Cry “fire” and let loose the dogs of climate change!

Another catastrophe, another opportunity to wage rhetorical global-warming war.

Topics: Environment, Globalization, Global Warming, How the World Works,

Cry "fire" and let loose the dogs of climate change!

Fire, flood, drought, hurricanes: In a world where climate change is predicted to usher in an era of extreme weather events, the temptation for impatient activists to treat each new unsettling outburst of Mother Nature as proof that the end is no longer nigh, but busting in the door, is irresistible.

For some crusaders, giving in to that sensationalist urge isn’t just a guilty pleasure, but a strategic necessity, a way of evening up the rhetorical playing field. For example, writing in Grist, Glenn Hurowitz urges urges environmentalists not to be shy in exploiting the Southern California wildfires. The right wing, he notes, rarely demonstrates any compunctions about taking advantage of disaster to score political points. Case in point: JunkScience.com’s Steven Milloy is already asserting that timber-management practices, i.e., restrictions on logging, are to blame for the loss of thousands of homes in Southern California.

(Has Milloy ever visited San Diego? Chaparral scrubland is not exactly a bastion of old-growth redwoods.)

But reviewing the enviro-blogosphere, there is no shortage of environmentalists seizing the wildfire day. Joseph Romm, author of “Hell and High Water,” is on the warpath. So are the Center for American Progress and the legal eagles at the Warming Law blog. Bill McKibben is citing the fires as yet another reason to lobby legislators on global warming. Environmentalists are demonstrating few qualms.

You Might Also Like

Most of them, however, are expressing themselves with nuance, which always muddies the issue. Because if one wants to be a stickler for accuracy, the most definitive one can get is along the lines of what Princeton’s Michael Oppenheimer said on NBC Nightly News on Tuesday (as quoted by Romm).

The weather we’ve seen this fall may or may not be due to the global warming trend, but it’s certainly a clear picture of what the future is going to look like if we don’t act quickly to cut emissions of the greenhouse gases.

The expert whose name pops up most often when discussing the connection between wildfire and climate change is Anthony Westerling, a professor of geography at U.C. Merced. A summary of his research can be found in a forthcoming chapter of “Climate Change Science and Policy,” titled “Climate Change Impacts on Wildfire.”

He makes a crucial distinction: Higher temperatures and drier weather, along with less snowmelt and longer summers, increases the possibility of wildfire in heavily forested regions where there has traditionally been more moisture, and the flammability of the fuel is the critical issue in whether or not fires break out. But in traditionally dry regions, an uptick in temperatures is less likely to cause wildfire; instead, an increase in precipitation that results in the abnormal production of fuel is the problem to watch out for.

This is critical to evaluating the Southern California wildfires, because there is a consensus that one of the major problems was the combination of a very wet year in 2004 and reasonably wet year in 2005, which resulted in abundant growth, with the drought conditions of the last year. That combination is not necessarily fallout from climate change. But at the same time, California is experiencing decreasing snowmelt, longer summers and a gradual rise in temperatures, which are putting other regions in the state at risk.

So we end up with a complex message. Westerling:

In dry ecosystems where fire risks are limited by fuel availability, warmer temperatures may not increase fire activity significantly. Warmer temperatures and greater evaporation in some places could actually reduce fire risks over time if the result is reduced growth of grasses and other surface vegetation that provide the continuous fuel cover necessary for large fires to spread. The effect of climate change on precipitation is also a major source of uncertainty for fuel-limited fire regimes. However, in some places these are the same ecosystems where fire suppression and land uses that reduce fire activity in the short run have led to increased fuel loads today as formerly open woodlands have become dense forests, increasing for the immediate future the risk of large, difficult-to-control fires with ecologically severe impacts.

Nuance is a bitch. But the last thing environmentalists need to do is copy Steve Milloy’s playbook. The fascinating thing about the way public attitudes about climate change have changed in the last few years is that you can make a very good case that the most important catalyst was the disaster wrought by Hurricane Katrina, even though attributing that particular hurricane to climate change is not something most climatologists would be comfortable doing. But as an illustration of what could become more frequent, Katrina was more than expressive. It was terrifying.

Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails
    Martyna Blaszczyk/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 1

    Pond de l'Archeveche - hundreds thousands of padlocks locked to a bridge by random couples, as a symbol of their eternal love. After another iconic Pont des Arts bridge was cleared of the padlocks in 2010 (as a safety measure), people started to place their love symbols on this one. Today both of the bridges are full of love locks again.

    Anders Andersson/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 2

    A bird's view of tulip fields near Voorhout in the Netherlands, photographed with a drone in April 2015.

    Aashit Desai/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 3

    Angalamman Festival is celebrated every year in a small town called Kaveripattinam in Tamil Nadu. Devotees, numbering in tens of thousands, converge in this town the day after Maha Shivratri to worship the deity Angalamman, meaning 'The Guardian God'. During the festival some of the worshippers paint their faces that personifies Goddess Kali. Other indulge in the ritual of piercing iron rods throughout their cheeks.

    Allan Gichigi/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 4

    Kit Mikai is a natural rock formation about 40m high found in Western Kenya. She goes up the rocks regularly to meditate. Kit Mikai, Kenya

    Chris Ludlow/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 5

    On a weekend trip to buffalo from Toronto we made a pit stop at Niagara Falls on the Canadian side. I took this shot with my nexus 5 smartphone. I was randomly shooting the falls themselves from different viewpoints when I happened to get a pretty lucky and interesting shot of this lone seagull on patrol over the falls. I didn't even realize I had captured it in the shot until I went back through the photos a few days later

    Jassen T./National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 6

    Incredibly beautiful and extremely remote. Koehn Lake, Mojave Desert, California. Aerial Image.

    Howard Singleton/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 7

    Lucky timing! The oxpecker was originally sitting on hippo's head. I could see the hippo was going into a huge yawn (threat display?) and the oxpecker had to vacate it's perch. When I snapped the pic, the oxpecker appeared on the verge of being inhaled and was perfectly positioned between the massive gaping jaws of the hippo. The oxpecker also appears to be screeching in terror and back-pedaling to avoid being a snack!

    Abrar Mohsin/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 8

    The Yetis of Nepal - The Aghoris as they are called are marked by colorful body paint and clothes

    Madeline Crowley/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 9

    Taken from a zodiac raft on a painfully cold, rainy day

    Ian Bird/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 10

    This wave is situated right near the CBD of Sydney. Some describe it as the most dangerous wave in Australia, due to it breaking on barnacle covered rocks only a few feet deep and only ten metres from the cliff face. If you fall off you could find yourself in a life and death situation. This photo was taken 300 feet directly above the wave from a helicopter, just as the surfer is pulling into the lip of the barrel.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

0 Comments

Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>