Wildfires and Climate Change: A Media Campaign?

13 years after Hayman Fire

You don’t have to read too many papers or online sources to see that funders of various ilks influencing people through media campaigns is a topic of some discussion.
What would we see if we were looking for that fingerprint in our own topic area?
We’ve seen the Gazette article from yesterday. It carefully laid out a variety of reasons for fires but ended on a climate change note.
The same topic could be coordinated. For example the Denver Post published this op-ed last Sunday. The theme is the New Normal.

Here in the West, we can respond to the predicted drastic increase in wildfires by adopting policies that limit further development in the “wildland-urban interface.” Such developments will require huge expenditures to defend from fire, and they will likely ultimately burn no matter what we do.

And yesterday the AP weighed in with this piece.

“Far more wildfires rage.”

And then there’s the effect on wildfires. Veteran Salida firefighter Mike Sugaski used to think a fire of 10,000 acres was big. Now he fights fires 10 times as large. “You kind of keep saying ‘How can they get much worse?’ But they do,” said Sugaski, who was riding his mountain bike on what usually are ski trails in January this year. In fact, wildfires in the United States now consume more than twice the acreage they did 30 years ago.

Which scientists are quoted in this article? Climate scientists.. and they know about trends in other explanatory factors.. how?

Now all of us who have been following this know that there are several ways of thinking about “bad fires” but that those are all human constructs. Acres? Acres including burn intensity above x? Houses and infrastructure? Numbers of individual fires regardless of acreage? If you use acres, it seems like it could be influenced by fire policy changes in terms of WFU. Numbers of fires could be a function of more people in the woods not being careful. Here’s what a piece in the Daily Caller says..

2. Wildfires

The AP reports that “wildfires in the United States now consume more than twice the acreage they did 30 years ago.”

While this is true, the AP’s narrowing of its analysis to just the past 30 years leaves presents a misleading picture. Wildfires may be burning more acreage today than the 1980s, but that pales in comparison to the great fires of the early 20th Century.

The scale of U.S. wildfires has decreased dramatically since 1930, according to government estimates. That year, wildfires burned more than four times the amount of acreage burned in 2012.

In 1930, for example, wildfires consumed more than 50 million acres of land, but in 2012 wildfires only burnt up 9.2 million acres.

Roger Pielke also wrote in the same piece about hurricanes, and it’s pretty simple. You can look at landfalls or costs of destruction. But wildfires can’t work the same way because people suppress them, they change how they suppress them through time and they didn’t used to suppress them at all..prior to 100 years ago. Remember the piece here when we looked at Leiburg’s forest condition reports from the early 1900s. So there’s almost complete overlap between when we would expect to see the signal for climate change and suppression which leads to more fuels and so on..

Here’s another thought from where I sit in Colorado. In dry western forests, fires can’t keep getting worse and increasing acres through time, because at some point they are already burned and don’t have time to grow back to a point where fuel loadings are enough to have a serious out of control fire. See the photo above 13 years after the Hayman. Certainly this is not true in parts of the old timber basket country, but as a person who used to spend time measuring seedling growth in south-Central Oregon, I think it will take a while. Plus the fact that burned areas can provide handy points for suppression efforts. In fact, they may grow more slowly due to climate change, or trees may not come back at all (due to lack of seed? changes in soil characteristics? competition from shrubs? or climate change?) and future fires may be less of a problem. My point is that regardless of climate attribution, we all agree on a solution (better county planning, prescribed burning, living with fire) so why wouldn’t we focus on something we know how to do (and is a heavy lift)? Even if we stopped climate change now tomorrow, we would still have wildfires and pretty much the same conditions We don’t know how or if conditions will stabilize or reverse, and they can’t really reverse- time’s arrow goes in one direction.

13 thoughts on “Wildfires and Climate Change: A Media Campaign?”

  1. America is not yet educated, nor progressive enough to accept site-specific science applied to American public forests, along with all those human impacts and effects. “Letting Nature take its course is no longer an option, and we must rule that out for all public forests. (Not to say that the “No Alternative” cannot be properly used, for a specific piece of land)

    Reply
  2. “You don’t have to read too many papers or online sources to see that funders of various ilks influencing people through media campaigns is a topic of some discussion.”
    “My point is that regardless of climate attribution, we all agree on a solution (better county planning, prescribed burning, living with fire) so why wouldn’t we focus on something we know how to do (and is a heavy lift)?”

    Does that mean your point is that there is some sort of conspiracy to focus on climate change? And that we should pay less attention to it? Just askin’.

    Reply
    • That’s a great question, Jon! My problem is not that people write articles that depict their view on climate change. I would argue that when people attribute climate change as the cause for everything that’s bad, people like us who think “it’s more complicated than that” wonder why it is important to them to write it that way. Is it lack of knowledge of the complexity, or the desire to get a certain agenda across that makes them not see it? If it’s as simple as “we need to stop it” why are some things on the table and others not so much? Whose agenda is it?
      There is a general background level in climate stuff I follow.. and these pieces taken together seem above the average number.. is that a campaign or coincidence? My point is can we detect the fingerprints of a campaign? And if not..

      Reply
      • Hmm..collusion or coincidence?
        Just read New Yorker piece from yesterday..
        https://www.newyorker.com/news/daily-comment/listening-to-james-hansen-on-climate-change-thirty-years-ago-and-now

        “This week marks the thirtieth anniversary of Hansen’s testimony, and it would be hard to think of a more lugubrious milestone. In the intervening three decades, nearly half of the Arctic ice cap has melted away, the oceans have acidified, much of the American West has burned, lower Manhattan, South Florida, Houston, and New Orleans have flooded, and average temperatures have continued to climb.”

        That’s a good example.. I can look around or drive around and I see “some” not “much” of the American West.. Not to speak of the hurricane attribution problem..

        Why the hype? Doesn’t reality make the case well enough?

        Reply
        • “Doesn’t reality make the case well enough?” Not when a substantial portion of the public doesn’t care about reality. Another “anniversary” analysis:

          “Most Republican candidates today cannot speak the words “climate change” — let alone support policies to address it — without risking a fierce political backlash from their base, which increasingly believes that man-made climate change is a liberal fantasy. There’s virtually no space left for a climate change advocate in the Republican Party of 2018.”
          https://missoulian.com/news/national/govt-and-politics/too-hot-to-handle-politics-of-warming-part-of-culture/article_c05321b2-7166-56d5-b838-cd2b0db4ef6f.html

          I think journalists just recognize, through their professional lens, that people are interested in climate change, so they include it when it’s relevant to a story. I wouldn’t rule out that some may have a dash of “doing something good for the world” in their rationale, but not as part of any “campaign.”

          Reply
          • So what is the evidence that supports that the Republican base thinks that man-made climate change is a “liberal fantasy?” Maybe that’s the author’s overstated way of saying “they don’t trust all purveyors of this idea.” I actually don’t trust them either..and I am pretty far from being part of the R base! Folks can’t take some facts, make a narrative that fits their own ideological and partisan worldview and then get upset if the partisans on the other side don’t accept that narrative. I don’t think it is reality that the R base doesn’t accept.. it’s the narrative.

          • Here’s a narrative by scientists…. Scientists who look at data and then prescribe drastic changes to human activity:

            Bolder targets needed to protect nature for people’s sake

            …the researchers say that that reforms are urgently needed on how we make decisions about what nature must be retained, and where. Said senior author James Watson of UQ and WCS: “It is clear that we are running out of time. Every time we analyze humanity’s footprint on the planet, we see broad-scale alteration of the last remaining intact, functioning systems. These losses are irreversible and we must acknowledge that the status quo is failing nature and humanity.”

            Recent calls for the protection of “half earth” and “nature needs half,” calling for conservation of 50 percent of the planet, are bold, but the researchers believe this may still fall short of what is needed for the integrity of critical earth systems, like a stable climate.

            Said Watson: “We need a big, bold plan. There is no doubt that when we add up the different environmental goals to halt biodiversity loss, stabilize run-away climate change and to ensure other critical ecosystems services such as pollination and clean water are maintained, we will need far more than 50 percent of the earth’s natural systems to remain intact. And we must remember that most nations have committed to this in various environmental treaties. It is time for nations to embrace a diverse set of bold retention targets to limit the ongoing erosion of the nature humanity relies upon.”

            https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2018/06/180618113014.htm

          • Are you asking me for “the evidence that supports that the Republican base thinks that man-made climate change is a “liberal fantasy”” or are you saying the author should have provided it?

            35% of Republicans believe that global warming is caused by human activities (down from 40% a year ago). So that’s a fact (taking into account statistical parameters of course). (Recall that Trump called it a “hoax.”) https://news.gallup.com/poll/231530/global-warming-concern-steady-despite-partisan-shifts.aspx?g_source=link_NEWSV9&g_medium=TOPIC&g_campaign=item_&g_content=Global%2520Warming%2520Concern%2520Steady%2520Despite%2520Some%2520Partisan%2520Shifts

            So what is your point about a “narrative” that is different from reality? Don’t the facts of global warming support a narrative that humans are causing it?

          • My point is that no one really knows how much is human caused. I think all these questions are related to points that have become part of the narrative.. they don’t believe in it and so on…

            My narrative is based on reality.. it goes like this..
            We don’t know exactly how much is caused by humans. But given that there is some likelihood that it is, say, greater than 50%, we should do something. The arguments are really about what we should do, given the levels of uncertainty and the costs. But part of the DMD (dominant media narrative) says that the problem is that people don’t believe what scientists tell them, not that people have legitimate disagreements about what and how much should be done where. That’s what I see.

            But “we” are already doing a lot. Wind, solar, efficiency, transitioning from coal to natural gas. Prices for wind and solar are going down and people are working on distributed systems, batteries and so on that have a variety of other benefits. And countries that set targets, such as Germany, are having trouble meeting them. So what is it exactly the “more” that is needed? How do we know the rate of acceleration that is needed given the many assumptions that scientists and other folks can make about the future?

            Some R’s suggested a carbon tax..https://www.ucsusa.org/press/2018/carbon-tax-proposal-promoted-leading-conservatives-good-starting-point and UCS even has some nice things to say about it.

          • “But part of the DMD (dominant media narrative) says that the problem is that people don’t believe what scientists tell them, not that people have legitimate disagreements about what and how much should be done where. That’s what I see.”

            I agree that is an important distinction, but the 35% figure above is about what people believe, not about what they would like to do. So the “dominant” media narrative is a fact-based description of a problem. (I have also read that the unwillingness to accept responsibility for change leads some people to these beliefs.) If your point is that the media should focus more on what should or shouldn’t be done, I might agree, but recognize that 65% of Republicans won’t have any reason to listen.

            Personally, I’m a conservative. I’d like to keep the planet as close to the conditions that have supported humanity as we can, and I don’t think we’re in any danger of overdoing that yet.

          • Polls are not facts IMHO. They are attempts to understand what people are thinking. If they were facts, the 2016 election may have turned out differently.

            Also I think it’s interesting that the Independents are somewhere in the middle on most of those questions.

Leave a Comment