Opinion Columns & Blogs

Let's not give climate change all the blame for Western wildfires

Record drought, a triple-digit spring heat wave, hot-dry Santa Ana winds blowing when they rarely blow, tinder-dry chaparral fueling roaring wildfires, tens of thousands of acres burned, hundreds of thousands forced from their homes in an ungodly early fire season.

It is perfectly plausible to blame this on climate change. It is the great temptation, the natural conclusion, politically very useful. It even may be correct, at least partly. The science shows wildfires in the Western forests and brushlands are increasing in number, size and severity over the last half century, and climate change may be at least part of the cause. California is burning on the front line of the struggle against global warming, said Gov. Jerry Brown, facing down the flames.

In Washington Gov. Jay Inslee fears he soon will deal with the same problems. “This is not a hypothetical thing for governors on the West Coast – this is fire alarms and floods. It’s not a next-century issue. This is a next half-hour issue.”

This may be true. It is also entirely true that in the complete absence of human-induced warming these same weather patterns, this drought, these fires may well have happened anyway, and we would almost certainly face catastrophic fires in the future.

We know this, because it is the history of the West. We know this because there are other factors contributing to the rising number of fires, especially overgrown forests poorly managed, combined with encroachment of human settlement into flammable zones.

The danger is believing climate change is the only cause of the calamity, that without it we would be at peace, that we know how to stop it if the obstinate people with their crude politics would only cooperate.

The danger is that we will concentrate our political energy on useless action and ignore what really needs to be done – manage forests, thin out the epidemic of trees we have allowed to fester in a century of fire paranoia and destructive environmental policies. Admit that the overgrowth of trees, in some places 10 times natural density, contributes to larger and more intense fires, dry conditions and insect infestations that politicians blame almost entirely on global warming. We can’t stop wildfire with electric cars and a carbon tax.

What does science say? In the study most recently blared in the headlines as blaming climate change for more large wildfires, the abstract said this: “Continuing changes in climate, invasive species, and consequences of past fire management, added to the impacts of larger, more frequent fires, will drive further disruptions to fire regimes of the Western U.S. and other fire-prone regions of the world.” It’s not all just rising temperatures.

As for the California drought, Martin P. Hoerling wrote this in The New York Times: “At present, the scientific evidence does not support an argument that the drought there is appreciably linked to human-induced climate change.” There have been many similar droughts. “We can also say with high confidence that no appreciable trend toward either wetter or drier conditions has been observed for statewide average precipitation since 1895. This drought is not part of a long-term drift toward reduced precipitation over the state.”

Daniel Sarewitz, professor of science and society at Arizona State Unversity, made these observations on climate calamities in Slate: “Climate change, added on top of all the other causes of these problems, will often make things worse. But for the most part there will be no way to tell which ones are worse than they would have been anyway, or how much worse they have been anyway, or how much worse they have become.

“So it’s not that apocalyptic fears about climate change are utterly fantastic – climate change may well exacerbate a range of serious and potentially even disastrous problems – it’s that the monomaniacal apocalyptic version of climate changes gives us a picture of the world that is so incomplete that it’s much worse than simply wrong. Worse, because just like religious and political orthodoxy, it cannot be falsified.”