09/16/2014 07:34 pm ET Updated Sep 16, 2014

Wildfire Cost May Soar With Climate Change, Report Warns

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WASHINGTON –- Wildfires may cost the U.S. as much as $62.5 billion a year by 2050 as the effects of climate change worsen, argues an economic analysis released Tuesday.

Wildfires cost the U.S. government $1.7 billion in 2013, but that figure only includes firefighting. It doesn't take into account the loss of private property or timber, the loss of the ecosystem benefits forests provide, or the cost for rehabilitating burned forests. The economic loss caused by wildfires is 10 to 50 times higher than the suppression costs alone, argues a new paper from New York University School of Law's Institute for Policy Integrity, the Environmental Defense Fund, and the Natural Resources Defense Council.

While fighting wildfires is already expensive, costs are projected to rise as the climate changes and fires burn hotter, longer, and over more acres.

Economic damages, the paper's authors argue, should be taken into account when projecting future climate costs. Right now, they are not included in the so-called social cost of carbon figure that the Obama administration uses to evaluate the benefits of avoiding climate change by reducing greenhouse gas emissions. The paper argues it should be -- along with a number of other costs that the three groups document as part of their Cost of Carbon effort.

Wildfires have burned an average of 6.3 million acres each year over the last five years, and some research has projected that size of the area could double by 2050. Combining those related costs and the predictions for climate-fueled fires, the new research projects that the actual economic loss due to wildfires will be $10 billion to $62.5 billion by mid-century.

The new paper is really only "a first attempt at putting together an actual cost of the effect of climate change on the economy through wildfires," report author Peter Howard, an economic fellow at the Institute for Policy Integrity, told The Huffington Post. Howard said the researchers hope the paper will spur further investigation.

Wildfires, Howard said, are just "one of many significant impacts that are being omitted" in current estimates of climate costs. "A lot of impacts of climate change are currently not valued in public policy, and we can do a better job of capturing those," he said.

The groups say that including these additional costs would make the economic case for climate mitigation. "It would be very clear that taking action now would give us a very, very good return," said Laurie Johnson, chief economist for the climate and clean air program at NRDC. "All these costs that aren't in there are real costs."



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