LA Times Misleads On Link Between Climate Change And California Wildfires
Times Heavily Relies On Discredited "Climate Change Specialist" To Criticize Gov. Jerry Brown's Well-Supported Statements
Research ››› ››› ANDREW SEIFTER
The Los Angeles Times reported that "scientists who study climate change and fire behavior" dispute California Gov. Jerry Brown's comments describing a link between the state's recent wildfires and climate change. However, numerous scientists and major scientific reports have detailed the connection that global warming has to both recent and future wildfires in the Southwest, including the 2014 National Climate Assessment, which stated that climate change has already "increased wildfires" in the Southwest region and could lead to "up to 74% more fires in California." Moreover, the experts cited by the Times do not contradict Brown's statements, and the only one who directly criticized Brown was Roger Pielke; it is unclear from the article whether it quoted Roger Pielke Sr. or Roger Pielke Jr., but both father and son have made dubious climate-related claims in the past that were debunked by climate scientists.
LA Times Cherry-Picks "Experts" To Baselessly Dismiss Governor's Comments On Wildfires And Climate Change
LA Times Headline: "Gov. Brown's Link Between Climate Change And Wildfires Is Unsupported, Fire Experts Say." In an October 18 article, the Los Angeles Times reported that California Gov. Jerry Brown said the state's Rocky Fire in August was "'a real wake-up call' to reduce the carbon pollution 'that is in many respects driving all of this,'" and that California's wildfires in recent years signified "a new normal." The Times then asserted that while Brown had "political reasons" for making these claims, "scientists who study climate change and fire behavior say their work does not show a link between this year's wildfires and global warming, or support Brown's assertion that fires are now unpredictable and unprecedented." [Los Angeles Times, 10/18/15]
LA Times' Account Of Brown's Comments Relied On Discredited "Climate Change Specialist" Roger Pielke. To purportedly back up its description of Brown's remarks as "political" but inaccurate, the Times cited Roger Pielke, whom it described as a "climate change specialist." The article did not make clear whether it was quoting Roger Pielke Sr. or Roger Pielke Jr., but both have received criticism from climate scientists for misinforming about climate change. From the Times article:
University of Colorado climate change specialist Roger Pielke said Brown is engaging in "noble-cause corruption."
Pielke said it is easier to make a political case for change using immediate and local threats, rather than those on a global scale, especially given the subtleties of climate change research, which features probabilities subject to wide margins of error and contradiction by other findings.
"That is the nature of politics," Pielke said, "but sometimes the science really has to matter." [Los Angeles Times, 10/18/15]
Numerous Scientists And Major Reports Have Detailed Climate Link To Recent And Predicted Future Wildfires In California And Throughout Southwest
National Climate Assessment (NCA): Climate Change Has Already "Increased Wildfires" In Southwest, Could Cause "Up To 74% More Fires In California." The 2014 National Climate Assessment (NCA) -- a federal report compiled from hundreds of scientific papers on the impacts of climate change -- included "[i]ncreased wildfires" as one of the "key messages" for the Southwest region. The report stated: "Increased warming, drought, and insect outbreaks, all caused by or linked to climate change, have increased wildfires and impacts to people and ecosystems in the Southwest. Fire models project more wildfire and increased risks to communities across extensive areas." The Assessment also stated that wildfires in the Southwest are expected to increase as climate change continues, including "up to 74% more fires in California." [U.S. Global Change Research Program, 5/6/14; accessed 10/19/15]
Earlier NCA Said "Wildfires in the United States Are Already Increasing Due To Warming," Particularly In The West. The 2009 National Climate Assessment, commissioned by the Bush administration, similarly stated that earlier snowmelt and drying of soils and plants have worsened wildfires in Western states:
Wildfires in the United States are already increasing due to warming. In the West, there has been a nearly fourfold increase in large wildfires in recent decades, with greater fire frequency, longer fire durations, and longer wildfire seasons. This increase is strongly associated with increased spring and summer temperatures and earlier spring snowmelt, which have caused drying of soils and vegetation. [U.S. Global Change Research Program, 6/16/09]
The report included the following chart showing that the number of acres burned per fire has increased significantly since the 1980s:
[U.S. Global Change Research Program, 6/16/09]
Nature Communications Study Author: Increased Wildfires From Climate Change May Be The "New Normal." A recent study published in Nature Communications found that fire seasons are nearly 20 percent longer than they were 35 years ago. The lead author told ClimateWire: "Conditions across the U.S. are becoming more conducive to fires ... We may be moving into a new normal. If these trends persist, we are on track to see more fire activity and more burned area." The ClimateWire article added:
"This study adds to a growing body of knowledge about the increases in wildfire risk and climate change," said Chris Field, director of the Department of Global Ecology at the Carnegie Institution for Science. "There are multiple factors that can cause wildfires. What the study shows is that weather opens the door to fire risk," he explained: The number of fires may not necessarily increase, but the risk goes up.
The result comes at a time when the United States is battling a severe fire season. Though the number of fires has been fewer than the 10-year average of wildfires, until this date, the extent of acreage that has been affected by the fires is significantly greater. It crossed the 5-million-acre mark by about mid-July, which is vastly more that the average of 2.9 million acres from 2005 to 2014. [Nature Communications, accessed 10/19/15; ClimateWire, 7/15/15]
National Research Council: "Length Of The Fire Season Has Expanded By 2.5 Months." A 2010 National Research Council report summarizing the state of climate science concluded that "the length of the fire season has expanded by 2.5 months":
[L]arge and long-duration forest fires have increased fourfold over the past 30 years in the American West; the length of the fire season has expanded by 2.5 months; and the size of wildfires has increased several-fold. Recent research indicates that earlier snowmelt, temperature changes, and drought associated with climate change are important contributors to this increase in forest fire. [National Research Council, 5/19/10]
United States Forest Service Chief Thomas Tidwell echoed this research, stating in June 2013 testimony to Congress that the U.S. wildfire season lasts longer than it used to thanks to climate change:
America's wildfire season lasts two months longer than it did 40 years ago and burns up twice as much land as it did in those earlier days because of the hotter, drier conditions produced by climate change, the country's forest service chief told Congress on Tuesday.
"It's hard for the average member of the public to understand how things have changed," Tidwell said.
"Ten years ago in New Mexico outside Los Alamos we had a fire get started. Over seven days, it burned 40,000 acres. In 2011, we had another fire. Las Conchas. It also burned 40,000 acres. It did it in 12 hours," he went on.
Climate change was a key driver of those bigger, more explosive fires. Earlier snow-melt, higher temperatures and drought created optimum fire conditions. [The Guardian, 6/4/13]
Wildfire Season Has Grown By About Three Months On Average. Climate Desk created this chart based on data provided by fire ecologist Anthony Westerling of the University of California at Merced, which shows that the fire season in the West, including California, has gotten about three months longer on average. Mother Jones reported that scientists are connecting this expensive change to global warming, and expect more and bigger wildfires to be "among the most severe consequences of climate change in North America":
And the longer seasons mean even higher costs, explains Interior's Douglas. That's because seasonal firefighters must be kept on the payroll and seasonal facilities must be kept open longer.
Environmental change is complicating the work of fire managers who already had their work cut out for them restoring forests from the decades-long practice of suppressing all fires, which led to an unhealthy buildup of fuel that can turn a small fire into a megafire.
"Until the '80s or so, it was easy to explain fires as consequence of fuel accumulation," says Wally Covington, director of the Ecological Restoration Institute at Northern Arizona University. "Now, piled on that are the effects of climate change. We are seeing larger fires and more of them."
Scientists like Covington are increasingly confident about the link between global warming and wildfires. In March, the United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reported that more and bigger wildfires are expected to be among the most severe consequences of climate change in North America. And a report prepared by the Forest Service for last month's National Climate Assessment predicts a doubling of burned area across the US by mid-century. [Mother Jones, 6/17/14]
Union of Concerned Scientists Detailed How Western Wildfires Are Getting Worse. The Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) laid out how climate change has worsened wildfires in the western United States in an infographic, which shows how increased temperatures are causing the region's snowpack to melt sooner and subsequently drying out forests, "prim[ing]" conditions "for wildfires to ignite and spread." UCS detailed how as temperatures continue to increase, the amount of land burned by wildfires is also expected to increase:
[Union of Concerned Scientists, accessed 10/19/15]
Seven Out Of Nine Fire Experts Surveyed By Media Matters Said Reporters Should Mention Climate Change In Wildfire Stories. Of nine fire scientists who responded to email inquiries by Media Matters in 2012, seven agreed that journalists should explain how manmade climate change could worsen wildfire risk in certain parts of the Western U.S. The other two emphasized other major factors that determine the extent of fire damage, or highlighted the regional and subregional variations that make it difficult to draw broad conclusions. The scientists who said journalists should cover the connection between climate change and wildfires included Steven W. Running, director of the Numerical Terradynamic Simulation Group at the University of Montana; Mark A. Cochrane of the Geographic Information Science Center of Excellence at South Dakota State University; Thomas W. Swetnam of the University of Arizona's Laboratory of Tree-Ring Research; Anthony Westerling of the Sierra Nevada Research Institute at the University of California, Merced; Meg Krawchuk of the Landscape and Conservation Science Research Group at Simon Fraser University in British Colombia; Thomas E. Kolb, a professor of Forest Ecophysiology at Northern Arizona University; and Max Moritz, a fire ecologist at the University of California, Berkeley. [Media Matters, 7/3/12]
Experts Cited By Times Don't Contradict Gov. Brown's Statements
Mother Jones' Kevin Drum: Experts Cited By Times Don't Back Up Article's Frame. In an October 19 article in Mother Jones, political blogger Kevin Drum noted that "virtually everyone" quoted in the Times article "either (a) says nothing about climate change or (b) says climate change is an important factor in the rise of wildfires in California and the West. And yet, somehow all of this is written in a way that makes it sound as if climate change has nothing to do with wildfires":
The Times piece is very strange. It starts by quoting Roger Pielke, the go-to guy for any reporter who wants a skeptical take on climate change. But even Pielke doesn't actually say climate is unrelated to increased wildfire activity. Next up is a quote from a guy concerned with fire risk who naturally thinks we should focus on making homes safer, but doesn't comment on climate science one way or the other. Next comes a scientist who has "concluded that global warming has indeed shown itself in California." Then a Forest Service ecologist who says "California has had an average of 18 additional days per year that are conducive to fire."
Next comes a UCI team who reported that climate change will increase fires in Southern California by 64 percent over the next few decades. But instead of simply reporting that, the piece acknowledges only that fires will "increase," and then casts doubt on the result by noting that the UCI model has error bars which indicate that the increase could be between 12 percent and 140 percent. Then a prediction from a "UC Merced expert" who speculated about "a possible decrease of such fires as dry conditions slow vegetation growth." Finally a National Park Service climate change scientist is quoted as saying "We are living right now with a legacy of unnatural fire suppression of approximately a century." That's true enough. Elsewhere, however, that same scientist has also said, "climate has dominated all factors in controlling the extent of wildfire in Western U.S. forests in the 20th century."
In other words, virtually everyone quoted in this article either (a) says nothing about climate change or (b) says climate change is an important factor in the rise of wildfires in California and the West. And yet, somehow all of this is written in a way that makes it sound as if climate change has nothing to do with wildfires, and it's topped by a headline that says in no uncertain terms, "Gov. Brown's link between climate change and wildfires is unsupported, fire experts say." [Mother Jones, 10/19/15]
And Only Direct Criticism Of Brown Comes From Discredited "Climate Change Specialist"
LA Times Did Not Make Clear Whether Article Was Quoting Roger Pielke Sr. Or Roger Pielke Jr., But Both Have Been Criticized By Climate Scientists. The Times article quoted "University of Colorado climate change specialist Roger Pielke," but did not identify whether it was referring to the father or the son. Both Roger Pielke Sr. and Roger Pielke Jr. are affiliated with the University of Colorado. [Los Angeles Times, 10/18/15; Colorado.edu, accessed 10/20/15; Colorado.edu, accessed 10/20/15]
White House Science And Technology Director John Holdren Called Pielke Jr. Statements On Drought "Misleading" And "Not Representative Of Main-Stream Views ... In The Climate-Science Community." In a February 28, 2014 analysis, White House Office of Science and Technology Policy Director John Holdren stated that claims Pielke Jr. had made about drought patterns are "not representative of main-stream views on this topic in the climate-science community." Holdren also said that "Dr. Pielke's statements about global drought trends ... are seriously misleading, as well, concerning what is actually in the UN Panel's latest report and what is in the current scientific literature." In addition to being President Obama's top adviser on science and technology, Holdren's White House bio notes that he is "a member of the National Academy of Sciences, the National Academy of Engineering, and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, as well as a foreign member of the Royal Society of London and former president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science." [Whitehouse.gov, 2/28/14; Whitehouse.gov, accessed 10/20/15]
Climate Scientists: Pielke Jr.'s Claims About Global Warming And Extreme Weather Are "Deeply Misleading," "Demonstrably Wrong," "Sloppy" and "Ludicrous." ThinkProgress reported that the first article written by Pielke Jr. for Nate Silver's FiveThirtyEight, which denied that climate change is "making extreme weather more frequent or intense," was condemned by climate scientists. Among the scientists cited by ThinkProgress was Penn State's Michael Mann, who said "Pielke's piece is deeply misleading," and National Center for Atmospheric Research's Kevin Trenberth, who stated: "This is the same old wrong Roger. ... He is demonstrably wrong and misleads." The article also quoted University of St. Thomas thermal science professor John Abraham stating that Pielke's article was "surprisingly sloppy," and Rutgers' Jennifer Francis saying that Pielke Jr.'s assertions were "ludicrous." Silver responded, commissioning climate scientist Kerry Emanuel to publish a rebuttal on FiveThirtyEight, and apologizing on Pielke's behalf. After the initial post and a follow-up defense, Pielke did not publish anything about the environment, and announced soon after that he had officially left FiveThirtyEight. [ThinkProgress, 3/19/14; Media Matters, 12/29/14]
Skeptical Science: Pielke Jr. Known For Selectively Citing Scientific Data To "Downplay The Connection" Between Global Warming And Extreme Weather. In a March 25, 2014 article, Skeptical Science stated that Pielke Jr. is "known for taking a selective view of the peer-reviewed scientific literature in order to downplay the connection between human-caused global warming and extreme weather." The article went on to identify "a litany of errors" in two posts Pielke Jr. had written for the FiveThirtyEight blog. [Skeptical Science, 3/25/14]
Climate Scientist James Annan: Pielke Jr. "Consistently Wrong," Says "Truly Bizarre And Nonsensical Things." In a May 15, 2008 post on his personal blog titled, "The consistently wrong chronicles," climate scientist James Annan wrote that Pielke Jr. "has been saying some truly bizarre and nonsensical things recently." In particular, Annan pointed to Pielke Jr.'s "obviously wrong statement" that observed temperature estimates were inconsistent with climate models. [James' Empty Blog, 5/15/08; BlueSkiesResearch, accessed 10/20/15]
Climate Scientists At RealClimate: Pielke Sr. Made Baseless and "Wild" Allegations. In a July 2009 post, the climate scientist-run website RealClimate debunked several "wild allegations" made by Pielke Sr. about sea levels, ocean heat content, and Arctic sea ice. RealClimate concluded (emphasis original):
We thus have to conclude that there are no grounds whatsoever for Pielke's wild allegations against us and implicitly the Synthesis Report [of the Copenhagen Climate Congress] authors. The final sentence of his post ironically speaks for itself:
Media and policymakers who blindly accept these claims are either naive or are deliberately slanting the science to promote their particular advocacy position.
Indeed. [RealClimate, 7/1/09]
Skeptical Science: Pielke Sr. Is A "Climate Misinformer." Skeptical Science has compiled and debunked numerous "climate myth[s]" espoused by Pielke Sr. over the years, including debunked claims about Arctic sea ice, global temperature trends, and sea level rise. [Skeptical Science, accessed 10/20/15]
ThinkProgress' Joe Romm: Pielke Sr. "Cherry-Pick[s]" Data To Make "Misleading Scientific Claims About Climate." In a July 2, 2009 article on ThinkProgress, Joe Romm wrote that "Pielke Sr. loves to cherry-pick climate data over short time spans to make misleading scientific claims about climate. Climate, of course, is about long-term trends." Romm specifically pointed to Pielke Sr.'s claims about ocean warming trends. [ThinkProgress, 7/2/09]