A single, devastating California fire season wiped out years of efforts to cut emissions of greenhouse gases—the substances that trap heat in the atmosphere that cause global warming to warm the planet. According to experts on the science of climate change, the 2017 fires and the 2019 fires, which led to the worst drought California has seen since the 1930s, showed how much longer it will take to reduce greenhouse gas emissions enough to avoid a catastrophic climate shift.
The fires caused the worst wildfire season since 1995 because of the dry and hot conditions, making the fires especially difficult to fight. Climate science suggests that the fires are not climate change directly caused, but “atmospheric amplification”—a combination of extreme weather and natural climate events that amplify each other, increasing the probability of large fires.
These are not the only factors to explain the wildfires, but the combination of the drought conditions and the fires was unprecedented on record. After years of climate scientists and natural-resource managers having to be creative on how to fight the fires, some now believe that the wildfires also point in the direction of global warming as a culprit. If there is no change in the climate, the fires would have been “fatal” to the lives and livelihoods of both people and the environment. In a changing climate, the fires “would have been like a bomb that destroyed everything in its path,” according to David Macdonald, a professor of plant and soil science at Appalachian State University and a member of the International Panel on Climate Change.
Even the strongest climate scientists admit they cannot say for certain whether the cause of the fires is man-made or natural, or whether they are a result of climate change or human-caused climate change. The role of climate change cannot be separated out, Macdonald says, because of the strong role that nature plays in causing and exacerbating extreme weather. But even if the causes of the 2017 fires and the 2019 fires are unrelated to climate change, the fires could still serve as a sign of impending climate change, Macdonald says. “These fires have a tremendous potential to be a signal of what climate change looks like in the future,” Macdonald says.
After a fire does hit, the immediate goal is to restore and protect homes and communities. But long-term, scientists