Published in the Fort Collins Coloradoan on January 1, 2021
Most, if not all of the Coloradoan’s articles on Colorado’s record-setting 2020 wildfire season earlier this year failed to mention the relationship between wildfire and the climate crisis. It is therefore somewhat heartening to see that in his recent article, “Cameron Peak, East Troublesome fires reignite forest management debate,” Miles Blumhardt notes that “some blame” the size and intensity of the Cameron Peak fire on climate change.
However, this possible explanation is presented in seeming opposition to other potential reasons for the historic nature of the Cameron Peak fire: the invasion of mountain pine and spruce beetles, and fire suppression due to increased development in and near national forest land. The reader is left with the impression that climate change might not be the real culprit after all.
In fact, numerous scientific studies have found that the rising temperatures resulting from the buildup of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere will cause a significant increase in wildfire activity in the Rocky Mountains.
Two of the most recent studies referenced in the Rocky Mountain Climate Organization’s White Paper, “Projections of Climate Change Effects on Wildfire Risks in Colorado’s Northern Front Range,” estimate that the amount of land burned each year in this region will increase three- to seven-fold in the coming decades under business-as-usual greenhouse gas emissions scenarios. Expanded wildfire damage is perhaps the most prominent effect of the climate crisis we will have to deal with in the coming years here on Colorado’s Front Range.
Putting a soft focus on the causal link between climate change and wildfire risk makes it easier for government and industry officials to avoid responsibility for the harms their decisions cause to the environment and ultimately, to the livability of the region and the planet as a whole.
As just one example, four electric utilities, including our own Platte River Power Authority (PRPA), recently succeeded in reversing a November ruling by the Colorado Air Quality Control Commission (AQCC) to close three of those utilities’ coal-fired power plants by 2028. Utility leaders — including the two members of the Fort Collins City Council who serve on the PRPA board — may feel better about continuing to oppose efforts by regulatory agencies to mitigate the climate crisis if news outlets like the Coloradoan refuse to draw a strong connection between increasing greenhouse gas emissions and the dangers posed to our region by wildfire.
There is not much time left to address the climate crisis. The U.N. Environment Progamme’s recently released Emissions Gap Report 2020 makes it clear that the world needs to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions dramatically over the coming decade in order to avoid climate catastrophe. Last year, the city of Fort Collins acknowledged that we are facing a global climate emergency.
The Coloradoan should also recognize that we are in a climate emergency, and then start reporting on manifestations of that emergency accordingly.
Kevin Cross is the convener of the Fort Collins Sustainability Group, which has been advocating for strong local climate policies since 2005.