This multi-part series will use the recent fires in California as a lens to explore the limitations of attributing the effects climate change to specific catastrophic events, the distinctions between wildfire and urban fire, and the role of national and international codes in addressing these events, which are occurring with increasing intensity and frequency.
Attribution and contribution
With ‘wild’fires still raging across southern California, Gov. Jerry Brown warns that megafires may be the new normal.
A cursory glance at media coverage over the past few years shows a trend of (thankfully) moving past “does climate change exist?” toward “is climate change to blame for this disaster?” Recent examples include VOX’s ‘Climate change did not “cause” Harvey or Irma, but it’s a huge part of the story.’ The media reports and Gov. Brown’s recent warnings are classic examples of the tensions between attribution and contribution.
While ascribing direct responsibility for particular events, or “impacts attribution,” is challenging, creating the preconditions for them to occur or to be more intense or prolonged – such as the higher winds and an overall drier season that have driven the Skirball and Thomas fires, threatening nearly 200,000 acres in California – is easier to justify.
We’ll discuss mitigation – or the drive to limit human (anthropogenic) emissions of greenhouse gases – in a future post. Yeah, that’s you: You ain’t off the hook just yet…
In the meantime, the American Meteorological Society’s paper ‘Explaining Extreme Events from a Climate Perspective‘ is an excellent primer on attribution and contribution.
I would argue, however, that making this distinction isn’t always useful. Do we focus on whether boiling water is directly responsible for producing a hard-boiled egg versus creating the preconditions of temperature and moisture to transform a delicate poultry product into an edible snack you can hold in your hand? (make sure it cools, first!)
The first point is, rather, not to get too hung up on causation for particular events, but rather to acknowledge the changing climate as a driver and contributor to making natural events events such as wildfires, droughts, and flooding more severe.
In future segments, I’ll address why I keep putting quotes around ‘wild’ in wildfire, discuss how the international code community has incorporated best practices for fire, and how learning and adapting – the hallmarks of resilience – are important in shaping future design and planning.
Note: Portions of this post were originally published at davehamptonjr.com on December 13, 2017. Material has been significantly revised for UrbDeZine.