Is climate change causing more severe wildfires? It’s an allegation that many supporters of a new state cap-and-trade carbon tax are making to help their cause. But, scientists are casting doubt on the claim just as cap-and-trade supporters ramp up their claims that Washington’s wildfires are directly caused by our warming climate.
It’s an important discussion. In 2007, the National Science Foundation published a report estimating that California fires emitted 7.9 million metric tons of carbon dioxide in a one-week period – equivalent to 25 percent of the state’s monthly emissions from all fossil fuel burning throughout California and greater than the annual carbon emissions from all of Washington’s electricity generation.
When Gov. Jerry Brown (D-CA) held a recent press conference to tie the severity and frequency of California wildfires to climate change, he met stiff resistance from scientists (Gov. Brown’s link between climate change and wildfires is unsupported, fire experts say, LA Times, October 19, 2015). University of Colorado climate change specialist Roger Pielke called Brown’s allegations “noble-cause corruption.” He’s making unsupported claims about causation between climate change and wildfire in order to advance his policy prescriptions. “That is the nature of politics,” Pielke is quoted as saying, “but sometimes the science really has to matter.”
Much like Gov. Brown, Washington advocates for a new cap-and-trade tax plan are making unsupported claims in order to advance their cause.
More from scientists interviewed or sourced for the LA Times story:
A study published in August by a Columbia University team led by climatologist Park Williams concluded that global warming has indeed shown itself in California, by increasing evaporation that has aggravated the current drought. But Williams said his research, the first to tease out the degree to which global warming is affecting California weather, did not show climate change to be a major cause of the drought.
Even climate ecologists who describe a strong tie between fire frequency and weather say they cannot attribute that connection to phenomena beyond normal, multi-decade variations seen throughout California history.
“There is insufficient data,” said U.S. Forest Service ecologist Matt Jolly. His work shows that over the last 30 years, California has had an average of 18 additional days per year that are conducive to fire.
Here in Washington, noted scientist Cliff Mass has reached similar conclusions when it comes to the connection between wildfires and climate change.
The key question is are Washington’s forests going to store carbon or release it? According to the U.S. Forest Service, Washington stored 2.4 billion metric tons of CO2 in 2012 – the second highest total of any state. We can either manage our federal forests to maximize carbon storage and reduce the incidence of catastrophic wildfire, or we can experience future fires and the extreme pulses of CO2 they emit.
Even in a world impacted by climate change, scientists say, land management policies will have the greatest effect on the prevalence and intensity of fire. A “hands off” approach to active management of federal forests combined with a decade of fire suppression has created fuel for fires that can ignite at any time.
The tendency to make claims unsupported by data will, unfortunately, be a hallmark of any campaign to convince Washingtonians that adopting a cap-and-trade carbon tax is the only way to slow carbon emissions. But, it ignores history. We’ve all made tremendous progress in the last 25 years in reducing carbon emissions – in our businesses, families, farms, and government agencies. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Washington’s CO2 emissions are now below 1990 levels. Can more be done? Of course, and it should be. But, it will require more collaboration and fewer blunt instruments like the taxes on carbon being proposed.
Washington workers, farmers, families, and employers are united in the goal of reducing carbon emissions in our state. While we often differ on the best way to achieve this objective, our commitment is to engage productively with all Washingtonians on solutions.