Peter Howard

Environmental Defense Fund, the Institute for Policy Integrity, and the Natural Resource Defense Council

Published date September 1, 2014

Flammable Planet: Wildfires and the Social Cost of Carbon

  • Key Takeaways:
  • Globally: wildfires burn roughly 865 million acres of land—an area more than five times the size of Texas
  • In the United States, approximately 7 to 9 million acres burn each year
  • The current scientific consensus is that wildfire risk will increase in many regions of the world as climate change leads to:
    • Warmer temperatures
    • More frequent droughts
    • Changing precipitation patterns
    • More frequent and intense events
    • Longer fire seasons
    • More areas facing fire risk
    • Increasing fire sizes (in terms of area burned)
  • Most continents are expected to experience an increase in forest fires, with Australia, Europe, and North America likely to be particularly affected
  • Some studies predict a 50 to 100 percent increase in area burned in the United States by 2050, with the most severe changes occurring in Western states
  • Damages from climate change-induced wildfires are not currently included in the social cost of carbon (SCC), which is used by the government to evaluate regulations impacting greenhouse gas emissions
  • The omission of wildfires from the SCC could lead policymakers to underestimate damages from climate change when crafting important policies
  • Society faces multiple types of costs from wildfires:
    • Market damages (such as from lost timber and property)
    • Non-market damages (such as health effects and loss of ecological services)
    • Adaptation costs (for fire prevention, suppression, and rehabilitation)
  • While researchers regularly analyze the costs of many of these damages, few studies have attempted to quantify the total costs from wildfires
  • After analyzing research about each of these wildfire damage categories, we have compiled low, middle, and high estimates for various types of wildfire damages, per 100 acres burned (see Table 1 on p. 26)
  • Research suggests that the total costs of a wildfire are typically 10 to 50 times its suppression costs, and given that the United States spends roughly $2.0 to $2.5 billion on wildfire suppression per year, we estimate that the total cost of U.S. wildfires is presently between $20 billion and $125 billion annually
  • We predict that future climate change-induced wildfires will cost the United States between $10 billion and $62.5 billion annually by 2050, with a middle estimate of $22.5 billion, amounts that represents roughly 0.06 percent to 0.36 percent of projected U.S. GDP
  • Similar estimates for global climate change-induced wildfires imply potential damages of $50 to $300 billion annually in 2050, with a middle estimate of $100 billion