THE BLOG

Are the 'Yarnell 19' Casualties of Climate Change?

07/09/2013 12:54 pm ET | Updated Sep 08, 2013

Nineteen young men died earlier this week fighting a wildfire near Yarnell, Arizona. Across our nation, many thousands expressed the grief that comes when so many are taken before their time. As in the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy and the extreme spring flooding in Europe, a question new to our times is being asked: "What if those courageous men -- husbands, fathers and sons -- would not have died if not for Fossil Fuel Era climate change?"

It is a delicate matter to discuss the connection with climate change so soon after such a tragedy. But it seems clear that, collectively, we will not act -- that is, quickly transfer away from fossil fuels -- until we experience higher and still undefined levels of pain and suffering. Perhaps, then, it is precisely when we are so freshly touched by grief that such discussion, however difficult, is most valuable and, therefore, warranted.

One of the trickiest aspects regarding climate change is to examine a specific event and to determine to what degree it was "caused by climate change." But asking whether the Yarnell wildfire was "caused by climate change" is the wrong question to ask. After all, deadly wildfires have occurred throughout history, as have superstorms, ice-melt and droughts. It is impossible to pinpoint whether a specific event is "caused" by fossil fuel-era climate change

No, the useful questions to ask are: "Is climate change making these events more likely to occur?" and "Is it increasing the intensity, duration and consequences of these events?" Let's take a look at these questions of "attribution to climate change" in light of the Yarnell wildfire.

Objective evidence

The Arctic sea ice is melting. What does the melting Arctic sea ice have to do with wildfires in the American Southwest? More people are becoming aware that an early harbinger of changing climate is the astonishing 80 percent (by total volume) summer disappearance of the continent-size cap of ice that sits atop our planet. Instead of mirror-like ice reflecting some of the sun's energy back out into space, there is newly exposed and darker sea water greedily swallowing the heat. "So what?" you may ask.

This is where scientists come in. Scientists are the folks who have been telling us for a few decades now that the extra heat and energy trapped by increasing greenhouse gasses will result in a chaotic and dangerous-for-humans climate. Scientists who, until recently, we trusted to lead the way when it came to systems of physics and chemistry such as our climate system. Back in 2004, Professor of Earth Sciences Lisa Sloan authored "Disappearing Arctic Ice Reduces Water in the American West," which outlined a suspicion that is turning into a growing certainty in recent years: The extreme warming of the Arctic region is throwing off the enormous wind-current systems (such as the jet stream) that have been regulating weather patterns since the dawn of civilization, resulting in chaotic and extreme weather situations. The study projected Arizona and the American West to experience hotter and drier conditions as a result; just the ingredients for more frequent and intense wildfires.

More recently, Dr. Jennifer Francis, a leading authority on this "Arctic Amplification Effect" has found that, "As the Arctic warms at twice the global rate, we expect an increased probability of extreme weather events across the temperate latitudes of the northern hemisphere, where billions of people live."

Longer fire seasons with worse to come

This year, Forest Service Chief Thomas Tidwell warned that, just as the studies projected, the seasons are hotter, drier and longer thanks to the changing climate. Tidwell said fire seasons are more than sixty days longer than when he was a firefighter. "The snow melts earlier, the fields dry out that much faster and I'll tell you, two more months of fire season is really what's driving a lot of the conditions that we're faced with," Tidwell said during a June 4 hearing before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. "What we're seeing today is a product of the changing climate. Not only the longer fire season, but the record temperatures that we seem to set every year, the record low relative humidities we seem to set every year. And so, it's just all part of it. These are the changed conditions that we now have to deal with."

Additionally, scientists with the U.S. Department of Agriculture have determined that areas burned by wildfires will more than double in size due to climate change while in Arizona and other western states the burned areas are likely to quadruple.

Subjective evidence

There are many, many more scientific studies and warnings that extreme weather events such as the Yarnell wildfire will continue to increase in frequency and intensity as the heat and energy trapped on Earth escalate beyond levels humans have ever experienced. Unfortunately, our species is not yet heeding the warnings. President Obama did finally make a strong speech regarding the climate. Sadly, there are many in Congress who refuse to acknowledge the reality of the situation: Some are bought off by fossil fuel interests, some may be simply ignorant, some may be both. There is no denying that fossil fuels have been extraordinarily convenient and effective in providing the technological conveniences and comforts of modern times. Science, it seems, simply may not be enough to dislodge the few from addiction to mountainous profits and the many from addiction to fossil fuel generated comforts. With that in mind, let's pay a visit to federal chief of fire operations, Tom Boatner.

Mr. Boatner worked on the fire-lines for 30 years before becoming chief of fire operations. He was recently interviewed on the job in Arizona about the connection between climate change and the more numerous and intense wildfires.

Mr. Boatner: "A fire of this size and this intensity in this part of the country would have been extremely rare 15 to 20 years ago, but they are commonplace these days... it's been a huge change."

CBS News: (Narrator) "We wondered if Boatner thought one of the factors might be climate change."

CBS News: (To Mr. Boatner) "You know, there are a lot of people who don't believe in climate change."

Mr. Boatner:
"You won't find them on the fire-line in the American West anymore... We know what we're seeing and we're dealing with a period of climate in terms of temperature and humidity and drought that's different than anything people have seen in our lifetimes."

Dark days

Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer called the day of the Yarnell fire, "As dark a day as I can remember." She is, however, also on record as saying, "I probably don't believe climate change is man-made." This, of course, directly contradicts not only common sense but our own National Academy of Sciences and, at this point, practically every working climate scientist. Their studies foretold today's unfolding events. The men and women on the front lines, fire chiefs, hot shots and volunteers alike, are experiencing first-hand the hard realities of the "new normal."

The challenging process of "climate change attribution" did not begin with the Yarnell wildfire. In 2010, Russia experienced a heat wave and drought about which the Russian Meteorological Society stated, "We have an 'archive' of abnormal weather situations stretching over a thousand years. It is possible to say there was nothing similar to this on the territory of Russia during the last one thousand years in regard to the heat." Two recent studies conclude that there is a 70 to 80 percent chance the heat wave of that intensity would not have occurred without climate change. Fifty-five thousand people died in that heat wave.

There, of course, have been deadly wildfires before the Yarnell wildfire, during the "old normal." The 1994 Storm King wildfire in Colorado, for example, killed 14 firefighters. Probably the Storm King wildfire and, certainly, earlier fires, were not influenced by fossil fuel era climate change. People have always died during extreme weather events and will continue to do so. But, in reality, we are at the very dawning of the "new normal" as climate change begins to ramp up extremes of heat and drought in some areas and storms and flooding in others.

"Did climate change 'cause' the Yarnell fire and, by extension, the deaths of the 19 young men?" This is, as we have seen, not a useful question. "Is climate change creating conditions in Arizona (and throughout the American West) where more frequent and intense wildfires will lead to more 'dark days' for Gov. Brewer and for all of us?" By any and all reputable accounts the answer is "yes." Reason enough, I think, to act. Reason enough to heed our scientists and to adopt the ready-to-go energy and economic policies that will enable us to minimize future tragedies. If Gov. Brewer and our other elected officials disagree, it would be useful to know "why?"