Deny This, Deniers: Did Colorado Fires Cause First U.S. Climate Refugees?

Record blazes in the American West force thousands to flee their homes.
Nearly every home in this Colorado Springs neighborhood was wiped out by this week's raging Colorado fire. (Photo: Rick Wilking/Reuters)
Jun 29, 2012· 2 MIN READ
The director of the Public Trust Project, Alison Fairbrother has written for Grist and Politics Daily, among others.

The United States has most likely produced its first climate refugees.

With nine active fires blazing across northern Colorado, tens of thousands of Coloradans have been evacuated. Hundreds of homes have burned.

In High Country News, Coloradan John Calderazzo offers a glimpse of the torching on the ground. He describes the pervasive sound of whirring helicopters overhead, searching for new sparks in the Colorado hills. He writes of a telephone call at 3 a.m., the Sheriff’s voice saying, “Leave immediately.” He and his wife grab a few valuables and run, hoping for the best, but expecting the worst.

Calderazzo and his wife are refugees, pushed out of their home by the powerful forces of nature—forces made more unpredictable by the rapid warming of the planet. They are victims, he writes, of climate change.

He’s not the only one who thinks so.

In a briefing on the wildfires yesterday, scientists sounded alarms about what these wildfires foreshadow for our planet.

“What we’re seeing is a window into what global warming really looks like,” Dr. Michael Oppenheimer said during the briefing, according to Reuters. “It looks like heat, it looks like fires, it looks like this kind of environmental disaster…This provides vivid images of what we can expect to see more of in the future.”

Oppenheimer is a Princeton University professor of geosciences who has participated in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

In Colorado alone, there has been a 78-day increase in the fire season. But the problem extends far beyond the Centennial State: Ohio is preparing for the worst fires in a decade, Akron News Now has reported.

In May, a 265-square mile fire in Gila National Forest became the largest fire in New Mexico’s history.

This devastation is expensive. In 2011, drought, heatwave, and record wildfires in Texas and the Southern plains cost $12 billion, according to Heat Waves and Climate Change.

The heatwaves that continue to simmer across the American West are headed eastward, raising concerns about other vulnerable areas of the country. Hundreds of daily record highs have been set this week. In Dodge City, Kansas, residents saw a record 111 degrees.

But the West is warming a lot faster than the rest of the country.

A report from the Colorado Rocky Mountain Climate Organization and the Natural Resources Defense Council found that between 2003 and 2007, the 11 Western states were 1.7 degrees warmer on average than they were in the 20th century. This is compared to a rise of one degree Fahrenheit worldwide. In other words, the West is warming 70 percent more than the rest of the world.

The report also states that scientists have confirmed that most of the warming in the West has been caused by human emissions of heat-trapping gases.

There is currently no federal limit for how much carbon U.S. companies can release into the air. Between 2009 and 2010, U.S. greenhouse gas emissions rose 3.2 percent.

While scientists are reluctant to pin any particular fire on man-made greenhouse gas emissions, climate models show a pattern of long, dry summers that produce the perfect conditions for wildfires to flourish.

As for Calarazzo and his wife, they were able to escape their home in the Colorado hills and return to it unharmed, he writes, because of the valiant efforts of firefighters, and the unpredictability of nature: the fire stopped 300 yards from their property. Many of their neighbors were not so lucky.

No one would wish this reality on anyone. And yet, judging by the actions of Congress, it appears that we are dooming our planet to deliver bad news.

Do you think that recent Colorado wildfires have caused the first climate refugees in American history?