We Didn't Start The Fire

Published May 23, 2023

UCS scientists have linked fossil fuel companies to the explosion of wildfires in the west. Jess talks with lead study author Kristy Dahl and climate law attorney Jessica Wentz about what this information means for holding corporations accountable for climate destruction.


Jess: All right. I am joined today by two really interesting people. We actually have Kristy Dahl who is a principal climate scientist here at the Union of Concerned Scientists, and we are huge fans of her work. And I'm also here today with Jessica Wentz, who is a non-resident senior fellow at the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia University. And the non-resident fellow part means she's based in NorCal. And Kristy's also based in NorCal. So, it's a California show today.

But I've brought you here and I'm so glad you agreed to come on the show because we need to talk about this really interesting research that Kristy is the main author on, about fossil fuel emissions and what has been happening, basically in the last 100 years, give or take, a little bit more. So, basically with this new study that is just coming out, like, this is big news, breaking science. The findings were that emissions from fossil fuel industries and cement manufacturers have indelibly changed Western North America's climate. And as a consequence, wildfires have devastated millions of acres, as in like millions, millions, millions. And this is a forest land, and they've also burned tens of thousands of structures.

I mean, we've all seen the news the last few years. It's just been wildfire after wildfire. And, this has caused people to lose their homes and businesses, and entire towns have been burned to the ground. And this has fundamentally altered really unique ecosystems. So, some of the really exciting statistics that I grabbed from reading your study, Kristy, were that 37% of burnt forests in North America since 1986 can be traced back to carbon emissions from fossil fuel and cement producing corporations. So, like, this isn't government stuff, this is private industry. And that the other fact that I thought was really disturbing is that 48% of the increase in fire danger in Western North America since 1901 can be linked to carbon emissions from these same corporations. And there's, like, 88 of them that are the biggest emitters. And so, I'd like it if you could just put into perspective for us, Kristy, like, how much fire... How much has it burned? Like, what is the, the scale of the burn that we're seeing?

Kristy: Yeah. The scale here is kind of hard to wrap your head around. So, since the mid-'80s, we've had about 50 million acres of forest land across Western North America burn. So that's the area, say west of about Colorado, and goes up through southwestern Canada to include parts of British Columbia and Alberta. So, of those roughly 50 million acres that have burned, we were able to trace 20 million of those acres burning because of emissions from these 88 major fossil fuel producers and cement manufacturers. So, it's a huge area. When you add up that 20 million acres, it's the equivalent of the State of Maine. So, it's a really big area.

Jess: That's massive. I mean, it's a whole U.S. state. And, you know, go look at a map, folks, if you don't have an idea of how big that is. And then just, yeah, I guess lay the State of Maine over a chunk of Western North America and be shocked and hopefully horrified because that is, I don't know any other way to describe it as, you know, horrifying that private industry has caused so much destruction. And a key term that appears in your research over and over again is VPD, that's the acronym for vapor pressure deficit. Now, we have a lot of scientists who listen, but we also have folks who are not scientists. So, can you give us a good, you know, overall explanation of what VPD actually is and what it means for climate research?

Kristy: Yeah. So, vapor pressure deficit, or VPD, is essentially a measure of how thirsty the atmosphere is. When it's really hot and dry, the atmosphere can suck a lot of moisture out of plants and vegetation, and that plant matter then dries up, and if there's a spark, it's very flammable. So, VPD is a measure of essentially how flammable our landscape is on any given day or any given season, or any given period of time. So, we use VPD in this study as a metric of what we call fire danger conditions. And we also used it as a way to calculate the burned area, because when VPD is high, we see that a greater percentage of our forests burn. It's very tightly linked. And so, that was how by using VPD, we were able to make that linkage to the burned area that's attributable to those big carbon producers.

Jess: Wow. Okay. So, let's talk about some of the, like, overarching effects that, like, VPD has. Because if you don't have enough moisture in the air, I understand, you know, vegetation dries out, that makes sense. Like, you can't keep an orchid in a sauna, like it wouldn't work. But then also, it seems that that would be making droughts worse, per your research. And then, you know, of course, in a really immediate thing that affects everybody who lives in Western North America, it hurts the drinking water supply. And we've all heard about that, oh, you know, California's in a drought, Arizona is in a drought, Nevada, Utah, I mean, just start to name it. So, this is something that affects even the Northern parts of the U.S. and some of Canada, right? It's not just combined to the desert?

Kristy: Yeah, that's right. So, in this study, we just looked at those wildfire-based impacts, and we saw that across this whole huge region, there's been a rise in VPD over the last 120 years or so. So, it really is a regional impact. But we see it playing out not just with wildfire, but with things like drought. So, we know that the West, and especially the American Southwest has been in the middle of, like, a 23-year-long mega drought. It's one of the largest droughts that the region's experienced in over 1,000 years. And that's saying a lot for a place that is a drought-prone hot, dry place. So, when we see VPD increasing, it's not just that we're burning more forest area, it's connected to issues like our drinking water access.

Here in California, we have over a million people who lack access to clean, safe drinking water. People are seeing their wells going dry, farmers are having to change the crops that they're planting or growing. And it's just an enormously huge issue. You know, hopefully, with this past year's wet winters, we're seeing an alleviation of that drought. But we also have to ask ourselves, is it really over? Is it over for people whose wells have gone dry? Is it over for people who are still having to buy bottled water because there's not, you know, enough clean, safe drinking water for them to have coming out of the tap?

Jess: You just made me think of the...I used to live in Northern LA County in an area that's like high desert, and we had a well on our property. And our well was 200 feet deeper than our next-door neighbors, and the next-door neighbors had to have water trucked in. And it was just because our well was deeper that we were okay, but we've heard about aquifers not being recharged, that's been in the news a lot. So, it sounds like VPD is an atmospheric condition that has, like, real-world on-the-ground consequences and not just, oh, wildfires, but for even urban areas in terms of drinking water supplies. And then, I would imagine obviously that this is going to harm crops, and then that means not just, like, more scarcity of food resources, but also the businesses that grow those crops and then the people who pick the crops, the people who make it happen. I mean, it sounds like it's got this huge effect on every sector of our society.

Kristy: It really does. So, you know, from a wildfires perspective, you can think about all of the people in California across the west, but really even across the country who are affected when there are fires out west by smoke. The fires that are currently burning in Alberta, Canada are bringing smoke all the way down to Washington, D.C. and they're seeing hazy smokey skies thousands of miles away. And then in terms of the drought and the water impact, as conditions get hotter and drier, farmers have to use more water than they used to just to keep their crops growing like they used to, because there's so much more evaporation in the hot, dry conditions.

And so when you look at a place like California's Central Valley which supplies really huge proportion of the nation's food, especially our fruits and our nuts, you know, the water shortages there don't just affect the farmers that are growing those crops, they affect all the people picking them. They affect all of the people across the country who are eating them, and depend on those fruits and vegetables, and nuts for what's on their plates for lunch and dinner.

Jess: Yeah. The scale of this is not lost on me, and I hope it's coming through to people listening or watching on YouTube. So, I was gonna save this question for later, but I really wanna get a bit more of a personal perspective from Jessica. So, she has her awesome legal brain, but in this case, I'd actually like to start by asking you, Jessica, if you could explain how wildfires have impacted you directly, because a little birdie told me that you've had some real personal experience with fire.

Jessica: Yeah. So, my family was unfortunately affected by the 2017 North Bay fires. And in particular, we were living basically right in the epicenter of the Tubbs Fire, which as some may recall, was the fire that sort of went straight through the countryside and ended up marching straight into town, in the town of Santa Rosa and burned down about, I think it was 5,000 homes that were squarely, like, within town. And even went over, like, a six-lane freeway and burned down a whole subdivision. We were actually living further out in the country. And it was a very traumatic experience. It was early in this whole wildfire experience. You know, there had been some fires in Lake County in 2015 that had sort of, to me at least, had given me a signal that wildfire risk was increasing.

However, at the time, I think a lot of people were taken by surprise in 2017 when those North Bay fires happened. It was like 144 fires that all sparked at once. The weather conditions did seem very unusual. I remember the day before the fire, walking through the countryside and the grass was turning to dust beneath my feet. And so, that makes me think of this vapor pressure deficit issue of, it was so dry and it had been a very wet winter before. So, a lot of vegetation had grown in and everything had just dried out. This was early October. And then the night of the fire, there were additional unusual weather conditions in the form of the most severe, what we call Diablo winds or Santa Ana winds down if it's in SoCal. It was the most severe winds I've ever seen. We had, like, metal lawn furniture that was, like, blowing across our lawn, limbs coming down from trees. The smoke came in. We actually called 911 and were told not to worry, that we were safe. But an hour later, a little before midnight our time, there was just a wall of fire coming down the mountainside towards us and we managed to get out with our pets. So, no lives were lost, but we didn't have time to, like, get keepsakes or anything like that. So, it was a crazy night and it was definitely a sort of rude awakening. I had already been working in climate law for quite a while at that point, but it really, like, drove everything home in terms of natural disasters and extreme events. And what it actually feels like to lose your home to a natural disaster.

And not just my home, but basically, like, my entire community where I had... We had just moved back, I had been away on the East Coast for, like, 10 years. We had just moved back to my childhood home where we were staying with my parents, my then fiance and I. And so, not only our home, but all of my friends when I was growing up, our local grocery store, like, everything, [inaudible 00:13:12] one night. So, it was crazy. It's a very impactful experience going through a wildfire. I am grateful that recruiters are doing the type work that we're doing.

Jess: Yea. I mean, it sounds like otherworldly. And, you know, anybody who's seen a wildfire, even if you're not up close, you can see the orange glow in the sky and it's like, it just turns into this inferno. I mean, it sounds like we have scientific data showing that, yes, actually it's dry brush, it's dry air, it's...all you need is a spark. And that is, you end up with people losing everything, everything but what they're wearing and maybe their pets if they're lucky enough to be able to get 'em out. And I'm really glad that you were able to get everybody in your household out safely. But I know that there have been a lot of deaths due to wildfires, even just in California as of late. Kristy, I think I remember from the study, weren't there like 149 or somewhere in that neighborhood, people who've died?

Kristy: Yeah. Just within the past five or six years, I think it's, you know, somewhere on the order of 150 people in California. The big chunk of that was in the 2018 campfire, which is the deadliest fire we've ever had in the state, and took the lives of about 85 people. Jess: That's so sad because you think, and I think that a lot of members of the public who haven't interacted with fire on a personal level think that, you know, I'll know, I have time. But it's a force of nature. You can't necessarily predict everything that a fire will do, because there's such an interplay of atmospheric conditions and conditions on the ground. But this is a good segue back into, I think to me it's almost the gotcha moment of your study. It's buried, because it's in there a few times. But what you and the authors of the study have found is that there are not just real harms suffered by people, businesses, wildlands, you know, obviously animals and nature, and our food sources, but these companies that caused or had a huge hand in causing these issues and made them significantly worse, these companies knew they were having an effect on the climate since the 1960s. And we can document that.

And that just blows my mind, because they continue to operate with impunity. I mean, is this something that's been known for a long time? Because I think, at least in my mind, when I take off my scientist hat and I put on my general public hat, if someone said, "Oh, yeah, this company caused this," then everyone wants the company to make it better. They want it to be not only the blame to be attributed to the company but also the solutions to be driven by the person or company that perpetrated it. So, is this something that we've known about for a while or we're just understanding the impacts of these companies more and more, the more research we do?

Kristy: There's definitely a growing scrutiny on these companies and on what they knew about climate change, when they knew it, and what they did about it. So, that research has shown that as far back as 1965, like, that's longer than my entire lifetime and I'm not a young person anymore, these companies knew what the impacts of burning their products would be. Their own internal climate models accurately predicted where we are today back in the 1970s. So, they've known for decades. And, you know, ideally, what should have happened with that information is they would've changed their business models so that they weren't drilling for these dirty fuels that were going to ruin the planet.

They would have alerted the general public and policymakers and said, "This is something we need to do something about." But instead, they did the exact opposite. They have doubled down for the past 50 years on their business models. They have waged decades-long campaigns of deception to try to hide and bury the truth about the causes of climate change, and they have obstructed climate action on every level, from local government up to international climate negotiations. And so, it's very clear at this point that these companies have just been prioritizing their profits while the rest of us have been left to bear the costs. And that's what's really infuriating about [inaudible 00:18:13]. I mean, they knew.

Jess: 100%. Yeah. I think, just, it's funny because you have such a nice, like, calm demeanor, Kristy, and you have this very pleasant speaking voice. And what you are saying is, like, absolutely ferocious. Like, this is stuff that needs to be screamed from the rooftops. I mean, I can see that you have emotion there, that you're upset about it. And I think that this is something that shouldn't have any political bent to it. This is objective. Like, this hurts all of us. I mean, we only have one planet, we only have our own local ecosystem.

And if it gets screwed up, then it hurts everyone. It's not like you can live in a bubble and just be safe from it. But I also know that these events, these big wildfires, they really hurt people from communities of color and low-income communities because they just don't have the resources to be as resilient in the face of climate destruction. So, I think it's really important that we actually name and shame these companies and hold them accountable. So, getting to the holding them accountable side of things, this is Jessica's time to shine here. So, I wanted to ask you, where does the legal system come in, in light of this new research, but also, like, what's been happening, in terms of climate accountability to date?

Jessica: Yeah. So, in the past five years or so, since about maybe six years now, about 2017, there's been a pretty significant uptick in climate litigation against corporate actors, including primarily fossil fuel and energy companies. Some of these cases involve sort of straightforward greenwashing claims. We're seeing a lot of those outside of the U.S. But then here in the U.S., there's a lot of lawsuits that are aimed at establishing liability for climate-related damages, including, for example, potentially wildfire damages. That's actually one of the key component of a lawsuit that was filed by various municipal governments in Colorado against fossil fuel companies.

And so, one common theme across all of these U.S. cases that we've seen, and there have been, I think it's now over 30, either municipal or state governments that have filed these lawsuits. And a common theme in this litigation is that they are alleging that these companies should be held liable for these injuries, not simply because they manufactured and sold fossil fuels, although that might be sufficient, for example, outside of the U.S. in human rights jurisdictions. But here in the U.S. the focus is on the disinformation as the sort of wrongful conduct giving rise to liability. And so, all of that research that historians and other social scientists have done on this sort of decades-long effort, essentially deceive the public about the dangers of fossil fuels has flown directly into sort of this strategic development of this litigation aimed at holding these actors accountable for the harms caused by their products, but also for the public deception schemes that they engaged in. And so, the type of research that Kristy and the UCS scientists have been doing is really quite relevant to establishing the causal nexus between those emissions attributable to those companies products and the harms incurred by plaintiffs in these cases.

Jess: Wow. I mean, it actually is really encouraging to me, to hear that there is legal recourse, because I think for a lot of people we think, okay... Like, the stat that I like to tell people is 40% of our individual carbon footprints are within our control, and 60% is outside of our control, because it's stuff that governments have to regulate or companies have to check themselves. But that's basically saying that there is a way to put pressure on the 60% of our carbon footprint that isn't under our control. We can hold companies accountable for the choices they make and that there is some teeth to the legal recourse, legal remedy, I guess, you've got some way of making them pay up? Jessica: Actually, it's still an unsettled question. So, in terms of... We only have one decision right now, and it's from outside of the U.S, a court in the Netherlands that held that shell, which is based in the Netherlands, had a human rights obligation to reduce its emissions in line with legals of global warming to well below two degrees or 1.5°C. But that decision didn't involve monetary damages. And so, we don't actually yet have actual verdict imposing a monetary damage judgment on a fossil fuel company or an energy company. And so, it's very much sort of remains to be seen how these cases will be resolved.

The companies that are defendants are clearly concerned about them because they have been wrapped up. I mean, I think the first cases were filed in 2017, and so it's been years of sort of procedural legal litigation. They're trying to keep these cases out of state court. They're trying to prevent these cases from going to trial. If they do make it to trial, there could be interesting developments in terms of discovery of additional fossil fuel documents and more may come to light about their efforts or more publicly will come to light about the efforts of these [inaudible 00:23:28].

Jess: Yeah. I mean, I think the part that really stands out to me too is the differentiation here between, you know, governments saying, "Oh, we're gonna make changes to meet, you know, this agreement or that agreement at COP or, you know, at the old Kyoto Protocol," versus these companies, which it seems like... It goes back to another thing I like to tell people is that, you know, corporations don't have consciences. And so the way that we have them make decisions that we consider the right thing to do is via government regulation. And that's why we need people in office who are willing not only to enact regulations, but also that we have people out there who are working to prosecute these companies for the harms they've caused.

It's kind of like you need both, and you need the data to support the legal action. And it seems like... I mean I loved this report, Kristy, I think you all just absolutely knocked it out of the park. It's clear, it's easy to understand. And even if people don't wanna read through the methodologies of the physical paper, just the intro and the conclusion alone are enough to give you an idea that these companies are bad actors. I mean, that's really what it boils down to. They've lied to the American public and I'm assuming the Canadian public, I'd just say public in general, they've lied to us and they knew what they were doing and they did it for profit.

And they've done it at the expense of taxpayers, of people's lives, of their livelihoods. I mean, I don't even wanna think about the environmental damage because I'm an animal person, so I'm like, "Oh, no, the poor bunnies, the forest creatures." But in reality, it's everything in the ecosystem. You've got, you know, lichens and mosses that live really long times. You've got trees that have lived for hundreds of years and they're getting destroyed because of human, like, deliberate negligence. I don't know, what is the legal term for that, Jessica? When you have a company that...Is it, like, corporate malfeasance? Like, what is it?

Jessica: I think malfeasance is almost a better word. Negligence doesn't necessarily entail the level of sort of culpability and wrongdoing that's being alleged in these cases. I mean, the allegations are basically that there was an intentional effort to deceive, which I think goes beyond negligence. But I think that that's important in terms of, you know, courts in the U.S. have been somewhat cautious, or hesitant, or reluctant to address some of these claims. I think judges are very cautious about being in a position where they're viewed as setting climate policy and to some extent, they view that as the domain of other governments. However, by characterizing these lawsuits as based on intentional disinformation campaigns, I think you sort of take it more into the realm of what looks like a traditional liability case for wrongdoing as opposed to plaintiffs asking the courts to regulate greenhouse gas emissions.

Jess: That really does make a lot of sense. And so, okay, we are the Union of Concerned Scientists here. So, something I like to ask all of our guests, and we'll kick it off with Jessica actually, because I wanna have Kristy close it out since she's a UCS person. But, why are you concerned?

Jessica: Oh, for every living creature now and in the future, I think that we need a planet that functions that isn't completely out of balance. And, yeah, that's pretty much why I'm concerned.

Jess: That's a good reason to be concerned. The whole sum of life on earth, yeah, just that. And Kristy, so why are you concerned? And I guess since, you know, you're a scientist, I can say, why are you a concerned scientist?

Kristy: I'm concerned because when we talk about corporate accountability or fossil fuel accountability, I get the sense that a lot of people have never really questioned this before. So, it's concerning to me that there's this incredibly large, incredibly deep-pocketed industry that has woven its way into so many aspects of our lives, from the cars we drive, to the way we heat our homes, to our willingness to hop on a plane and travel around the world. And we haven't questioned the role that the fossil fuel industry has played in constraining the choices that we have. So, what I'm hoping we can do with this study and what will alleviate my concern, is if we can get people to start thinking about that, and to start thinking about the social license that we give to these companies, and what it takes away from us.

Jess: That is an excellent point to end the conversation on. I think you summarized it beautifully. I mean, you didn't mince words, either of you. There is nothing here at stake aside from, like, everybody's future. And you're right, the level of deception and lying from these corporations, I mean, it's several generations of people deciding that, you know what, money is worth more than lives. And I think that's unacceptable. And I really appreciate the work you both are doing, and I would love to talk about future developments in this space. So, hopefully, we will mobilize some people to action here, and start fixing what we have caused in terms of damages. And, thank you both for the time. I just really appreciate everything you're doing.

Jessica: Thank you.

Kristy: Thanks so much.

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