The Climate in Emergency

A weekly blog on science, news, and ideas related to climate change


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Thanksgiving

The following is a re-edited version of a Thanksgiving post I originally published several years ago. It’s still timely.

“It’s that time of the year again,” warns a cynical-sounding blogger, “when warmists try to link Thanksgiving and climate change.”

Nice rhetorical trick, isn’t it? Discrediting us by saying that we’ll even link climate change to Thanksgiving? The truth, of course, is that of course anything in human life can be linked to climate change, because everything we experience depends on climate somehow. It’s in the air we breathe, the water we drink, the wind that may be gentle or catastrophic as occasion allows. Climate is already everywhere, and as it changes, so must everything else.

We “warmists” didn’t make that pat up. It’s just physics.

But yes, tis the season to write holiday-themed posts. Most writers seem to cluster around one of two main narratives: Thanksgiving as an opportunity to talk about climate change and agriculture (as in turkeys could get more expensive as feed prices rise because of recurrent drought); and Thanksgiving as an opportunity to talk about communication (as in how to talk with your climate-skeptic relatives). These are excellent points and I’m not going to try to make them all over again.

Instead, I want to talk about gratitude. I want to talk about abundance.

Have you ever thought it strange that we give thanks by eating a lot? If anything, American Thanksgiving sometimes seems more a celebration of greed and gluttony, with a perfunctory discussion of life’s blessings thrown in among the other topics at the table. But gratitude is fundamentally a reaction, not an action–it is very difficult to be grateful without something to be grateful for. At Thanksgiving we revel in abundance in order to remind ourselves of everything we have to be grateful for.

What is abundance? An online dictionary provides the definition “a large amount of something,” but that’s not quite it. “Abundance of dirty dishes” sounds, at best, sarcastic, if not outright ludicrous. And while there might indeed be a large amount of sand in the Sahara, few people would describe it as a land of abundant sand, because, really, who cares how much sand it has?

To really count as abundant, something must be a) what we want, and b) what we aren’t worried of running out of.

The Thanksgiving table qualifies. You can eat as much as you want, no holds barred, and there will be left-overs. The Thanksgiving table is not infinite, it is not literally inexhaustible, but it has an almost magical quality of feeling that way. It is precisely that illusion that allows food to symbolize all the other good things in our lives, everything for which we might be grateful.

Of course, there is no such thing as a truly infinite resource; use enough of anything for long enough and eventually you will run out. Even “renewable” resources are only sustainable if you use them slowly enough that they can replenish themselves. We know from sad experience that it is indeed possible to run completely out of precious things that once seemed all but limitless. Passenger pigeons, for example. And in fact we are running out of pretty much everything we need for life and everything that gives life beauty and meaning. Often, the depletion is hidden by ever more efficient usage that keeps yields high even as the resource itself runs out. Fishing fleets use ever more powerful technology to find and capture every last fish. Ever-deepening wells chase falling water tables. Oil companies prospect in nearly inaccessible areas that would have been too expensive to bother with a generation ago. For the most part, we humans aren’t going without, yet–hunger is usually a distribution problem, not a supply problem; there are more overweight than underweight humans right now. But already the world is warping under the pressure of our need.

Want a visual? Check this out:

See how big we are, relative to the rest of the biosphere? Humans already use more than the entire ecological product of the entire planet. That is possible because we are, in effect, spending planetary capital, reducing Earth’s total richness a little more every year.

I’m not trying to be gloomy for the sake of gloominess, I’m talking about the physics of the environmental crisis, the details of how the planet works. I’ve gone into detail on this before, but the basic idea is that the planet has an energy budget and that when part of the planet (e.g., us) exceeds this budget, the planet as a whole destabilizes. The biosphere actually shrinks and loses energy, diversity, and stability.

We got into this mess by treating the entire planet as the thing a Thanksgiving feast is meant to simulate; literally endless bounty. And because we did that, our descendants will have a smaller, leaner table to set than our ancestors did–and the more we use now, the leaner that future table will get.

Does that mean we shouldn’t celebrate Thanksgiving? Of course not.

Real, literal feasts are never actually about unlimited consumption. They are about abundance–about the way the illusion of inexhaustibility makes us feel. The illusion of physical abundance is a needed reminder of the truth of spiritual abundance–which is the actual point of the holiday, the thing we’re supposed to be celebrating on a certain Thursday in November.

The psychological power of the illusion does not depend on vast resources, something families of limited means understand well. By saving up and looking for deals and cooking skillfully, it is possible to produce a sumptuous feast that feels abundant and actually sticks within a fairly modest budget. The spiritual value is accomplished.

We can do the same thing as a species. We have to find a way to live within our ecological means–the first step is to get off fossil fuel–but we can work with what we have so skillfully that what we have feels like more than enough. By staying within a budget we can stop worrying about running out, and thus achieve a true, if paradoxical, abundance. Then the planet will have a chance to heal. The biosphere will grow again. And it is possible, just possible, that our descendants will live to see a more bountiful feast than we will.

And that will truly be something to be thankful for.

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A Family Expecting

I first posted “A Family Expecting” shortly after the birth of my nephew, several years ago. I have re-posted it occasionally since then, and rewritten it at least once under a new title. I’m re-posting again now for two reasons; one, today has been two busy to write, two, the piece is still a good way to remind people that what we’re doing really matters.  Although this story is a fantasy, it is based on the published results of climate models. Please check out the original for the research links posted at the bottom

Yesterday, my first nephew was born. He is small and wrinkled and has acne on his nose. He has wispy black hair and silvery-blue eyes. He knows the voices of his family and the scents and sounds of the hospital. He does not know about his home, going to school, or getting a job. He doesn’t know about casual friends, mean people, or birthday cake. He doesn’t know what the world will be like for him.

Neither do we, obviously, but if he lives to see his 89th birthday then his life will touch the end of the century, spanning the same period of time across which many climate models dare to predict. He comes from farming people in the Piedmont of the Mid-Atlantic. If he stays here and inherits his parents’ farm, as he might, then his life will also be the life of this landscape. What will he see?

This child will go home soon, and become the son of the land. He’ll rest in a cradle on the floor of a barn, his mother rocking him with one bare foot as she directs customers picking up vegetables in June. In two or three years, he’ll carry handfuls of squash guts as gifts for the chickens and a rooster as tall as he is will look him in the eye and decide he’s ok. He’ll listen to his parents worry about droughts. He’ll learn to hope the heavy rains don’t rot the tomatoes and that rising gas prices don’t break the bank. There will likely be more such worries as he gets older. Summers will be hotter. His mother will say it didn’t used to be like this, but grown-ups always say that.

According to the IPCC, by the time he’s a teenager, temperatures in the Mid-Atlantic will average maybe two degrees higher than they did during his mother’s childhood. That does not sound like much, but averages rarely do. One degree can turn a pretty snow into a destructive ice storm.

Warming, in and of itself, will be good for the crops; only a local rise of about five degrees Fahrenheit or more hurts productivity. That’s unlikely to happen here until my nephew is a very old man. But the Great Plains may warm faster, enough to cause a problem; he could study the shifting agricultural economics in college.

Our area could either get wetter or drier. Parts of northern and central Mexico will almost certainly get drier, maybe dramatically so. These areas are dry already, so I imagine a lot more people will start heading north. My nephew will discuss the refugee problem with his friends, lean on his shovel in the morning sun, and wonder if the United States has a responsibility to keep Mexicans from dying when Congress is already deadlocked over how to pay for the flooding in New England. Seems you can’t keep a bridge built in Vermont, anymore. He takes off his sun hat and scratches his thinning hair.

Years pass. My nephew thinks about his upcoming fiftieth birthday, and also about New York City, where three of his grandparents grew up. It’s turning into a ghetto. It’s not under water, exactly, though the highest tides creep slowly across abandoned parking lots in some neighborhoods, spilling over the older seawalls. The problem is this is the second time it’s been stricken by a hurricane, and now no one can get the insurance money to rebuild. The same thing has happened to New Orleans and Miami. Boston may be next. Those who can get out, do. Those who can’t, riot. They have a right to be angry. His daughter is pregnant with his first grandchild. My nephew cannot keep his family safe indefinitely, but he’s glad his parents taught him how to grow food.

More years pass, and my nephew turns sixty-five. He proud of his skill as a farmer, especially with the way the rules keep changing. The farm seems to be in Zone 8, these days. He’s got new crops and new weeds. He has friends in southern Maryland who haven’t had a hard frost in two years. Maybe this year they will; Farmer’s Almanac says it’ll be cold. Last year, he and his wife took a trip through New England and let his kids take care of the harvest for once. They stayed at romantic little bed-and-breakfasts and took long walks in the woods, holding hands. There was white, papery birch-bark on the ground, here and there, the stuff takes a long time to rot, but he knew he’d have to go to Canada if he wanted to see one alive. The American white birches are all dead, killed by a changing climate. It’s sad.

Eventually, my nephew becomes a very old man, a spry but somewhat stooped 89-year-old, mostly bald, with great cottony billows of hair spilling out of his ears, his breathing deep and slow and marred by occasional coughs and rumbles. He has lived long enough to see more change than any prior human generation has, and that’s saying something. A lot of the change is environmental, but not all of it. Major technological shifts have reworked the country yet again, and the entire political and economic center of gravity has pulled away from the coasts. He is aware of this upheaval intellectually, but viscerally he is used to the world he lives in. He lives well. He is loved and he is useful. No dramatic disasters have befallen him–the worst-case scenarios have not played out, but mostly he’s just been lucky. Plenty of disasters have happened to other people. My nephew is sympathetic. He writes his Congress-people and gives generously through his church whenever he can. But a lot of good that could have been done decades ago wasn’t.

I saw my nephew tonight. He’s at home now, wrapped in a blue blanket like an animate dumpling, slowly fretting against the swaddling. His wrists and ankles are as thin as my thumbs. He’s too young for baby fat. He doesn’t know what his future holds. And neither, really, do we.

——————–

I wrote the above fantasy several years ago and many of my predictions have already come true. My little nephew has indeed learned about birthday cake (I hope he does not yet know about mean people) and has carried treats to the chickens, though he prefers the company of the goats and can imitate their voices. More darkly, Manhattan was hit by a major storm-surge (Superstorm Sandy) and Miami Beach now floods regularly due to sea-level rise. I don’t think my nephew knows it, but the years of his  life thus far have seen consecutive global heat records broken, two successive record-breaking tropical cyclones (Haiyan and Patricia), rumors of “jellyfish seas,” a major climate-related refugee crisis, the possible California Megadrought, and dramatic, unprecedented fires in Canada, the United States, and Indonesia. Among other deeply worrying developments.

Come on, people, put your backs into it, whatever we make of the future, my nephew will have to live there.


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Speak No Ill of the Dead

I’m re-posting this one from last year, with minor edits. I have not found any new species to add to the list, though unfortunately that doesn’t mean there aren’t more that belong on it. There is a leak in the world and life is running out of it…

Today was Hallowe’en, of course. A rollicking, morbid carnival, a celebration of the mortal flesh through sugar, alcohol, sex, and fake blood (if you don’t believe me about the sex, look at the women’s costumes available in stores), a blurring of identity and the thrill of things that go bump in the night.

I could write about the impact of the holiday on global warming, but that’s been done. I could write a scary story about our possible future, but that’s been done, too.

But, basically, I’m not all that interested in Hallowe’en anymore. I’ve grown out of trick-or-treat and I’m not frightened by blood, fake or otherwise. I’m more interested in the older traditions of taking a day to honor and remember the dead. This is therefore a Day of the Dead post, a Samhain post. I want to mark and honor the dead of climate change–not as a scare tactic or a self-flagellation of guilt, but simply as an act of witness. Because it is the right thing to do.

There are several possible ways to go with this. I could focus on individuals who have died of climate change, but linking global warming to particular deaths is very difficult. The result would also be too similar to my recent post comparing the mortality rates of climate change and Ebola. Instead, I want to honor whole species that have died. I’ve often thought that reading a list of recently extinct species names, the way the names of individuals lost to some accident or disaster are sometimes read, would be a powerful way to add an ecological dimension to Samhain. I’ve never done it, in part because finding such a list is difficult. Compiling a list of the extinct is hard, since we don’t always know a species exists before it stops existing again, and because it’s hard to be sure a whole species is really gone and not holding on in some remnant population somewhere. What lists exist seldom turn up whole on Internet searches, perhaps because many of the species on the list are plants and animals most people have never heard of.

Still, I intend to observe the Day of the Dead by formally noticing our planetary losses.

Looking for Smoking Guns

Which species, if any, have gone extinct because of climate change is a bit complicated.  I addressed the question in some depth in an earlier post, but it comes down to the difference between ultimate cause and proximate cause; if you fall off a cliff, the ultimate cause of your death is your poor footing, while the proximate cause is your impact with the ground. The problem is that the connection between those two causes is rarely as obvious or straight-forward as in that example.

Climate change as the ultimate cause of extinction might be linked with any number of proximate causes. Some of them are: drought; habitat loss (think polar bears and sea ice); the extinction or relocation of an ecological partner; and new competitors, pests, or diseases that take advantage of warmer weather. Of course, most of these problems can have other ultimate causes as well. Climate change is not likely to be the species’ only major problem–consider the paper birch, which is dying out in parts of New England because of a combination of exotic diseases, climate change, and probably the advanced age of the relevant stands (the species requires bare soil to sprout, such as after a fire or logging, and there happened to be a lot of that in New England decades–hence, a lot of aging birches). Against this complex backdrop, it is hard to say for certain which extinctions actually belong at global warming’s door.

Some years ago, scientists announced the extinction of the Seychelles snail, the first species known to go extinct because of climate change. Fortunately, a previously unknown population of the snail turned up recently–it’s not extinct at all (though presumably still in grave danger). Many writers have treated the snail’s resurrection as some kind of embarrassing “oops” for climate scientists, which of course it is not; the species took a huge hit because of global warming, and the fact that it’s still hanging on is great news. Confirming an extinction is very, very hard–a bit like looking for the absence of a needle in a haystack. Mistakes are inevitable, and welcome.

The golden frog and the Monteverde harlequin frog are sometimes cited as victims of climate change as well. The proximate causes of the golden frog’s demise were habitat loss due to drought and also the chytrid fungus, which could be exacerbated by climate change. Chytrid has extinguished or gravely endangered many other amphibians world-wide, so at least some of them might be considered victims of climate change as well–as could various non-amphibians, including some no one knows about yet.

But there is another way to look at all of this.

Climate change itself has a cause, and that cause has other effects. As I explained in another previous post, our burning fossil fuel has destabilized the biosphere as a whole by altering how energy flows through the system. Climate change is one consequence of that destabilization, but systemic biodiversity loss is another. That is, no matter what the proximate cause of an extinction is (whether climate itself is directly involved), the ultimate cause of this entire mass-extinction event is fossil fuel use.

We know what to do about it. You know what to do about it. If you’re an American citizen, VOTING is a major and necessary step. But this is the festival to honor the dead, and we should take a moment to do that–to remember that these are not just numbers, political statements, arguments, but actual animals and plants, whole ways of being, that will never exist again.

I did find a list of historical extinctions. You can look up the whole thing here. It is far from comprehensive, but even so it’s still too long for me to copy over all of it. I’ll just focus on those from the list that have been lost since my birth.

Pinta Island Tortoise

Chelonoidis abingdoni

Last seen, 24 June 2012

Vietnamese Rhinoceros

Rhinoceros sondaicus annamiticus

Last seen, 29 April 2010

Christmas Island Pipistrelle

(a bat)

Pipistrellus murrayi

Last seen, 27 August 2009

Chinese Paddlefish

Psephurus gladius 

Last seen, 8 January 2007

Yangtze River Dolphin

Lipotes vexillifer 

Last seen, before 2006

Po’o-uli

(a bird in Hawaii)

Melamprosops phaeosoma

Last seen, 28 November 2004

Saint Helena Olive

Nesiota elliptica

Last seen, December 2003

Vine Raiatea Tree Snail

Partula labrusca 

Last seen, 2002

Pyrenean Ibex

Capra pyrenaica pyrenaica 

Last seen, 6 January 2000

Sri Lanka Legume Tree

Crudia zeylanica

Last seen, 1998

Nukupuu

(a bird in Hawaii)

Hemignathus lucidus

Last seen, 1998

Western Black Rhinoceros

Diceros bicornis longipes

Last seen, 1997

Aldabra Banded Snail

Rhachistia aldabrae

Last seen, 1997

Zanzibar Leopard

Panthera pardus adersi

Last seen, 1996

Swollen Raiatea Tree Snail

Partula turgida

Last seen, 1 January 1996

Golden Toad

Incilius periglenes

Last seen, 1989

Antitlan Grebe

Podilymbus gigas

Last seen, 1986

Alaotra Grebe

Tachybaptus rufolavatus

Last seen, September 1985

Eungella Gastric-brooding Frog

Rheobatrachus vitellinus

Last seen, March 1985

Kaua’i ‘O’o

(a bird in Hawaii)

Moho braccatus

Last seen, 1985

Christmas Island Shrew

Crocidura trichura

Last seen, 1985

Ua Pou Monarch

(a bird in Polynesia)

Pomarea mira

Last seen, 1985

Amistad Gambusia

(a fish, in Texas, USA)

Gambusia amistadensis

Last seen, 1984

Conondale Gastric-brooding Frog

Rheobatrachus silus

Last seen, November 1983

San Marcos Gambusia

(a fish, in Texas, USA)

Gambusia georgei

Last seen, 1983

Kama’o

(a bird in Hawaii)

Myadestes myadestinus

Last seen, 1983

Guam Flycatcher

(a bird in Guam)

Myiagra freycinet

Last seen, 1983

Aldabra Warbler

Nesillas aldabrana

Last seen, 1983

Galapagos Damselfish

Azurina eupalama

Last seen, 1982

Marianas Mallard

Anas oustaleti

Last seen, September 1981

Southern Day Frog

Taudactylus diurnus

Last seen, 1979

White-eyed River Martin

(a bird in Thailand)

Eurychelidon serintarea

Last seen, 1978

Little Hutia

(a rodent in Honduras)

Mesocapromys minimus

Last seen, 1978


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Looking at Costs

The news today is that the US Federal government spends a lot of money on disasters and, because of climate change, is set to spend a lot more.

The story has turned up both online and on the PBS NewsHour, and probably elsewhere; Republican Senator, Susan Collins, of Maine, and Democratic Senator, Maria Cantwell, of Washington, together asked the Government Accountability Office (GAO) to look into how much money is spent on disaster assistance programs, plus the economic losses through flood and crop insurance—and how these costs may increase in the future due to climate change.

The Associated Press headline is “GAO: Climate Change Already Costing Us Billions.”

Maybe.

Look, I’ll be the first one to say that the headline is plausible–disaster spending is increasing frighteningly fast, and climate change has already made several forms of natural disaster (heat waves, hurricanes, wildfires) worse in measurable ways, as I’ve explored elsewhere in this blog. But the article is a bit fuzzy on the details, as are the other articles on related subjects I’ve found, and it would be nice to get clear on these things.

First bit of fuzz?

From the AP article:

A Government Accountability Office report released Monday said the federal government has spent more than $350 billion over the last decade on disaster assistance programs and losses from flood and crop insurance. That tally does not include the massive toll from this year’s three major hurricanes and wildfires, expected to be among the most costly in the nation’s history.

The report predicts these costs will only grow in the future, potentially reaching a budget busting $35 billion a year by 2050. The report says the federal government doesn’t effectively plan for these recurring costs, classifying the financial exposure from climate-related costs as “high risk.”

Ok, $350 billion-plus over ten years, increasing over the next three decades to $35 billion per year. Except that one tenth of 350 billion is 35 billion so it seems that we’re averaging over 35 billion per year already.

Another bit of fuzz is that not all of those dollars can be laid at the feet of climate change—if climate change weren’t happening, there would still be extreme weather, just less of it. How much less? How much is climate change costing us? More than zero, obviously, but how much?

I have not found an answer, so far. I’m not sure if there is one. How do you sort out how much of a storm is due to climate change? It may be possible to use statistics to tease that out, but only for aspects of weather that can be quantified—and these aspects may or may not scale with how “bad” an event is, which in turn may or may not scale with how expensive it is. The cost of a storm (or a drought, or a fire) is not just a factor of the weather event itself, but also of which human concerns happen to be in the way, and how much money the relevant officials choose to spend. It’s worth noting that the impact of disaster would have increased in recent decades even if the climate were not changing, because every year there is more development in existence that can be damaged. Go back far enough, and there was no Federal spending on disasters, not because there were no disasters, but because the Federal government did not involve itself in paying for them.

How do you sort out all of those threads?

The GOA study was not designed to measure climate change—it was designed to estimate how Federal costs are likely to go up if current policy remains the same, given that the climate is changing. The idea is presumably to examine whether current policy needs to change and how. The use of the study’s results as a climate wake-up call is legitimate, but partial.

It’s also worth noting that the figure of $350 billion, is also partial. It doesn’t include the startlingly high costs of this year’s catastrophic hurricanes. It doesn’t include costs borne by states nor by private individuals. Nor does it include Federal expenditures related to climate change that don’t come under the heading of disaster assistance, such as wildlands firefighting or the efforts of coastal parks to adjust their infrastructures to rising sea levels—costs that are met through the ordinary annual budgets of programs that would exist even if climate change did not. But without climate change, those funds could have gone to something else. Those budgets could have been stretched farther.

Ultimately, despite all these complications and provisos, the question raised by Senator Collins and Senator Cantwell is a good one. If climate change ends up being the thing that radically alters, or even does in, the United States of America, the end won’t come in a made-for-Hollywood superstorm or a heatwave from the imagination of Dante, it will come through unravelling budgets. It will come through a reduction of prosperity, a loss of options, a constraint of national choices.

We will see the country stop being able to take care of its own, and whatever political repercussions flow from that uncomfortable truth.

 

 

 


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Come On, Baby, Light My….

Obviously, the Wine Country fires are yet another of the many signs of the coming climate Apocalypse, right?

Well, maybe.

I’ll spare you all the suspense and say yes,wildfires probably are increasing due to climate change, but the picture is a little more complicated than it might appear. Let’s explore some of these extra details a bit, shall we?

First of all, a fire season can be “bad” in many different ways, just as a hurricane season can be, and in order to even assess whether fire seasons are getting worse, we need to first decide what kind of “bad” we’re even looking at. For example, a fire season can be bad because:

  • There are a lot of fires
  • A lot of acreage burns
  • The fire season is very long
  • The fires are unusually hot, thus causing more damage per acre burnt
  • Fire behavior is less predictable than normal, making the fire harder and more dangerous to fight
  • More places humans care about burn
  • Fighting fires costs more than usual
  • An unusual number of people die in fires

Obviously, several items on the menu can occur at the same time–a year might see a lot of very large, hot fires that behave unpredictably, kill lots of people, destroy lots of property, and cost a lot of money during a time of year when fire danger is normally low. But it’s also possible to see a huge number of very small fires, a small number of very large fires, or a season that seems bad only because beloved places burn, while fire behavior is otherwise fairly mild.

Also, some of the variables in play are clearly linked to climate, such as the length of the fire season. But other forms of “bad” are partly or wholly caused by other factors, such as where suburban development is occurring, how forests are being managed, and how wildfires are being fought.

As with hurricanes, the challenge is to tease out a consistent, relatively uncluttered dataset so you can compare apples to apples from year to year–for enough years for statistical relevance. Unfortunately, most of the articles don’t address where their information is coming from, even when the site is quite reputable, so it’s hard for a non-expert like me to judge how much we really know and how much is logically sound conjecture.

Wildfire Is Getting Worse Because of Climate Change

A simple online search brings up lots of articles on how climate change is definitely making wildfires worse (meaning “longer and more intense”). There are several mechanisms involved. Most directly, higher average temperatures drive more evaporation, and earlier snowmelt, meaning that fuels are drier for a greater part of the year even if precipitation remains the same. Indeed, fire seasons are usually two months longer now than they were a few decades ago. Longer fire seasons mean more fires and also a greater drain on national firefighting resources.

A hotter climate also increases the chance that firefighters may have to work in dangerously hot weather. Hot weather at night can be especially damaging, because heat injury is cumulative. If the body can’t rest from the heat, then heat stroke becomes more likely.

Changes in precipitation patterns, another aspect of climate change, are also important, and not only because some areas are increasingly vulnerable to drought. Climate change involves a concentration of precipitation, so that a greater proportion of the rain that does fall comes in intense cloudbursts, with longer gaps in between. Even if average precipitation holds steady or goes up, this “never rains but it pours” situation is bad news. The rainstorms trigger lush plant growth, which then dries out in the long periods between rains, increasing fuel loads.

The number of acres burned per year has gone up over the past forty years, although the year-to-year variation is very large as well and tends to complicate the picture.

And of course, changes in land-use patterns play their own roles, since there are more houses being built in wooded areas than there used to be, and those houses burn if the woods do.

Wildfire Might Not Be Getting Worse

I’ve also found a few articles arguing that wildfires aren’t getting worse at all. One article argued that America’s forests are getting too dense because there aren’t enough fires and that Congress should provide immediate relief by encouraging logging. Unfortunately, I have not been able to re-find that article, so I can’t verify either its methods or its politics. The other simply points to the lack of trend and leaves it at that.

In some ways, it’s a pretty solid piece–it even links back to several original research papers, and the website, which belongs to a group of public radio stations has no obvious political agenda. A close reading of the article, and its sources, resolves the apparent contradiction.

The author, Tom Banse, acknowledges that fire seasons have been trending worse in recent decades, as other authors describe, yet he frames his own article as providing “contrast” by discussing three scientific papers that “question that prevailing wisdom” by looking at longer time scales.

Time scale is important. It’s possible to create trends out of nothing, or erase trends that actually exist, simply by looking at data from either a too-short interval or a too-long interval. Reading Mr. Banse’s article, it looks as though such obfuscation may be occurring with respect to wildfire, at least in the Western United States. Reading the papers he cites….

The link to one of those three papers is broken. The other two do say the things that Mr. Banse says they say, but not in any way that contrasts with the narrative of climate-induced fire severity.

One paper (actually a report by the United States Forest Service) concludes that, at least in some parts of California, fires were more frequent before the European-American conquest than they have been in modern times, defined as since 1908. In other words, it does not comment at all on changes in fire frequency over the past forty years–the study did not look at trends at all, at any time scale. Instead, the study’s methods involved dividing the study area up into ecologically defined sub-units and comparing the fire frequency for each unit before conquest to the fire frequency after 1908. Thus, all the fires in all the years since 1908 are subsumed into a single number.

There is nothing wrong with that method, but it was designed to address a very different question than the one Mr. Banse is using it to address. It’s a non-sequitur that happens to include the requisite words that wildfires used to be more frequent.

The other paper demonstrates that prior to conquest, fires were often more intense than conventional wisdom among conservationists maintain. Note that the authors of this paper aren’t talking about modern fire behavior at all. They are comparing their understanding of pre-conquest fire severity with somebody else’s understanding of pre-conquest fire severity.

Mr. Banse does quote one of the paper’s authors as saying that fire severity is less now than what “early settlers were dealing with,” but it’s unclear where this quote comes from–it does not come from the paper, since the language of the quote is not formal. Without the original context, we can’t tell what Dr. DellaSala was really talking about in his quoted remarks, or what information he was basing his remarks on. He does not seem to be arguing against the idea that climate change is causing larger, hotter, or more frequent wildfires, only that, from a strictly ecological perspective, more fire isn’t the disaster people seem to think it is.

A very interesting point–but relative to Mr. Banse, it’s another convenient non-sequitur.

Does Tom Banse have a climate-denier agenda? Maybe. The article is certainly structured as a counterpoint against the use of wildfire as evidence of the reality of climate change. I suspect that in the three years since its publication, it has been linked to by climate deniers more often than by the climate sane. But without more information, I cannot judge Mr. Banse. It’s possible he just felt that a counterpoint to prevailing wisdom seemed more interesting.

What’s Going on with Wildfire?

The actual fire we see is a result of a combination of climate, land management (including fire management), and other factors. The research Mr. Banse references hints at that complexity, though probably not in the way he intended.

While the quoted researchers seem to treat the conditions found by settlers as natural, it is likely that the lands in question were being managed intensively with fire prior to conquest–fire was a common management tool in many areas of North America, though I don’t know the details for the areas in those studies (if we don’t normally think of Native Americans as having their own land management practices, it’s because we’re racist; the idea that any part of the American was untouched by humans prior to white people showing up implicitly assumes that Native Americans aren’t human). After conquest, management with fire stopped, and was, within several decades, replaced by active fire suppression (when I was doing fuels reduction cutting in Arizona, I was told that grazing by cattle dramatically reduced fire frequency well before fire suppression began–close-cropped grass did not carry flame well). Of course there were fewer fires–that was the idea.

Decades of fire suppression increased fuel loads dramatically, thus increasing fire risk. Land managers have in more recent decades responded by conducting controlled burns and by allowing some fires that do not threaten developed areas or infrastructure to burn freely. Between one thing and another, fire frequency and severity have increased again, and would have increased anyway whether climate change intervened or not.

It’s not that I don’t believe climate change is a factor–in fact, I don’t see how climate change could avoid being a factor, given that it directly affects both fuel load and fuel moisture content, as well as making firefighting more dangerous due to the risk of heat stroke, as mentioned. But neither the fact that more acreage is burning, nor the fact that this year’s fires are particularly bad is itself the proverbial smoking gun.

What I’d like to see–and I’m sure this exists, I just haven’t seen it this week–is an article, written for a general readership, that presents the changes in fire behavior that result from climate change as separate from those that result from changes in land management and fire management practices. And I mean observed changes, not simply a discussion of what climate change ought to be doing based on our general knowledge of it.

That Mr. Banse may have had an agenda doesn’t make him wrong; that he is wrong makes him wrong. Most people have an agenda of one kind or another, and even those who profess to being utterly objective generally reflect somebody’s viewpoint or priority system (for example, who is paying for their objective scientific research and why?). The point isn’t to avoid those who have agendas, the point is to avoid lies, misleading statements, and agendas that are irrational, dysfunctional, or immoral in some way. Mr. Banse was honest enough to give us the tools to evaluate his talking points–he included links to peer-reviewed scholarship. That’s why we can say that his article was close to meaningless. I find myself wishing that more writers whose agendas I might like better were equally helpful and honest, if only so I could be certain they are right.

So, to summarize: wildfires are burning more acres per year, on average, than they did when I was born, and fire seasons are longer. Fires are also more dangerous to fight because of the increased likelihood of heat waves. Climate change is part of this picture, because it gives us longer summers and longer dry periods between wet periods. But other factors are also changing fire behavior, and at the moment one of the areas that happens to be on fire is beautiful and famous and populated, so we really care about it.

And at 11:31 PM of the day I’m supposed to post this, I can’t tell you what the relationships among all those factors is, or whether anyone knows.

 

(Note; actually, someone might know, and that someone might be me; I’ve written about fire in this blog before, but since I’ve been chasing information online today without much success, I haven’t had the time to reread my own work and hunt down my earlier sources. The result is this article that comments on the need for better science communication as much as on climate change itself)