The annual bill for fighting wildfires in the United States is already approaching $125 billion, but as the climate warms—and thus increases the frequency and intensity of wildfires—the price could climb by $10 billion to $60 billion within the next 40 years.
The new numbers come from a 46-page report titled Flammable Planet: Wildfires and the Social Cost of Carbon, which outlines the potential 50-percent increase in firefighting costs. The research on wildfires is the second report released by The Cost of Carbon Pollution project, a partnership between the Institute for Policy Integrity, the Environmental Defense Fund, and the Natural Resources Defense Council.
“Climate change is here now, and its toll on our health and economy is rising every day,” said Laurie Johnson, chief economist at the Natural Resources Defense Council, in a statement. “Wildfires that already destroy millions of acres of forests and thousands of homes will cause much more damage if we don’t take strong steps to reduce the carbon pollution driving climate change.”
The study is the first to include the social costs of wildfires induced by climate change, adding up timber and property losses, human health effects, and the costs of fire suppression and prevention, according to Peter Howard, the report’s author and a fellow at the Institute for Policy Integrity.
Yet those costs have not been factored into the Obama administration’s analysis of the social costs of carbon used by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to set vehicle fuel efficiency standards and limits on carbon dioxide emissions from coal-fired power plants.
“It’s clear that climate change–driven wildfires pose a serious economic risk and should eventually be part of the administration’s assessment of the cost of carbon pollution,” Richard Revesz, director of the Institute for Policy Integrity, said in a statement.
The White House’s current analysis, for example, only includes the monetary damage of carbon dioxide emissions on public health and agriculture, which amounts to $40 per ton of carbon pollution.
Why weren’t such social costs included? Howard believes it’s because the data just haven’t been available, and scientists have mostly focused on the costs of wildfire suppression alone.
Howard said the omission points to the need for further funding for studies using an interdisciplinary approach—one that brings together scientists to run climate models and economists to calculate the social costs of carbon emitted from wildfires.
In March, the first cost-of-carbon-pollution report cited a rise in forced migration, violence, and social and political conflict as some of those social costs.
“Our estimate is really a call to raise awareness about the magnitude and importance of these impacts and the need for further research to estimate the costs,” said Howard.