New Math: Climate Change = More Fire = More Climate Change

By Jad Daley, President & CEO of American Forests

Climate change has caused 50% of the drying effect that is turning our western forests into tinder boxes.
Wildfire has become Washington State’s second largest source of carbon emissions.
In 2016, U.S. forests and forest products provided a net sink of 765 million tons of carbon dioxide, equal to almost 15% of America’s carbon emissions.

Amidst the tragic stories of lost lives and property in the latest California wildfires, another tragedy has been overlooked — lost ground on fighting climate change. The massive plumes of smoke from escalating western wildfires are not only loaded with dangerous air pollution that harms human health, but also emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. We must manage our forests in dramatically new ways to break the vicious cycle of climate change and escalating wildfire.

First, let’s eliminate any question you might have whether climate change is a significant force behind our worsening fire seasons in the West. A definitive study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that climate change has caused 50 percent of the drying effect that is turning our western forests into tinder boxes. What we are seeing is not just another weather cycle — it is the beginning of a new normal we have created with human-induced climate change.

At a recent speech in Washington State, I had the chance to hear the Commissioner of Public Lands, Hilary Franz, provide compelling examples of how this is playing out in her state. The most alarming thing she shared was that the exploding wildfire problem in Washington State is no longer just within the historically fire-prone forests on Washington State’s “dry side” east of the Cascade Mountains. Nearly forty percent of recent wildfire has hit the traditionally fire-resilient forest types on the western “wet side” of the state. Wildfire has become the state’s second largest source of carbon emissions.

While Washington State’s forests still capture enough carbon to remain a net carbon sink, other states are not so lucky. In fact, the forests of many states in the Intermountain West have become a net source of carbon emissions thanks to wildfire, pest infestations, and other forest mortality. Montana is a particularly dramatic example, having recently swung from a significant net sink of carbon in its forests to a net source thanks to declining forest health and increasing wildfire.

To be clear, these increasing carbon emissions from our forests are not cause to give up on forests as a climate change solution! U.S. forests as a whole are still providing a huge “net sink” of carbon each year — that means they capture much more carbon than they emit.

In 2016, the most recent year for which the federal government has completed a greenhouse gas inventory, U.S. forests and forest products provided a net sink of 765 million tons of carbon dioxide, equal to almost 15 percent of America’s carbon emissions.

But if we can reduce growing emissions from wildfire and other forms of forest mortality, our net forest carbon sink will get even bigger. In 2016, our overall forest carbon sink across America was reduced by more than 250 million tons due to emissions from wildfire. These 2016 wildfire-related emissions were more than double comparable emissions from 2014, continuing a dangerous long-term trend.

So what can the forest sector do to overcome this trend? The answer starts with “pre-storing” our forests for health and resilience in a very different climate. These actions include things like dramatically thinning our most fire-prone forests, using “good fire” to manage forest growth, and adjusting our forests in density and species composition to overcome future conditions like relentless drought and higher temperatures.

Some of these actions may cause concern for people who have come to think of increasing forest carbon mostly in the context of older forests with lots large trees. How could less dense forests possibly be better for forest carbon? We will need to help decision makers and the public understand that in many cases less dense forests that are more actively managed for wood products will lead to more net carbon capture and resilient carbon storage over the long term.

It is time to peer through the smoke and see escalating wildfires for what they are — a climate change-driven vicious cycle that threatens our future. Then we need to get to work readying our forests for health and resilience in the face of wildfire and all of the other threats climate change has in store. Our potential to win the battle against climate change hangs in the balance.

Jad Daley is president & CEO of American Forests, as well as the co-founder and current co-chair of the Forest-Climate Working Group.