapolation. To calculate damages, a court might want to see a more detailed analysis, Wentz said. “It really is a completely open question how the courts will consider the evidence and how detailed claimants will need to be in terms of providing scientific data to support their claims. We just don’t know yet.”

In a way, the long delays in these climate court cases have actually given some ammunition to cities and states seeking to hold fossil fuel companies accountable. The extra time has allowed the science of weather attribution to mature, so that if these cases do end up going to trial, cities and states have more evidence to back their case. “It’s kind of a weird silver lining,” Wentz said.


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