Act now on wildfires, global climate change, human health, study says

A special report published in the New England Journal of Medicine, led by Professor Yuming Guo and Dr Shanshan Li from the Monash School of Public Health and Preventive Medicine, summarises the enormous impacts of climate change on wildfire seasons and the sequential increased morbidity, mortality, and mental health impacts.

The report, which analysed numerous studies on wildfires over the past 20 years, says global climate change is fueling the three essential conditions for wildfires - fuel, oxygen and an ignition source. The world is seeing inconsistent rainfall, increased drought and hotter temperatures, leading to more flammable vegetation.

It says the global mean carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions from wildfires accounted for about 22 per cent of the carbon emission from burning fossil fuels between 1997-2016.  The inconsistent approach to global forest management and the conversion of tropical savannas to agricultural lands is damaging the world’s ability to absorb CO2 and cool the climate.

The report says projections suggest that if high greenhouse gas emissions continue, wildfire exposure could substantially increase to over 74 per cent of the global land mass by the end of the century.

However, if immediate climate mitigation efforts are taken to limit the global mean temperature increase to 2.0˚C or 1.5˚C, a corresponding 60 per cent and 80 per cent, respective increase in wildfire exposure could be avoided, the report says.

Reaching the 1.5°C target  would require reducing global net CO2 emissions by about 45 per cent from 2010 levels by 2030 and reaching net zero around 2050. The 1.5°C target remains achievable if CO2 emissions decline by 7.6 per cent per year from 2020 to 2030.

The report says the devastating health impacts are illustrated by several large and – in some cases – unprecedented recent wildfires. These include the 2019-2020 Australian wildfires, the 2019 and 2020 Amazon fires in Brazil, the 2018 and 2020 wildfires in the western US, the 2017-2018 wildfires in British Columbia, Canada, and the ongoing record-breaking wildfires on the US West Coast.

Along with the increased eye irritation, corneal abrasions and respiratory impacts of the smoke, the psychological effects are equally as serious with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, and insomnia common.  The psychological consequences of wildfire events can persist for years, with children and adolescents particularly vulnerable.

A 20-year study on adults exposed to an Australian bushfire disaster as children in 1983 found an increase in psychiatric morbidity in adulthood, with wildfire events associated with subsequent reductions in children’s academic performance.

The report says the current exchange between wildfires and climate change is likely to form a reinforcing feedback loop, making wildfires and their health consequences increasingly severe, unless we can come together to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Instrumental to this study was the collaboration with Xu, Rongbin, Yu, Pei, Abramson, Michael from Monash University, School of Public Health and Preventive Medicine; Johnston, Fay; Menzies Institute for Medical Research, University of Tasmania; Samet, Jonathan; Colorado School of Public Health; Bell, Michelle; Yale University, School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, Haines, Andy; London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, Public Health, Environments and Society Ebi, Kristie; University of Washington School of Public Health, Department of Global Health.

Read the full report in the New England Journal of Medicine titled: Wildfires, Global Climate Change and Human Health
DOI: 10.1056/NEJMsr2028985