Yes, climate change is driving wildfires

Asha Bajaj
4 min readOct 3, 2020


UNEP, Oct 3: As wildfires sweep across the western United States, taking lives, destroying homes, and blanketing the country in smoke, Niklas Hagelberg has a sobering message: this could be America’s new normal, UNEP reports said.

The fire season in the western United States is now 75 days longer than it was in the 1970s, according to a study from the University of California. Image credit: Photo by SKeeze/Pixabay

The climate change expert with the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) says a fast-warming planet will likely lead to more record-breaking blazes, like those that have ravaged the states of California, Oregon, and Washington in recent months.

We recently sat down with Hagelberg to discuss the relationship between climate change and wildfires, and whether one-day infernos could make California unlivable.

UNEP: Some people think climate change is a problem for future generations. But are we already seeing the early effects of it?

Niklas Hagelberg: Yes. It’s here, right now. The planet is already 1.1°C warmer than it was in pre-industrial times and that is changing the world around us. I’ll give you a personal example. I’m 46 and when I was a teenager in southern Finland, you could go rally driving on ice. Now, you have to worry about walking on ice. You can ask pretty much anyone these days and I bet they’ll have a similar story to tell. Our climate is changing into something we don’t recognize. And it doesn’t match the societies we have built.

UNEP: Is climate change responsible for the blazes that have consumed parts of the western United States of America?

NH: Forest fires are natural. But in recent years, we’ve seen a rise in the average temperature, which has led to an increase in evaporation. We’re also seeing extended droughts. The landscape is so dry from multiple years of gradual change, that suddenly there has been an increase in the frequency and intensity of fires. In fact, one report from the University of California, Berkley found the fire season in the western United States is now 75 days longer than it was in the 1970s.

UNEP: This year, 8,100 wildfires have erupted in California, killing 26 people and destroying 7,000-plus buildings. Is this the new normal for the Golden State?

NH: It could be. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), climate change increases the likelihood of droughts, storms, and other weather anomalies. Those events that were once every 100 years are suddenly happening once every 10 years. Based on the IPCC, we are moving towards an increasing frequency of fires, whether that’s forest fires or grassland fires — and many other dire consequences as well.

UNEP: Could parts of California become unlivable in the not-too-distant future?

NH: I believe in human ingenuity. I’m sure we could come up with ways to survive. The question is more: isn’t it a beautiful world and isn’t California a beautiful place? I don’t want to lose that. We need to design a better future for ourselves and the planet — not just accept what’s coming and try to scrape by.

Climate change is causing forest fires to become more frequent and more intense, says UNEP expert Niklas Hagelberg. Image credit: Photo by SKeeze/Pixabay

UNEP: The 2020 fire season is among the worst on record in the United States. Do you think it will finally prompt serious action on climate change?

NH: I think it will. I think we’ve now come to the stage where people know this is an emergency. Once bad stuff starts hitting close to home, that’s when people react. It’s human nature. You don’t tend to stop smoking until you get bad news from your doctor.

UNEP: And this is bad news?

NH: This is bad news. This is bad for our health, for our wallet, and for the fabric of society.

UNEP: The world is heading towards a global average temperature that’s 3°C to 4°C higher than it was before the industrial revolution. For many people, that might not seem like a lot. What do you say to them?

NH: Just think about your own body. When your temperature goes up from 36.7°C (98°F) to 37.7°C (100°F), you’ll probably consider taking the day off. If it goes 1.5°C above normal, you’re staying home for sure. If you add 3°C, people who are older and have preexisting conditions — they may die. The tolerances are just as tight for the planet.

Originally published by the UNEP



Asha Bajaj

I write on national and international Health, Politics, Business, Education, Environment, Biodiversity, Science, First Nations, Humanitarian, gender, women