A single, devastating California fire season wiped out years of efforts to cut emissions of greenhouse gas, causing global emissions to surge to a record high in 2016.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency calculated the amount of carbon dioxide emitted by the state each year and found that greenhouse gas emissions were up 7 percent in 2016, with an additional 9 percent in 2015, when California was at risk from wildfires that burned through a swath of the state.
And as California faced the risk of wildfires and climate change, the Trump administration slashed federal funding for climate science, leading experts to predict that the state’s climate emissions would rise sharply, from 4 billion tons in 2017 to 5.4 billion tons in 2018.
“This is an extraordinary fire season,” said Michael Brune, a researcher with the Environment Defense Fund. “You’ve got this huge spike in emissions, you have this huge drought across the western states, and then you add all these other fires and it just completely reshapes the whole landscape.”
Climate change has changed the intensity of wildfires, making them more frequent and consuming more land, and it is worsening other effects of climate change, such as melting polar ice and sea level rise, reducing the amount of water in rivers and streams and leading to drought and flooding in the West.
The fires that ignited in California last year, however, were unique in some respects, said Thomas Cottrell, an expert on wildfires at the U.S. Geological Survey.
“Not long ago, fires were usually confined to the northern third of the nation. But with climate change, we’re seeing fires up and down the eastern and western seaboard,” he said. “And on the western side, it’s getting bigger and bigger.”
California, with 12 million people, has the heaviest greenhouse gas emissions in the country and a high proportion of emissions compared to other states, especially among the four major air pollutants, Brune said.
The reason California has such high emissions is that the region is covered in “megadrought” — dry, dry, dry. That climate phenomenon is a product of climate change and is also responsible for California’s historic droughts, he said