A modest proposal: forest fires are what’s needed to fix climate change. Here’s why.

September 2023

For preventing the trees from being a burden on us, and for making them beneficial to the publick.”*

The planet is getting hotter. This is mostly because of the emissions that come from burning coal, oil and gas, which trap some of the heat from the sun, raising average temperatures.

Less well-known is the impact of particulates, or aerosols. These tiny bits of dust, which come from a wide range of sources including dry river beds, the sand blown from deserts, and the tail pipes of motor vehicles, are also getting trapped in the atmosphere. Unlike fossil fuel emissions, these lower the average temperature by reflecting some of the sun’s rays.

Without particulates, the rise in average global average temperatures over the last century would be much greater.

Forest fires are a particularly useful source of dust. The dense smoke they create blocks sunlight near the ground. This can cause local temperatures to drop by several degrees. Wildfire smoke has a global cooling effect too. It makes clouds in the lower atmosphere more reflective, bouncing some of the sun’s heat back into space. It blocks sunlight in the upper atmosphere as well, just like a huge volcanic eruption.

Scientists say that the rate of global heating will be 10% lower than they expected in 2023, thanks mostly to the forest fires in Canada. The planet is still getting hotter they say, but more slowly.

This suggests that the World Resources Institute has got it completely wrong. Forest fires are not “getting worse”. They are getting better. More fires mean more smoke. More smoke means more cooling. This offers a tantalising prospect: societies might be able to reverse global warming if they set fire to enough trees.

As Jonathan Swift put it, “A young healthy tree well nursed, is, at a few decades old, a most useful thing when turned to charcoal. Wild animals in the embers have already been roasted, baked, or boiled; and I make no doubt that they can make an excellent fricassee, or a ragout”*.

Act first

Setting fire to the forests makes communities safer. Towns and cities would no longer have to fear flames and heavy smoke from trees destroyed by wildfires. Societies can ignite the forests in a managed way, before they have a chance to burn the houses.

As the effect of smoke is localised, town parks and private gardens can be set alight too, to help cool suburban areas. The vast reserves of peat around the world can be extracted at little cost from beneath land cleared by burning. This can be dried, brought to the cities and set afire too, to maintain the cooling effect. To amplify the benefits, diesel engines can be made mandatory, with exhaust filters banned. This would increase the volume of particulates further and offer new opportunities to the fossil fuel industry. The oil majors can become society’s saviours, by helping to solve the problem they are accused of creating through increased output.

It’s green, so it must be good

Burning the trees has multiple advantages. It creates more fertile land for farming. If more cultivated land can make up for the decline in crop yields that will result from less sunlight, societies can cut food price inflation. The burnt land can also be used to boost the construction industry. Cheaper food and more housing could increase the human population which could offset the rise in deaths that must be expected from the respiratory problems caused by so much smoke.

Increased food production should also help mitigate the effects of ocean acidification, an unavoidable side-effect of the fires. The fish and crustacean farming industries would be able to expand as the stocks of wild fish die and as shellfish dissolve. Even the hugely-maligned cement business, a disproportionately large producer of emissions, can benefit. Without wood, concrete demand will surge.

Some caution is required, however. It is vital that societies manage the burning of trees carefully. It will be necessary to burn just enough trees each year to block out the sun, but not too many as to risk a prolonged winter. It is also essential that enough trees always remain for future burning, to maintain the cooling effect for eternity. As aerosols only remain in the atmosphere for a short time, the Earth’s climate would go completely haywire without a steady flow of dust to keep global warming in check.

Thankfully, with international cooperation, and perhaps a coordinating role given to the IPCC, this extremely delicate balance should be attainable.

So, the solution exists. For years, societies have been seeking a way to fix the climate problem without restricting economic development. Now they have the answer. Set the forests and parks ablaze.

The solution to climate change that fits in your pocket is a box of matches. (If you can find any wood left to make them).


*These words are slightly adapted from Jonathan Swift’s “A modest proposal” from 1729. His theme was the famine in Ireland. He famously proposed – ironically – that people should eat children to solve the problem of overpopulation and starvation. A child “can make an excellent fricassee, or a ragout”, he said.

Depressingly, the idea of burning the trees is already being proposed seriously by such august institutions as the UNEP and National Geographic.

Photo of forest by Joanne Francis on Unsplash
Green smoke picture by Jason Blackeye on Unsplash