Climate change is making wildfires more extreme. Here’s how

Nation

High winds, high temperatures, pervasive drought. These extreme conditions are driving two enormous fires in California, and many more throughout the American West and much of Northern and Western Europe. William Brangham talks with Michael Mann of Pennsylvania State University about the ways climate change is contributing to the danger and destruction.

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  • Nick Schifrin:

    Now, as we reported, California is struggling with two enormous fires simultaneously. They're being driven by high winds, high temperatures and a pervasive drought.

    But, as William Brangham reports, you can find these extreme conditions throughout the American West and in much of Northern and Western Europe, causing many to point the finger squarely at climate change.

  • William Brangham:

    Firefighters in California were already stretched to the limit by the Carr Fire near the town of Redding, but then, this weekend, 150 miles south, the Mendocino Complex Fire exploded in size, burning now over a quarter-of-a-million acres. It's become the second biggest fire in California history.

  • Russ Fowler:

    In this particular location, its burning somewhat in our favor, but on other areas of the fire, it is not in our favor whatsoever.

  • William Brangham:

    It's been a devastating fire season for California and for other Western states, where roughly 85 large fires are burning simultaneously, all exacerbated by a widespread, years-long drought that's created prime, dry fuel for these blazes.

    At least eight people have died, including two firefighters. Thousands have been evacuated across California, Washington, Arizona, Colorado, and Utah.

  • Carol Smith:

    I'm waiting to probably break down in a minute here. So, pretty overwhelming, pretty overwhelming, since we have been here since 1989. That's a lot of years.

  • William Brangham:

    In July, California alone spent more than $114 million fighting its fires.

    Last week, California Governor Jerry Brown described this as the new normal for his state, with fire seasons growing longer and more intense, as a result of climate change.

  • Gov. Jerry Brown, D-Calif.:

    Fires now are more a part of our ordinary experience. The predictions that things would get drier and hotter are occurring, and that will continue.

  • William Brangham:

    But this isn't just an American problem. Northern and Western Europe is suffering a similar fate, with fires burning through large swathes of Portugal, Spain, Sweden, Norway, Latvia, Ireland, and, most devastatingly, in Greece.

    Europe is also in the grips of a brutal heat wave, with temperatures over the last few days reaching 116 degrees Fahrenheit, as well as suffering a prolonged drought.

    How much is climate change driving these events?

    For that, I'm joined by Dr. Michael Mann. He's an atmospheric scientist at Penn State University, where he directs the Earth System Science Center, and he's co-author of "The Madhouse Effect," which is a book about climate change.

    Dr. Mann, thank you for being here.

    This is a series of striking events happening, the droughts, the heat waves, the fires. None of those, in and of themselves, are unique. So could you help us understand, what does the science say about how climate change is exacerbating these types of events?

  • Dr. Michael Mann:

    Yes, so we're not saying that climate change is literally causing the events to occur.

    What we can conclude with a great deal of confidence now is that climate change is making these events more extreme. And it's not rocket science. You warm up the atmosphere, it is going to hold more moisture, you get larger flooding events, you get more rainfall.

    You warm the planet, you're going to get more frequent and intense heat waves. You warm the soils, you dry them out, you get worst drought. You bring all that together, and those are all the ingredients for unprecedented wildfires.

    Now, beyond that, there's something else that we think is happening. And that's why there is this coherence, that all of these events around the Northern Hemisphere, extreme floods, droughts, heat waves, wildfires, what connects them is the fact that these weather systems are remaining in place, they're remaining stationary.

    We have these large undulations in the jet stream. And that gives us extreme weather. But what's also happening is that the jet stream isn't moving them along. We have a slow jet stream.

    And so these weather systems stay in the same place day after day. They rain on the same locations day after day. That's when you get unprecedented flooding. They bake the ground day after day. That's when you get unprecedented heat and drought.

    And we think that climate change is actually creating those conditions. Climate change is literally making the jet stream more wild. It undulates more, so you get those weather extremes, and it's causing the jet stream to slow down, so those extreme weather events stick around.

    And that's when you get unprecedented damage and threat.

  • William Brangham:

    As you heard, Governor Jerry Brown of California said that this is the new normal for us, really speaking globally, and not just in California.

    Is that true?

  • Dr. Michael Mann:

    It's actually worse than that.

    A new normal makes it sound like we have arrived in a new position, and that's where we're going to be. But if we continue to burn fossil fuels and put carbon pollution into the atmosphere, we are going to continue to warm the surface of the Earth. We're going to get worse and worse droughts and heat waves and super storms and floods and wildfires.

    So it's up to us. If we act to reduce these carbon emissions, to move away from burning of fossil fuels to renewable energy, then we can prevent these changes from continuing to get worse and worse.

  • William Brangham:

    There has been some talk recently that civilization had a moment several decades ago to try to act and ameliorate the impacts of climate change, and that that moment passed, and we didn't act.

    Do you agree with that assessment?

  • Dr. Michael Mann:

    No, I don't. I think it's incorrect framing of the problem. It makes it sound like there's some cliff and we have gone off the cliff and there's nothing we can do.

    But what we're doing instead is, we're walking out onto a mine field. As we continue to move forward onto that mine field, as we continue to burn fossil fuels, we're likely to encounter more and more extreme and damaging and irreversible impacts on our climate.

    The only sensible thing to do is to stop walking forward on to that mine field. And we can do it. We can move away from the burning of fossil fuels. The Paris agreement has set a course for us that, if we follow, and if we improve on that agreement in the years ahead, we can prevent the worst impacts of climate change from occurring.

  • William Brangham:

    All right, Dr. Michael Mann, Penn State University, thank you very much.

  • Dr. Michael Mann:

    Thank you. It was a pleasure.

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Climate change is making wildfires more extreme. Here’s how first appeared on the PBS NewsHour website.

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