Australia’s Burning Forests, A sign We’ve Passed a Global Warming Tipping Point
Photo from CNN
‘Nobody saw it coming this soon,’ one scientist said. ‘It’s likely the forests won’t be coming back as we know them.’
As extreme wildfires burn across large swaths of Australia, scientists say we’re witnessing how global warming can push forest ecosystems past a point of no return.
Some of those forests won’t recover in today’s warmer climate, scientists say. They expect the same in other regions scarred by flames in recent years; in semi-arid areas like parts of the American West, the Mediterranean Basin and Australia, some post-fire forest landscapes will shift to brush or grassland.
More than 17 million acres have burned in Australia over the last three months amid record heat that has dried vegetation and pulled moisture from the land. Hundreds of millions of animals, including a large number of koalas, are believed to have perished in the infernos. The survivors will face drastically changed habitats. Water flows and vegetation will change, and carbon emissions will rise as burning trees release carbon and fewer living trees are left to pull CO2 out of the air and store it.
In many ways, it’s the definition of a tipping point, as ecosystems transform from one type into another.
The surge of large, destructive forest fires from the Arctic to the tropics just in the last few years has shocked even researchers who focus on forests and fires and who have warned of such tipping points for years.
The projections were seen as remote, “something that would happen much farther in the future,” said University of Arizona climate scientist David Breashers. “But it’s happening now. Nobody saw it coming this soon, even though it was like a freight train.
“It’s likely the forests won’t be coming back as we know them.”
The link between global warming, forests and wildfires is multifaceted but very clear, said Nerilie Abram, a climate researcher at Australian National University.
“Increasing temperatures dry out fuel and lead to more days of extreme fire weather,” she said. “The poleward shift of the Southern Hemisphere westerly winds is drawing winter rainfall away from southern Australia, causing a long-term drying trend that makes the landscape more vulnerable to burning.”
The cycle feeds itself, she explained: Drought and loss of forests cause higher temperatures over the land and a lower humidity, which, in turn, worsens wildfire conditions. And there’s no reason to think that a gradual temperature rise will cause a similar gradual increase in fire risk, she said, citing a recent study showing that incremental warming increases fire damage exponentially by drying out fuels.
“Each degree of warming has a bigger effect on forest fire than did the previous degree of warming,” that study’s lead author, Park Williams of Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory at Columbia University, wrote on Twitter when the study was released.
In a recent Australian television interview, Pennsylvania State University climate scientist Michael Mann said the heartbreaking loss of irreplaceable forests in Australia is a clear sign of a climate tipping point playing out before our eyes. Similar scenarios are apparent in forests around the world, he said.
Some of the forests lost to the ongoing fires in Australia aren’t likely to come back anytime soon, said Australian National University climate scientist Christopher Brack.
“These fires burning through the Southern Alps (in Australia) at the moment are re-burning alpine and mountain ash trees that were regenerating from fires less than 20 years ago,” Brack said. In the warming climate, the current forests are likely to be replaced by brush and other shorter-lived and more flammable species that will intensify the fire cycle, he said.
On the world’s current emissions path, with warming of about 3.5 degrees Celsius (6.3°F) by the end of the century, fire frequency is expected to increase on more than 60 percent of global land area, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warned in a 2018 report that identified Southern Australia, along with Central and South America, South Africa and the U.S. West as at risk.
Human activity has also contributed to increased fire risk in other ways. Logging can dry up forests and make the remaining trees more susceptible to fire, and the building of more roads and residential areas in the forests means there is more chance of fires igniting from power lines or cars, as well as more property damage and people at risk when fires break out.
Mountain Forests and Even Rainforests Are Drying
Australian Cam Walker, a forest conservation advocate and volunteer firefighter, has been battling to keep the flames away from a resort village near the Mt. Hotham Ski Area.
“This is subalpine country dominated by snow gums, a type of eucalyptus. This area has been burnt three times in about 12 years, and snow gums have a limited ability to cope with repeated fire,” he said.
The fires are also threatening some of the most ancient forests on Earth, relics from 180 million years ago, when all the planet’s continents were joined in the super-continent of Gondwana. The moist Gondwana rainforests, with damp microclimates under a dense canopy, have little history of fires, but global warming is drying them out.
“We are seeing ever more of these areas burning because conditions are so dry. This has been happening also in relic sub-alpine vegetation in Tasmania, where we are witnessing more regular dry lightning strikes,” Walker said.
“The costs to Australia of not acting on climate change will be catastrophic. Already scientists are warning that many ecosystems will collapse under high-emissions scenarios,” he said.
Australia heat, temperature and wildfires. Credit: Nerilie Abrams
Research in recent years reinforces that view, said David Bowman, director of the Fire Centre Research Hub at the University of Tasmania.
“Global climate change is stressing vegetation much more than we realized. Stressed vegetation recovers more slowly and rapid changes from forest to non-forest are possible,” he said. “Increased fire frequency reduces the capacity of forests to bounce back after recurrent fires.”
Warming Also Drives Forest Die-Offs and Fire Risk in Other Ways
Even without fire, trees are dying around the world at increasing rates because of global warming.
During extreme heat events and droughts, air bubbles can form in their moisture transport systems, essentially choking them to death. Warming also increases outbreaks of tree-killing insects. And logging, as well as land-clearing fires in the Amazon are threatening to push that critical forest ecosystem past a tipping point with global implications for carbon cycling.
“Why are these trees in all these different regions dying at the same time when they’ve been around for such a long time? It’s heartbreaking,” said Breshears. “Ten years ago, I didn’t think we’d be in this situation. I’m still kind of shocked myself at how much is occurring.”
A series of studies in the past 10 years help explain the global tree die-off, said U.S. Geological Survey research ecologist Craig D. Allen.
There’s evidence that most tree species around the world already routinely operate near damaging thresholds of water stress, and that they are unable to cope with the rising frequency and intensity of heat extremes, Allen said.
Another recent study showed how a declining snowpack and rising summer temperatures combine to limit regrowth, which is clear evidence of the negative impact of human-caused climate warming on subalpine forests. Pine seedlings need cool and moist summers to thrive, but those conditions occur less frequently with global warming. As a result, some Rocky Mountain forests will pass a tipping point with “shifts from forest to non-forest vegetation types across a broad range of elevations in Front Range forests,” the study concluded.
Some tipping points may be less sudden than we think and already underway, said University of Montana forest entomologist Diana Six, who studies how global warming affects destructive insects that have been killing trees in the U.S. West in the past few decades.
“Older forests are established and may look fine. But what happens when they die? What comes back?” she said. On a warming planet, there’s no guarantee that those older carbon-sequestering forests will regenerate—in fact, there is plenty of research suggesting that many will not.
Even limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7°F) as targeted by the Paris climate agreement may not be enough to save some forests. “With the changes and extinction we are seeing now, I would say no. But less bad than if we let things go further,” she said.
The multiple studies and reports on increases in fire season length, fire size, magnitude, and intensity, as well as forest die-back events and pest outbreaks, show that forest ecosystems at the very core of our life support on the planet are under severe stress, said Alistair Jump, head of biological and environmental sciences at the University of Stirling (UK).
“The changing climate is massively exacerbating the risk of catastrophic fire, and we are seeing the consequences of that globally,” he said. “Even where fire isn’t taking forests out, we are seeing drought-driven mortality risk escalate. Add to that changing pest and pathogen distributions and rampant deforestation, and trees are really in trouble just at the time that we need them most. The big risk of all of this being that carbon already locked away gets released in the blink of an eye.
“We take forests for granted—but we can see just how fast we can change the way forests work and how seriously it can impact us in return.”
Meanwhile, Trump is going to make our children’s lives miserable and much shorter
Trump on Thursday proposed sharply limiting environmental reviews of pipelines and other major federally permitted infrastructure projects, a move that would sweep away a hurdle slowing his agenda for unfettered fossil fuel development.
The new guidance would curb federal agencies from considering climate impacts by specifying that agencies are only required to analyze impacts that are immediate, local and direct. The administration’s proposed rule, which will be open for public comment before being finalized, also would relieve agencies of any duty to consider cumulative environmental impacts.
“Many of America’s most critical infrastructure projects have been tied up and bogged down by an outrageously burdensome federal approval process,” Trump said in an address from the Roosevelt Room of the White House. “From day one, my administration has made fixing this regulatory nightmare a top priority. For the first time in 40 years, we’re going to completely overhaul the dysfunctional bureaucratic system that has created these massive obstructions.”
The move to overhaul implementation rules for the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), which marked its 50th anniversary on Jan. 1, was portrayed by Trump as a modernization.
But critics argue that the president is proposing changes that would undermine the bedrock environmental protection law, which establishes the duty of the federal government to act “as trustee of the environment for succeeding generations.” They vowed to fight the effort.
“While our world is burning, Climate denier Trump is adding fuel to the fire by taking away our right to be informed and to protect ourselves from irreparable harm,” said Gina McCarthy, the new president and CEO of the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). McCarthy, who served as administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency in the Obama administration, added: “We will use every tool in our toolbox to stop this dangerous move and safeguard our children’s future.”
Flanked by men in hard hats and orange construction vests, industry officials and members of his economic team, Trump stressed his aim to speed the building of highways, roads and bridges. But the NEPA impact that has proved most nettlesome to the administration has been stalling the oil and gas pipelines and coal leasing Trump’s administration has sought to push.
Trump’s move follows a series of federal court rulings that have stymied his efforts to spur fossil fuel projects—most notably the high-profile Keystone XL pipeline to expand U.S. imports of carbon-intensive Canadian tar sands oil. Trump had signed an executive order within days of taking office to reverse President Barack Obama’s decision to halt the project over climate concerns. But Keystone XL has been tied up in litigation since then, with a federal judge ruling last August that federal agencies “cannot escape their responsibility” to evaluate alternatives under NEPA.
Amid the corrupt Trump administration’s all-out effort to ease the regulatory burden on the fossil energy industry, federal courts have repeatedly ruled that agencies were failing to live up to their duties under NEPA. Courts slowed construction of a major natural gas pipeline in the Southeast, and expansion of coal mining in the Powder River Basin of Montana and Wyoming and on Navajo land in Arizona. The federal Bureau of Land Management’s Utah office in September voluntarily suspended 130 oil and gas leases under the threat of NEPA lawsuits.
Trump’s Interior Secretary, David Bernhardt, a former oil industry lobbyist now in charge of agencies that oversee oil, gas and coal leasing on federal lands and coastlines, called the NEPA plan “a really, really big proposal” that “affects virtually every significant decision made by the federal government that affects the environment.”
Turning from the podium to Trump, Bernhardt said, “I believe it will be the most significant deregulatory proposal you ultimately implement.”
Refusing the Consideration of Climate Change
The fossil fuel industry and its allies have long railed against NEPA, especially over the past decade, when courts began ruling that NEPA required that both direct and indirect climate impacts be assessed. Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) led an effort to amend NEPA to bar consideration of global warming impacts, but it never garnered sufficient support to advance in Congress.
From the start, Trump took up the cause of NEPA reform with all the enthusiasm of a real estate developer who saw his own projects derailed over environmental concerns.
His administration has issued and proposed five other pieces of guidance to circumscribe NEPA reviews, including a plan, floated last summer to limit consideration of greenhouse gas emissions in planning for federal projects. But in the new proposal, the White House said it determined it was “not appropriate” to address a single category of impacts in regulations. Instead, the proposal seeks to limit the scope of all NEPA reviews in a way that appears to rule out consideration of climate change.
The only environmental effects that federal agencies would be required to consider are those that are “reasonably foreseeable and have a reasonably close causal relationship to the proposed action or alternatives.”
“Effects should not be considered significant if they are remote in time, geographically remote, or the product of a lengthy causal chain,” the proposal says. It also specifies that environmental reviews are not required under NEPA for non-discretionary decisions or for those with minimal federal funding or involvement—giving many developers an opportunity to elude the environmental review process altogether. The proposal sets a time limit of two years for detailed environmental reviews.
Vickie Patton, general counsel of the Environmental Defense Fund, said the proposal would “punch loopholes into long-standing protections under the National Environmental Policy Act and would put communities at risk and worsen climate change.”
Gene Karpinski, president of the League of Conservation Voters, called it “one of the most egregious actions the Trump administration has taken to limit the federal government’s response to climate change yet.”
Trump’s Red Tape Claims vs. White House Data
The proposal, in essence, would fulfill a wish list delivered to the White House last fall by 33 industry groups, led by the American Petroleum Institute (API) and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, who complained of “unreasonable costs and long project delays” caused by NEPA.
API President and CEO Mike Sommers praised the proposal in a prepared statement: “Reforming the NEPA process is a critical step toward meeting the growing demand for cleaner energy and unlocking job-creating infrastructure projects currently stuck in a maze of red tape.”
Trump’s description of the NEPA process—”It takes 20 years, 30 years, it takes numbers nobody would even believe”—is at odds with reality for the vast majority of projects. The White House Council on Environmental Quality’s own statistics show that 95 percent of the more than 50,000 actions subject to NEPA each year are already exempt from detailed environmental review.
Environmental groups argue that the subset of actions that require a detailed review—like the Keystone XL Pipeline—warrant the scrutiny, pointing to the spill of thousands of gallons of oil from the Keystone system in North Dakota this past October.
Responsibilities as ‘Trustee of the Environment’
NEPA, among the first environmental laws passed by Congress and signed by President Richard Nixon, requires comprehensive studies into the potential environmental impacts of “major” federal actions or projects—with an analysis of alternatives. The sweeping language of the statute asserts the federal government’s duty to “use all practical means. … To fulfill the responsibilities of each generation as trustee of the environment for succeeding generations.”
“As a global multigenerational problem that affects all of humanity and natural resources, climate change would seem to fit precisely within what the statute has in mind,” said Michael Gerrard, founder and director of the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia University.
Gerrard, who spent many years as a litigator, said that if he were representing a project applicant he would want consideration of climate change included in the environmental impact analysis even if Trump succeeds in his NEPA overhaul.
“There’s a good chance the courts will … say it needs to be considered and an [environmental impact statement] could well be struck down for failure to consider it regardless of what this guidance says,” Gerrard said. “Rational planning involves looking at foreseeable conditions, and arguably it’s malpractice for an architect or engineer to ignore foreseeable considerations when designing a project.”
The overhaul of NEPA guidance is just the latest of dozens of actions by the Trump administration to throw open the doors to unfettered fossil energy development and abandon even recognition of the threat of climate change. Just this week, the Trump administration released the federal government’s latest annual National Preparedness Report, which for the first time in the eight-year history of the accounting of threats and hazards failed to mention climate change, drought or sea-level rise.
There will be a 60-day public comment period on the NEPA proposal, with public hearings scheduled in Denver and in Washington, D.C., in February.
from InsideClimate News