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Waldo Canyon and wildfire patterns point to future climate consequences

Experts abandon equivocation to say western wildfire patterns have been altered by climate change.

Utility workers search for gas leaks in the Mountain Shadows subdivision

For most Americans the notion of “climate refugees” is a problem safely distant in both miles and time — a consequence of 2010’s flooding in Bangladesh, or coming sea-level rise in the Maldive Islands.

Maybe the string of nightly news reports from the Waldo Canyon wildfire will begin to change that.

I guess I’ll just go ahead and get all the to-be-sures out of the way right here, so we can get on to more important things:

  • To be sure, wildfire has been a fact of life on Colorado’s Front Range for a very long time.
  • To be sure, neither this fire nor any other extreme weather event can be definitively laid to the changes that global warming is driving in the world’s climate regimes.
  • And to be sure, Earth’s history is full of severe weather events and dramatic climate shifts that predate industrialization and its globe-changing consequences.

But sure as you’re reading this, massive displacements of people by climate shifts and weather events will be a fundamental shaping factor of life on this planet in the near and perhaps very near future — and at scales that will make the evacuation of 32,000 people from Waldo Canyon seem trivial.

Who counts as a refugee?

As with everything connected to global warming, there is much controversy around the notion of “climate refugees.” But, in a welcome change, the arguments aren’t about whether the climate is really changing or whether greenhouse gases are really causing this.

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Rather, the debates revolve around terminology and definitions: Must people be driven a long distance, or across a national border, to be counted as a refugee? Must their displacement be permanent? Shouldn’t some of this movement be counted as normal, even beneficial, migration?

International law defines refugees quite precisely as people fleeing war, violence or serious political persecution in their homelands, and some agencies invested in aiding refugees strongly resist broadening the term to include people fleeing death threats from their environment as opposed to their government.

For example, a recent post on the Refugees International blog was headlined, “There’s No Such Thing As a Climate Refugee,” and explained:

The term “climate refugees” is misleading, legally incorrect, and dismissed by those who are facing displacement from environmental harm. . . . The 1951 Refugees Convention only provides protection to people residing outside of their country of origin, and who have a well-founded fear of persecution.  People who flee from environmental harm are not persecuted, and are usually protected by their government.   

Perhaps that will be of some comfort to the 95 million people displaced at least temporarily by extreme weather events in 2008, 2009 and 2010, according to tallies compiled [PDF] by the Norwegian Refugee Council and the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre.

And, of course to the 350 Colorado families who lost their homes to the Waldo Canyon flames, the worst in Colorado’s  extensive wildfire history.

UNHCR, the United Nations refugee agency, has as large a stake as any organization in these definitions — and, interstingly, a more inclusive perspective than some. It refrains from forecasting the scale of future climate-driven displacements, but cites others’ estimates of 25 million to 1 billion people driven permanently from their homes by mid-century.

While acknowledging that its “core mandate does not encompass displacement caused by natural disasters and climate change,” UNHCR urges governments to begin taking the coming crises much more seriously. From its “State of the World’s Refugees 2012” (emphasis added):

The scale and complexity of human displacement will be increased by climate change, a defining issue of our times. More people are already displaced annually by natural disasters than by conflict, and the long term effects of climate change are expected to trigger large-scale population movements within and across borders…. Displacement generated by climate change and natural disasters will test the capacity of the international humanitarian system.

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 The number of sudden-onset disasters has increased dramatically in recent decades. According to many experts, this is the result of global warming and a particular effect on rainfall patterns resulting in an increase in hydrometeorological disasters. While 133 natural disasters were recorded in 1980, the number has increased to over 350 per year in recent years.

The experts stop waffling

Just 10 years ago, when I was writing fairly regularly about wildfire and firefighting policy on public lands in Minnesota and the West, climate change was a minor player in the consensus narrative of the day. It was difficult to get a scientist or policy expert to even discuss that angle, let alone say something clear and quotable.

Back then, the big factors driving big fires were:

  • The nation’s 90-year history of suppressing virtually every fire that could be fought, which loaded up the landscape with abnormal loads of fuel.
  • A persistent pattern of extending settlement into the “wildland/urban interface,” often by people building vacation homes, who seldom bothered to protect their new idylls by clearing vegetation from a protective buffer.

Weather always made a contribution, of course, but on the normal, seasonal scale – last winter’s slim snowpack, or this spring’s rain deficit, setting up this summer’s deepened drought.

And, to be sure, this year’s wildfires in Waldo Canyon and elsewhere are still driven in part by the legacy of fire suppression, still amplified by decades of home construction in a place known to carry fire risk.

But to a greater degree than I can recall, expert after expert is abandoning the old equivocation and publicly assigning equal or even greater weight to changing climate regimes. It’s no longer just last winter’s snowpack setting up this summer’s drought, but a continuing, intensifying feedback loop of increasing temperatures and decreasing precipitation:

  • Craig Allen, research ecologist with the US Geological Survey, told the Washington Post that while tree-ring studies document earlier cycles of drought in the West, “What’s different today is that it’s also getting warmer, which can amplify the fire severity in the West.” He also pointed to changing snowpack trends; this year, snowpack in the Colorado Rockies reached its peak a month earlier than the historical average.
  • Harris Sherman, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s undersecretary in charge of the Forest Service, told the n Post that “We’ve had record fires in 10 states in the last decade, most of them in the West. The climate is changing, and these fires are a very strong indicator of that.”
  • Steven Running, a University of Montana forest ecologist, told the New York Times that “we’re just upping the odds that wildfire activity is going to accelerate every year with the warming trends we see.”
  • Kevin Trenberth of the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colo., told the Salt Lake Tribune that “climate change is clearly playing a role” in recent wildfire patterns. Based on a review of NASA and NOAA data, Trenberth and colleagues have concluded that “Higher spring and summer temperatures, along with an earlier spring melt, are also the primary factors driving the increasing frequency of large wildfires and lengthening the fires season in the Western U.S. over recent decades. The record-breaking fires this year in the Southwest and Rocky Mountain region are consistent with these trends.”
  • Jonathan Overpeck, a professor of geosciences and atmospheric sciences at the University of Arizona, told the Associated Press that not only the Colorado wildfires but recent heat waves and last month’s flooding in Minnesota and Florida are all conequences of changing climate:

This is what global warming looks like at the regional or personal level. The extra heat increases the odds of worse heat waves, droughts, storms and wildfire. This is certainly what I and many other climate scientists have been warning about.”

For an extensive survey of climate- and weather-related displacements, see this report from Oxfam. [PDF]