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The American West on Fire

fires on mountains in southern CaliforniaNew research investigating the impact of climate change on western wildfires presents a bleak picture. CAP Senior Fellow Tom Kenworthy covers the latest science in an American Progress column this week, explaining the problematic feedback cycle: higher temperatures from global warming increase the risks of wildfires, and increased fires release more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere:

A new paper in the April 24 issue of the journal Science, for example, concludes that scientists have greatly underestimated the impact that deforestation brought on by fires has on climate change. On a global scale, fires release into the atmosphere about half of the carbon dioxide that is contributed by the use of fossil fuels.

Fire season is a perennial reminder of how climate change is making life more dangerous for Americans right now. Steve Woodruff wrote about research on trends in western fires over the past decade last year here on SP, noting that climate scientists cited in a National Wildlife Federation report “project global climate change will bring summertime temperatures in the region that run 3.6 to 9 degrees higher than what’s now considered ‘normal,’ and that precipitation will decline as much as 15 percent by the middle of this century. The result will be a climate even more conducive to wildfire.”

Fortunately, the new research illuminates the complex relationship between fires and increased emissions—which in turn can allow for better fire management strategies. But as Chris Mooney explained in 2007, that process is behind where it could be on account of the Bush administration’s years of delay on producing national assessments of the impact of climate change around the country.

Find more information on wildfires on the interactive Human Toll of Climate Change map.

Image: AP/Keith Cullom

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