Biggest Fossil Fuel Firms Responsible for a Third of Western Forests Burned, Study Finds

A 2015 wildfire in Oregon.

A 2015 wildfire in Oregon. GPA Photo Archive via Flickr

Emissions from the world’s 88 largest fossil fuel firms and cement makers are responsible for 37 percent of the forest burned in the western U.S. and Canada since 1986, according to a new study.

“Over the last several decades, human-caused climate change has turned routine Western wildfires into exceptionally destructive events,” Kristina Dahl, a climate scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists and lead author of the study, said in a statement. “Our study offers scientifically backed answers to questions of who bears the responsibility for this gut-wrenching destruction.”

Heat-trapping emissions are driving up temperatures globally, yielding warmer, drier weather in the Mountain West. More arid conditions are giving rise to larger, more intense wildfires that burn at higher elevation and throughout more of the year.

Companies such as ExxonMobil, BP, and Shell are fueling warming through the mining, drilling, refining, and burning of fossil fuels. Altogether, the biggest 88 fossil fuel and cement firms are responsible for roughly half the warming seen since the turn of the 20th century, around 0.9 degrees F (0.5 degrees C).

Union of Concerned Scientists

Through their contribution to climate change, these firms are responsible for the burning of 19.8 million acres of western forests, an area larger than the Republic of Ireland, over the last four decades, the study determined. The findings were published in the journal Environmental Research Letters.

Study coauthor Carly Phillips, a research scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists, said the findings represent “a significant breakthrough in attribution science — directly linking wildfire destruction in a specific region to the largest global carbon producers.”


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