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DEFINING SCIENCE

Fire Fight

Applied Climate Science Could Make Vulnerable Regions Safer

Helicopter above wildfire smoke cloud SOURCE: AP After scientists identify a plausible linkage between a changing climate and the increased incidence of a particular type of disaster, the story hardly ends there. Above, a helicopter flies above the Lake Arrowhead fire in California last week.

Perhaps it’s just that I recently spent over a year at work on a book about the relationship between hurricanes and global warming, but the discussions about climate change and wildfires in the wake of last week’s Southern California disaster sound awfully familiar to me. Indeed, I’m convinced the many parallels between the two cases can greatly help us in thinking about how global warming is, and is not, responsible for making our world more dangerous. But to understand the dangers or lack thereof, we first have to clarify ideas about causation and regional conditions.

When it comes to the relationship between a changing climate and specific disasters, “cause” is a word we really ought to retire.



When it comes to the relationship between a changing climate and specific disasters, “cause” is a word we really ought to retire. Consider: Disasters arise from specific local conditions; in the California case, drought, Santa Ana winds, and a few execrable arsonists. Global warming may make particular conditions more likely to occur (or recur) in a statistical sense, but it never creates the first spark, if you will.

And so global warming is not the reason that a few fires, once ignited, exploded into deadly infernos and caused so much damage in late October. Neither is it the reason that a particular atmospheric disturbance—once known as Tropical Depression 12—later developed into Hurricane Katrina and took a particular course that led to an explosive intensification once the storm crossed the deep, warm Gulf of Mexico “Loop Current.”

That’s the first caveat to get out of the way here, but there are others. For even if global warming is indeed changing the average wildfire risk to human populations, it may not be the only factor doing so. One of the major messages to emerge following the California fires is that, in some sense, we did this, not through greenhouse gas emission but rather through urban sprawl and through building valuable homes in fire-prone regions.

A similar narrative arises with respect to hurricanes. The main reason we’ve been experiencing so much hurricane damage in the U.S. lately has more to do with societal trends—the ever increasing concentration of population and wealth in vulnerable coastal areas—than with global warming. Almost 50 percent of the U.S. public now lives within 50 miles of a coastline. Even if global warming isn’t changing storms, these people are setting themselves up for disaster.

All of which leads to an important generalization about climate change and disasters: Even as we must be cautious not to attribute any single disaster to climate change, and even as we must acknowledge the societal factors that make us more vulnerable, we still have every right to fear the double whammy of a societal trend superimposed atop a climatic trend. In both the hurricane and the wildfire cases, there are reasons for thinking that’s precisely what’s happening.

Scientifically speaking, it’s hard not to be struck by the similarities. In 2005, amidst a dramatic Atlantic hurricane season, two scientific papers came out stating that hurricanes had measurably intensified on average over the past several decades and implicating global warming as the culprit. Similarly, in 2006, a paper in Science came out finding that a marked increase in western U.S. wildfires reflected a climate trend towards warmer springs and summers, and earlier snowmelt.

Following the Southern California wildfires, then, we discover yet another science scandal.

We must bear in mind, though, that these were early attempts to examine exceedingly complicated scientific problems—which in turn leads to a second important generalization. After scientists identify a plausible linkage between a changing climate and the increased incidence of a particular type of disaster, the story hardly ends there. Rather, we as a society must then concentrate our scientific energies–and government resources—on developing the aforementioned research (often presented at first without regard to the implications for specific communities) into a form that is of most use to human populations.

That means regional studies. That means going to governors and mayors in western states, or coastal states, and having something to tell them.

This task–which can only be considered a critical public service in our new era of climate instability–inevitably falls to our federal government, and more specifically, to its climate science research apparatus. And sure enough, in the late 1990s the Clinton administration inaugurated a “national assessment” process to study the regional impacts of climate change and their implications for the United States. But as I have written in many places—including the latest issue of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, currently on news stands—the Bush administration quashed that effort, and was in fact recently rebuked in federal court for doing so.

Following the Southern California wildfires, then, we discover yet another science scandal. Global warming is probably changing wildfire risks, and western states (and their citizens) have a need to know more precisely how that will affect them. But they don’t–because of the Bush administration’s continual suppression and misuse of science, and because of the tragic politicization of the climate issue.

Chris Mooney is the Washington correspondent for Seed magazine and author of two books, The Republican War on Science and Storm World: Hurricanes, Politics, and the Battle Over Global Warming. He blogs on The Intersection with Sheril Kirshenbaum.

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