The Intersection

Well, the region in which I’ve made my new home is on fire…though I’m not there right now…and inevitably, global warming issues are starting to be raised. I myself haven’t had time yet to dig into the science–which I know exists–on the relationship between global warming and an increased risk of wildfires. But assuming that others may have done so, here’s an open question for you all to contemplate and, hopefully, answer:

Assuming you’re an environmentalist who wants to be scientifically accurate, how would you couch your message right now about the climate-wildfire relationship?

Fire away…


  1. #2 Michael Tobis
    October 24, 2007

    Here’s what I said at

    Like the fires in Greece a few weeks ago, this is certainly due to drought and to land management policies, and arguably attributable in part to anthropogenic global climate change.

    Carbon or no carbon, this is an anthropogenic disaster just as carbon or no carbon, Katrina was too.

    There are arguments for wholism and for reductionism, don’t get me wrong, but I think we’re too reductionist about our sustainability issues. I suggest they’re all connected and need to be considered together.

  2. #3 Wes Rolley
    October 24, 2007

    This debate has already aired on Democracy Now and is posted at alternet. It is a conversation between Amy Goodman and Bill McKibben. I am not sure about the science, though.

    As for the science being taught in California, I would offer the following quote from Republican State Senator Tom McClintock, offered as part of a speech to the Western Conservative Political Action Conference, Newport Beach, CA.“And finally the third inconvenient question: If global warming is caused by YOUR SUV, why is it that increases in atmospheric carbon dioxide always follow increases in global temperatures by several hundred years, indicating that CO2 is a byproduct of increasing temperatures – not a cause.” We have a lot of education to do out here.

  3. #4 ArtK
    October 24, 2007

    @Michael Tobis

    I disagree somewhat that this is entirely an anthropogenic disaster. The entire ecosystem in Southern California is based on a burn-and-regenerate paradigm. The anthropomorphic problem comes that we are building in areas that are very prone to wildfires.

    Interestingly, I saw an item on Overlawyered that laid the blame on “environmentalists” for preventing brush cleanup.

  4. #5 Mark P
    October 24, 2007

    A recent story (on 60 Minutes, I think) talked about the increase in very large wildfires in the Western US. Firefighters said that they observe earlier spring thawing and snow melt in higher altitudes, and thus an increase in the length of the fire season. However, they also blame earlier forestry practices at least in part for an increase in the amount of combustible material in some forests. The two together cause larger fires to occur more often. Earlier spring thaws should be fairly easy to confirm.

  5. #6 Tyson Bottenus
    October 24, 2007

    I’m studying at Woods Hole right now for a SEA Semester and in our Ocean Policy class, we were asked to discuss the role of “bad science” in the evolution of climate change. Aside from citing various examples of the Bush administration, I tried to present a fair case and examine some instances in which climate science has been overly advocated by some scientists.

    One case that I found involved a dispute between geochemist Wally Broecker and a botanist George Woodwell over what caused the largest inputs of CO2 into the atmosphere. Broecker developed models for the movement of carbon in the oceans, calculating that most, but not all, of the CO2 was finding its way into that system.

    In the mid-1970’s, this view was challenged by Woodwell, a prominent environmentalist, who argued that deforestation was putting possibly twice as much CO2 into the atmosphere as the burning of fossil fuels. Broecker challenged this view, specifically Woodwell’s resticted data, and debates spilled over into social questions.

    Looking at the PEW report in June 2006 at issues that Republicans and Democrats rated in importance, global warming and environmentalism are rated lowest by Republicans. The Reagan Administration was incredibly critical of the environmental movement and viewed it as a liberal trojan horse.

    My argument against Woodwell, aside from furthering scientific views on shaky evidence, is that he was a main proponent in coupling the two issues together where they need not be coupled. Yes, global warming does stand to change the environment in dramatic ways, but that’s only one way to look at the issue. Global warming will also have significant social ramifications that have not been studied extensively.

    Does anyone else feel that the two issues should remain separate – at least in a policy perspective – to avoid the backlash that each group generates?

  6. #7 Linda
    October 24, 2007

    It’s frightening times in California, and my heart goes out to all the people living through this devastation. I sincerely hope that you fare well in your new location…

  7. #8 Fred Bortz
    October 24, 2007

    Repeating what I posted in another thread:

    True, the current California situation can’t be definitively blamed on climate change, but it is yet another piece of evidence supporting the call for prompt action.

    Drip, drip, drip, and the doubts erode.

    Drip, drip, drip, and more warning lights flash.

    Let’s not wait until the warnings become an urgent alarm.

    I guess that makes me a warner, though some will accuse me of being alarmist.

  8. #9 Lance
    October 24, 2007

    The ecosystem of most of southern california is dependent on burn and regenerate as mentioned above by artK. Much as hurricanes have a greater impact when people build near the shore, wild fires become coslty “disasters” when people build large housing additions in naturally fire dependent ecosytems.

    This of course doesn’t prevent global warming eco-opportunists and the scaremongers in the media from trying to take advantage of the situation. I expected nothing less from the usual suspects.

    Maybe there is a new book in it for you Chris. No doubt there will be a flurry of studies that “prove” a causal link between wild fires and global warming. You could pretty much use the same outline as your last book using many of the same scientists. A little cut and paste and voila!

    “Blaze World!”

  9. #10 Mark P
    October 24, 2007

    It’s true that increased development in risky areas increases the economic loss from large fires. That’s true for coastal areas and hurricanes and landslide-prone areas as well. But the events themselves are the issue. Do larger fires occur more often now than earlier, and if so, is that fact related to global warming?

  10. #11 John Fleck
    October 24, 2007

    The latest and bestest in the peer-reviewed literature on this question for the Western U.S. is Westerling et al. in Science last summer. This is the work that Tom Swetnam was talking about in the 60 Minutes piece Sunday:
    Western United States forest wildfire activity is widely thought to have increased in recent decades, yet neither the extent of recent changes nor the degree to which climate may be driving regional changes in wildfire has been systematically documented. Much of the public and scientific discussion of changes in western United States wildfire has focused instead on the effects of 19th- and 20th-century land-use history. We compiled a comprehensive database of large wildfires in western United States forests since 1970 and compared it with hydroclimatic and land-surface data. Here, we show that large wildfire activity increased suddenly and markedly in the mid-1980s, with higher large-wildfire frequency, longer wildfire durations, and longer wildfire seasons. The greatest increases occurred in mid-elevation, Northern Rockies forests, where land-use histories have relatively little effect on fire risks and are strongly associated with increased spring and summer temperatures and an earlier spring snowmelt.

  11. #12 Kim
    October 25, 2007

    And, just to add to John Fleck’s comment, Tamino blogged yesterday about the Westerling et al paper. He’s got other references to studies about timing of snowmelt in his post.

  12. #13 Dark Tent
    October 25, 2007

    Science is ill-equipped to answer definitive questions about attribution in cases like this (just as with hurricanes).

    With so many different factors involved, it is more than a little like epidemiology, where one attempts to attribute a heightened risk of disease to some one factor.

    In the case of the fires, since one can never attribute any given fire to climate change (if for no other reason than that a fire may have been caused by arson), the best one can do is try to figure out if it has heightened the fire risk (eg, from a longer and/or dryer fire season).

    And, given the latter, I don’t think it is even wise to “couch your message right now about the climate-wildfire relationship”.

    I’d have to say that is best left for times when there are not fires currently raging.

  13. #14 mainsailset
    October 25, 2007

    Two thoughts: first, since my family came to CA in 1868 I tend to rely first on historical perspectives; ie, the fires come, the rains follow with lots of flash floods followed by wildflowers. My historical, looking back & probably naive viewpoint may have just hit a big roadblock. We can no longer assume the rains will come. They may not. One-3″ of rain a year may now be the future. So, the wildflowers won’t come, the land may fail to re-seed and what was once not only a gorgeous but healthy ecosystem may indeed turn to dust.
    2nd: response time in firefighting is #1. The argument that the Nat’l Guard & their equipment has been diminished but that the Guard that is available is doing the job is again based on yesterday’s performance chart. Today, it is imperative to hit these fires and cripple them immediately. The thought that they are often on Nat’l Forest lands only heightens the argument that Nat’l & State have to be available to work together. Equipment is a priority.
    OH, and everyone should take notice that the CA fires are being reported as costing $1 BILLION. As the MSM pans on the sights day after day and it sinks in to America’s consciousness what $1BILLION looks like, then remind people that Bush is asking for an additional $46 BILLION for Iraq from Congress. The stark exploding picture is important.

  14. #15 A Siegel
    October 25, 2007

    My perspective is “Global Warming didn’t light California’s Fires, but did fan the flames’ (

    There are many factors that contribute to wild/forest fires. Many of them quite direct human action (brush clearing practices and other forest management (controlled burns?), building, arson, etc), some that are nature and would create fires without any human involvement. It seems clear that Global Warming is a contributing factor to the conditions in which fires are occurring. (Not every fire, not every time, but generally.)

  15. #16 Alan Kellogg
    October 25, 2007

    Drought + gnarly santana + spark = kickass wildfires

    Works in global cooling as much as in global warming. You’re not going to prove or disprove global warming using any one incident or a small selection of incidents. Proof—or disproof—will come with the weight of the evidence.

  16. #17 Thelonius
    October 26, 2007

    The fires were caused by dry Santa Anna winds which in turn were due to the high pressure system over the mountains. This is entirely natural and happens often. All it takes in addition is a lightning strike or a careless camper or careless brush clearing and you get a wildfire blown downwind by the Santa Annas.

    When the high pressure system moves or dissipates, it will be replaced by westerlies carrying more humid air in from the ocean which will stop the fires.

    That combination of pressure systems is in fact responsible for the development of the California chapparal ecosystem, which has evolved to be tolerant or resistant to the common fires which occur during the high pressures and consume fuel that built up during the rainfall from the alternating monsoon winds.

    It’s entirely natural in that part of the continent and has been going on probably throughout the Pleistocene.

    I don’t think anybody knows whether global warming would contribute positively or negatively to this particular pattern because we don’t know in any detail how global warming would affect the relative frequencies of these two weather systems in that part of the continent. And that’s because the GC models are not specific enough to predict small-scale variation in humidity and precipitation.

    That doesn’t negate Westerling’s findings, however, which were primarily focused on fire frequency in the northern Rockies which has been going up in response to earily spring melt and longer fire seasons, factors that don’t apply in Malibu.

  17. #18 bigTom
    October 26, 2007

    Increased frequency of severe droughts is an expected consequence from GW, which seems to be occurring. Most of the forests in the lower 48 have had so much alteration (fire suppression & grazing) during the last century or so and those changes probably have a larger effect than climate. In Alaska the increased length of summer has given the forests much more opportunity to dry during summer, and I think there we can definately link changing climate & increased fire activity.

    Any change of climate that is faster than ecosystems can adapt will leave a lot of systems in a nonequilibrium state, and the method nature chooses to correct that may well seem catastrophic to man.

  18. #19 Ron
    October 27, 2007

    It’s obvious. Increased levels of CO2 in the air we breathe cause increased levels of arsonists. The connection is as plain as the face on my nose.

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