Climate Scientist, Christian on Climate Change and Wildfires | Sojourners

Climate Scientist, Christian on Climate Change and Wildfires

Photo courtesy Katharine Hayhoe
Fires that burned through Texas last April - August. Photo courtesy Katharine Hayhoe

We host a small group at our house on Sunday nights. Last Sunday, one woman was so worried she could barely sit still: her parents in New Mexico had called to say they could see the fire from their house, and were packing to leave. The church she was planning to get married at next month was just down the road.

Less than a year ago we were in a similar situation ourselves. As a series of wildfires swept through central Texas lake country, first in April, then again in August, we went to bed night after night convinced that our place would be gone by morning. With 100-ft. flames, near-zero humidity and 50 mph-winds, all I can say is that we were lucky. Many of our neighbors, some a few hundred yards away, were not.

What struck me the most as I followed the anxious discussions on a local Facebook page was how everyone was praying for their house to be spared. Why did some burn and others survive? Were we praying harder than anyone else? Or did we have access to a direct pastoral line that others didn’t?

I spend most of my days studying the natural environment. From that perspective, the answer is clear: God has given us the freedom and the ability to make choices. These choices have consequences. And one of the consequences of building in fire-prone areas (and suppressing natural fire patterns in those same areas) is that when a fire comes, there is a lot to burn.

In most cases, these fires are the result of a perfect storm: lots of vegetation, low humidity, dry, hot and windy conditions, and a spark, usually from a human source. In a place where fire is common, like the western U.S., these conditions all come together naturally every few decades or so.

But fires are intimately related to temperature, humidity, and rainfall. So it makes sense to ask—is climate change making these fires worse? Do our energy choices, which include burning coal and gas and oil and increasing levels of heat-trapping gases in the atmosphere, affect the risk of wildfire?

This is the question that motivated our new study on climate change and fire, published in Ecosphere last week. We found that, for some parts of the world that are already fire-prone, the answer is likely yes. If all other conditions remain the same, climate change will increase the risk of fire in western U.S. and other mid-latitude areas. For other areas, such as the tropics, it might not. In those areas, assuming agricultural practices remain the same, increasing rainfall could actually decrease the risk of fire. But fire is a natural and essential ingredient to many ecosystems; so it’s not necessarily the case that less fire is good, and more fire is bad. 

The bottom line is that we have already disrupted fire patterns at the local scale. In some regions, we have suppressed fire where it is a normal and healthy part of that environment. In others, we have created fires where they would not have occurred before (through slash’n’burn agriculture, for example). Overlaid on top of these local-scale changes is the global impact of climate change. In coming decades, we found that human-induced climate change could disrupt fire patterns across much of the globe. And the more coal, oil, and gas that we burn, the greater these disruptions will be.

From a practical perspective, our hope is that studies like this will provide valuable information to plan for a safer future—for forest management, community development, insurance companies, and other industries and agencies that are affected by fires. 

From a personal perspective, our study underlines once more the unintended consequences of the decisions we make. Our choices don’t just affect our planet; they also affect our global neighbors. 

God has given us enormous freedom and power. With this comes the responsibility to educate ourselves on the consequences of our actions and make the best choices we can. 

Today, we can help neighbors who have lost everything in the Colorado or New Mexico fires. Tomorrow, we can consider how we are shaping the planet we leave to our children.

Katharine Hayhoe is a climate scientist and geoscience professor at Texas Tech University. She is the author, with Andrew Farley, of A Climate for Change: Global Warming Facts for Faith-Based Decisions (FaithWords).

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