Biggest polluters linked to worsening wildfires in Western US and Canada

Emissions from these top fossil fuel producers and cement manufacturers could also be linked to about 50% of increasing drought and high fire-risk conditions in the same area since 1901.

Image Credit: Greenpeace Media

A new report, led by the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), links 88 top fossil fuel and cement companies and their carbon emissions to at least one-third of the total area burned by wildfires in the western U.S. and Canada since 1986.

The study found about 19.8 million acres of burned forests in the western U.S. and southwestern Canada, or about 37% of all areas burned by wildfires since 1986, could be traced back to 88 companies in the fossil fuel and cement industries that are part of the world’s “Carbon Majors,” or companies responsible for the vast majority of harmful greenhouse gas emissions globally.

“Over the last several decades, human-caused climate change has turned routine Western wildfires into exceptionally destructive events,” Kristina Dahl, report author and principal climate scientist at UCS, said in a statement. “Towns are turning to ash and livelihoods are being destroyed.” 

According to UCS, emissions from these top fossil fuel producers and cement manufacturers could also be linked to about 50% of increasing drought and high fire-risk conditions in the same area since 1901.

The scientists traced emissions back to the top polluters using vapor pressure deficit (VPD), a measure of how air draws water from plants and the soil. The team then analyzed changes in VPD, finding that companies’ emissions contributed about 48% in the rise of VPD from 1901 to 2021 and that the increasing VPD was linked to more fires and the megadrought.

The report adds to existing studies that have linked carbon dioxide and methane emissions from these top polluters to global warming, sea level rise and ocean acidification. This growing body of studies can be referred to as examples of attribution science, DeSmog reported, which connects polluters to their climate impacts.

“The major contribution of this work is to connect all of the dots from specific sources of human-related carbon emissions to recent increases in forest fire activity, across a large region of western North America. Most of the links have been well known for a long time, but this is the first time all the dots have been connected, quantitatively,” Philip Higuera, a fire ecologist at the University of Montana, told DeSmog. 

According to the researchers, communities of color and low-income areas take on the biggest health risks from wildfires and smoke pollution and have access to fewer resources to recover from wildfires. When considering solutions, like holding Carbon Majors accountable and investing in fire preparedness, these communities must be a top priority, said José Pablo Ortiz-Partida, senior bilingual water and climate scientist at UCS.

The scientists hope the new report can help shape policies and put the responsibility of the increasingly dangerous and destructive climate impacts on the polluters.

“Our study offers scientifically backed answers to questions of who bears the responsibility for this gut-wrenching destruction,” Dahl said. “We’re hopeful that with new evidence in hand, policymakers, elected officials, and legal experts will be better equipped to truly hold fossil fuel companies accountable in public, political, and legal arenas.”


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