How does climate change connect to the California wildfires?

By Noelle W. ’23

In the last few months, thirty-one people have been killed and over four  million acres have been burned all over California, resulting in deadly smoke, ash, and apocalyptic orange skies across the west coast. 

The California wildfires have been burning since August, with little signs of letting up soon. What started as record heat waves and an unusual lightning storm has grown into the most devastating wildfire season California has seen in many years. Worsened by global warming, these fires are likely to return next year, resulting in even more destruction.

“Experts agree that human behavior, land management, arson, and the effects of climate change caused by human industrial activity helped spur these massive fires, worse than any in recent memory,” wrote science journalist Matthew Rozsa in Salon. 

The fires, which mainly started from a major lightning storm in late August, have escalated due to a lack of rain, record high temperatures, and fierce winds. They are now releasing huge amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, exacerbating the already dangerous heat waves in California.  

“One thing [heat] does, it causes the ground [and] plant life to dry out, which makes it a lot easier once things do catch fire, for things to spread and burn very quickly,” said Environmental Science Teacher Brittany SchlaeGuada. “The warm air also causes weird things to happen like the lightning surges we had which isn’t typical for this area. The actual temperature effects are due to global warming and climate change, and the fires are a subsequent repercussion of that.”

Beyond identifying the numerous factors that contribute to the escalation of wildfires, it is also important to note the key differences between climate and weather in order to understand the causes behind them.

“Climate is essentially the long-term average weather,” wrote Dean L. Urban, Professor of Environmental Sciences and Policy at Duke University in an email to Salon. “So in the west now we’re seeing a warming climate, plus a long-term drought, plus freakish short-term weather (for example, the lightning storms in [California], and the crazier than usual winds). Climate change and weather are linked, of course, in that under climate change we expect warmer weather but we also expect more extreme events.”

The widespread impact of wildfires this year has caused many Californians to seriously consider the influences and effects of climate change.

“[When] people think about climate change, they think [about how] the weather gets hotter or ice caps are melting,” said SchlaeGuada. “[They think about these effects of climate change] that are far away, not really measurable, and that don’t usually come into contact with our lives, but the truth is that climate change and its effects are kind of everywhere and people are starting to realize that with the seriousness of fires this year.”  

Although the denial of climate change has decreased as people start to personally experience it’s effects, it still makes a difference when public leaders recognize and respond to it’s presence. 

California’s governor, Gavin Newsom acknowledged this influence of climate change in a September interview: “The debate is over around climate change. Just come to the state of California. Observe it with your own eyes. It’s not an intellectual debate. It’s not even debatable.”

However, Newsom hasn’t just accepted the reality of climate change. He has begun taking much-needed action on behalf of California to reduce it’s impacts. 

“One thing that [Governor Newsom] just signed recently was an executive order in the next 15 years to make California’s car market 100% emission free.” said SchlaeGuada. “So that all new vehicles sold in the state of California 15 years from now will all be electric vehicles or some other type of renewable source. He’s taking strides to try and push California in a better direction when it comes to climate change.” 

Newsom isn’t alone as he combats our climate crisis. Many Californians have been coming up with their own proposed solutions over the last few years. Some popular suggestions include forest management and stronger fire regulations, which although easier to implement, will only provide temporary relief. 

“If we do not address the climate change issue, no amount of forest management is going to avoid this sort of situation in the future,” said Professor Francis E. Putz, botanist at the University of Florida in an interview with Matthew Rozsa.

It is clear that we need a long-term plan set in motion—and soon—as many climate scientists have predicted the wildfires to continue in the coming years, likely getting worse over time. 

This article was originally published in The Athenian Pillar, Athenian’s student-run publication, on October 24, 2020.

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