Flash Point: Wildfires and Climate Change Perception

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The Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) on NASA's Terra satellite shows fires around the world. Credit: NASA

The Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) on NASA’s Terra satellite shows fires around the world. (Click on image to see full size map) Credit: NASA


Wildfires and Climate Change Perception

By Michelle Mercer • April 26, 2013


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After Superstorm Sandy ravaged the East Coast last fall, climate change was a ubiquitous cover story, spurring a national conversation about its current and future effects. Though wildfires have also been connected to climate change, megafires like Waldo Canyon have been slower to raise concern about the effects of increased warming.

Dave Petersen

Dave Petersen

When it comes to wildfires, research biologist Dave Petersen is careful to distinguish what can and cannot be attributed to climate change.

“Climate is a dominant factor,” Peterson says. “But the actual impact of any particular large wildfire will depend on the fuels present in that area.”

Still, the science is in: our hotter, drier climate is making wildfires worse, contributing to more acres burned each year. In January the U.S. Department of Agriculture released a comprehensive report on current and predicted effects of climate change on U.S. forests.

Peterson co-authored the report. “2012 was kind of a milestone because we had more area burned in forests in the Western U.S. than we ever had in any year since we started keeping records in 1960,” he says. “The fire season seems to be getting longer in the West, and that seems to be a trend and it’s a little bit of a sign of the effects of increased warming.”

And seeing a wildfire roar down into your neighborhood can have a profound affect on your climate change views. Bill McKibben, one of America’s foremost writers on climate change, says extreme events often shift public opinion.

“The biggest factor that affects public perception on a day to day basis is what’s happening right outside their doors. In the last three years or so, the public concern about climate change has spiked, spiked dramatically. And the reason is pretty obvious. Something like 85% of American counties have had a federally declared disaster over that period.”

According to a Rasmussen poll, the number of Americans who thought global warming was a serious issue did reach a new high of 68 percent in 2012. But here in Colorado Springs, more random polling suggests even the Waldo Canyon megafire left many unconvinced.

There are a few reasons why extreme events like hurricanes or wildfires might not have a galvanizing effect on public climate change opinion. For one thing, discussion of climate change’s role in a disaster must compete with other more emotional narratives: for example, stories of the impacted community rising from the ashes to overcome the disaster or reports questioning emergency management response and government policy in the affected area.

Bill McKibben

Bill McKibben

“It’s sometimes easier to say if only we had some little fix we could make, some change in forest management,” says McKibben. “Those things might or might not help around the edges. But the fact remains that we’ve raised the temperature of the planet 1 degree centigrade, and that’s led to all kinds of drought and all kinds of problems. The numbers are just remarkable. Anyone who looks at them begins to understand what’s going on.”

But when it comes to perception of climate science, prior political and religious beliefs can overwhelm even the impact of experiencing a climate-related disaster first-hand. Catamount Institute co-founder and Colorado College professor Howard Drossman identifies two types of conservatism that can condition attitudes toward climate science.

“One is the free marketers, the people who don’t want regulation,” says Drossman. “Their politics will drive what they see about the science, and they say I don’t want to be regulated and therefore I don’t believe in climate change. The other pocket is fundamental conservatism. I think if you’re taking an extreme fundamentalist view of issues, either science is right, or religion is right.”

But Drossman says climate change’s credibility goes up when it’s instead presented as an opportunity: “When you put it as an upbeat message that this is a challenge and it’s going to spur new businesses and get solar technologies and help to improve the health of our forests, and we can do it, it turns out that that’s a politically neutral message.”

As the wildfire threat continues across the West, the message of climate change’s economic possibility is exactly what Senator Mark Udall is trying to sell.

“We need in the long run to create clean energy that’s low carbon in its emissions,” says Udall. “We also, by the way, in so doing will create markets all over the world. So this could be an upbeat and optimistic scenario for us if we’ll embrace it and take advantage of these opportunities.”

In the meantime, organizations like Fire Adapted Communities are helping neighborhoods prepare for the ongoing threat of wildfire. And we’ll need to be ready: The U.S. Forest Service projects that by 2050 the area burned each year by wildfires will at least double if climate change continues on its present track.

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Return to Main Flash Point page


• USGS Climate Connections: Questions from Colorado

• Climate Change Perceptions [.pdf]

• Catamount Center

• The National Climate Assessment Report (US Forest Service)

• The Hazard of Wildfires (Brookings Institute)

• Wildfires: A Symptom of Climate Change (NASA)

• Colorado Climate Trends

• Graph: Annual Precipitation & Wildfires in Colorado Springs

• McKibben: On Climate Change, Adaptation and Prevention


• CSFD Wildfire Mitigation Information

• Colorado Springs: Community Wildfire Protection Program

• Colorado Springs Fire Department WUI Interactive Map

• Colorado State Forest Service Risk Assessment Map

• Fire Adapted Communities

• Firewise Communities


• Ready Colorado

• Pack a Kit

• Pack a Kit (Spanish)

• Ready, Set, Go!

• Plan for Pets in Advance of an Emergency

• Build a Kit

USGS Climate Connections: Questions from Colorado


Questions addressed in the video:

1- What is it in Colorado that has been affected by climate change, and what can I do to better inform myself?
2- Are the wildfires in 2012 related to climate change?
3- Is the beetle infestation related to climate change?
4- How does the ocean change the climate?

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Related Information:


Annual Precipitation and Wildfires in Colorado Springs (Courtesy of Matt Mayberry, Director Pioneers Museum)

AnnualPrecipCS_CourtesyMattMayberry_DirectorPioneersMuseum(Click for a larger image)


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On Climate Change: Adaptation and Prevention (McKibben)

“Here’s the mantra you have to use: one has to adapt to that one can’t prevent—and we’ve already changed the climate considerably. Look at the winters in Colorado, the snowpack, the other indicators, including the spread of the bark beetle as temperatures rise. I can tell you, if that’s what happens with one degree, a rise of five degrees will create a situation where we’re beyond adaptation. So the flip side of that mantra is you have to prevent that to which you cannot adapt. That’s why the most important work isn’t about clearing the shrubs around your house; it’s about making sure your senators are voting against the Keystone pipeline, and fighting seriously for changes in climate policy and getting the things done that give us a fighting chance anyway.”
-Bill McKibben, Writer and Environmentalist

Rolling Stone:: Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math by Bill McKibben

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Main Flash Point: Living with Wildfire page
A Disaster Is A Disaster: The Nature Of Emergency Management
Waldo Canyon Fire Victims: Recovering Without Rebuilding
The Wildland Urban Interface: Where the Wilderness Meets Civilization
The Double Bind: Forest Treatment In The Age of Megafires
• Wildfires and Climate Change Perception


One Response to Flash Point: Wildfires and Climate Change Perception

  1. Mary Ellen Davis says:

    Thanks for the big picture on attitudes about climate change.