Alarming new climate report predicts ‘catastrophic’ global wildfires in the coming years

There's grim new reports about potential causes and effects of climate change. The United Nations Environment Program has projected intense wildfires linked in part to climate change could increase 50 percent by the end of the century, and the International Energy Agency said energy sector emissions of methane are 70 percent higher than governments claim. William Brangham reports.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    As we mentioned earlier in the program, there have been several alarming new reports that the climate crisis is getting worse and coming on faster. From intensifying wildfires, to methane leaks, to rising sea levels, the news is grim.

    William Brangham is here to walk us through some of the latest.

    So, hello, William.

    Let me start with this report from the U.N. about wildfires. It says that we are going to see catastrophic wildfires in the coming decades.

    Fill out more of the picture for us.

  • William Brangham:

    That's right, Judy.

    This is the first time the U.N. has looked specifically at wildfires. And, as you say, they argue that, because largely of climate change, catastrophic wildfires will be happening globally, and they will be ramping up in the next few decades.

    And it's not just places that have become somewhat accustomed to them, like Australia and the United States. It's places not accustomed to them, like Siberia and the Arctic and Tibet. The U.N. says climate change is the main driver here. This report said the heating of the planet is turning landscapes into tinderboxes.

    We certainly see this here in the U.S. There's this megadrought happening out West that is the worst megadrought since the medieval times. But there's another issue that is driving this that the U.N. says, and that is the way we use land. Agricultural practices, forestry practices have also exacerbated this, so that, when a fire does start, it's worse.

    And this is also, as we know, a huge health issue. Ask anyone that has lived anywhere near a wildfire in the last few years. The sky turns orange. You can't go outside. You can't breathe. We know that smoke is dangerous for human health. And that smoke travels hundreds and thousands of miles. So it is a growing, growing issue.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And part of the report, William, I understand, does address ways to deal with growing threat.

  • William Brangham:

    That's right, Judy.

    As you might imagine, curtailing greenhouse gas emissions to reduce climate change is the single biggest thing we can do, less oil, less gas, less coal. But, as I mentioned with these land use issues, there are better ways that you can manage the landscape, not letting people move into tinderbox areas, farming in a smarter way, managing forests in a smarter way, using prescribed burns in a smarter way.

    So there are things that can be done. It's not hopeless, but we have got to start acting.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And then the second report, William, out today from the International Energy Agency, the IEA, on methane emissions, saying that they are coming far worse, far larger than had been expected.

    Why does this matter?

  • William Brangham:

    It matters because methane is one of the most potent greenhouse gases out there.

    It is much more potent than carbon dioxide. It doesn't last as long in the atmosphere, but it — when it is there, it is much better at trapping heat. And the IEA report pointed out that the countries that have been trying to track their methane emissions have been underestimating those emissions by about 70 percent, which is a huge — it's not just a rounding error.

    That is a huge amount of methane leaking into the atmosphere that these countries and companies don't seem to be aware of. So, one of the main goals in tackling climate change is cutting our methane emissions. But if you don't really know how much you're actually emitting, you can't do a very good job of that.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And then, if this isn't enough, William, there was yet another report from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration out last week about sea level rise, and saying this is happening much faster than expected.

    Lay out some of that for us.

  • William Brangham:

    This report has got to be setting off alarm bells in coastal communities all over the world.

    The — NOAA said that, in the next 50 years, they expect, with fairly good confidence, that sea level rise will go up 10 to 12 inches. Now, that might not sound that much. It's about this much sea level rise. But just here in the U.S., there are major metropolitan areas, New York, Miami, Washington, New Orleans, parts of California, that are living right at sea level rise.

    And so 10 inches to a foot of sea level rise can have major impacts on infrastructure. Streets will be flooded much more often, not just on stormy days. Infrastructure will take a big hit.

    And so there's also a concern that that report, in and of itself, is alarming enough, but a worry that that might even be a lowball projection because of this ongoing question as to how much global warming is impacting the ice sheets in Greenland and in Antarctica.

    And in Antarctica specifically, there's a glacier there, the Thwaites Glacier, that is already showing signs of trouble. That glacier is holding two to three feet of potential sea level rise in its ice. So, if that were to go, we're talking about, as one researcher we spoke with saying, a global rewriting of the coastline all over the world.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, it doesn't get any more sobering than all of this. Let's hope people are not only paying attention, but thinking about how we do something about all this, if we can.

    William Brangham reporting on these distressing reports.

    Thank you, William.

  • William Brangham:

    Thanks, Judy.

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