Last summer, the Murdoch press played down the influence of climate change on the terrible fire season we experienced across much of the continent. Instead, they promoted the ‘arsonists are to blame’ line, which was then amplified across social media by climate deniers around the world, including one of Donald Trump’s sons.
While the hand of global warming was clear in that fire season, and this has been accepted in the various investigations carried out into the fires, conservative media and right wing deniers continue to peddle the falsehood that arsonists are to blame for bad fire seasons. The NSW Bushfire Inquiry debunked arson as a major cause in the fires that devastated that state. (Another favourite line run by conservatives is that a lack of hazard reduction burning also made fires worse).
A study on the fires after the 2019/20 fires by the World Weather Attribution consortium showed that although “natural variation was very important and will continue to be important in fueling these large fire seasons”, climate change is making them “substantially more probable.”
Now, with much of the west of the North American continent on fire, the same debate is being played out over there.
As happened here, the arson bogeyman is being promoted by many conservatives. Trump supporters are claiming that ‘antifa’ (anti fascist activists) have been lighting fires in places like Oregon. This has then been spread via social media, despite statements from law enforcement that these stories are simply incorrect.
But there is another, more positive, side to this story: a growing number of media outlets are ‘connecting the dots’ and drawing the link between extreme fire seasons and climate change.
This can only be good for sensible debate about emissions, land management, and climate policy.
California Gov. Gavin Newsom made an exasperated plea for people not to “debate” the reality of climate change, as his state experiences record-breaking heat and devastating wildfires.
“This is a climate damn emergency,” Newsom said, standing amid the ashes of the North Complex fire in Oroville in Northern California.
The governor described the conditions across the state as “a climate emergency” and a “climate crisis,” noting that this is what scientists had been predicting for decades with the “hots getting a lot hotter, the dries getting a lot dryer.”
The LA Times ran an editorial that said:
These raging fires, some exacerbated by the blistering heat last weekend, are the direct result of climate change. The planet is currently 1.0°C to 1.2°C (about 2°F) hotter than it ought to be. This excess heat is entirely due to humans, mainly from burning fossil fuels and destroying forests.
Similar changes are occurring throughout the world, and climate impacts are, of course, not limited to infernos of heat and fire. Hurricanes, floods, lightning storms and snowstorms are all getting worse, and will continue getting worse.
Specialist after specialist is drawing the link. For instance, Patrick Gonzalez, a fire ecologist at the University of California, Berkeley, says: “There’s no doubt that “human-caused climate change is a major factor driving these fires”.
There are messages relevant to Australia’s forested and mountain environments:
Quoted in The Guardian, fire historian Stephen Pyne, said:
“Scientists say there are no quick solutions. Fires are going to get fiercer and more frequent in coming years, researchers said in a paper published this year, “though a pathway consistent with the UN Paris commitments would substantially curb that increase”, they reported. Even with dramatic action to curb climate change, the region is likely to get drier and warmer for the next few decades.
“In the meantime, residents may have to ease out of fire-prone wildlands and build homes that are designed to be more resilient to fires. California will have to renovate its outdated, dangerous electrical grids – which have sparked some of the deadliest and most destructive fires in recent history. And across the west, policymakers will have to restore Indigenous land stewardship and work with Native American fire practitioners to burn more land”.
The Forest Service in the USA has decades of emphasis on fire suppression. In Australia, while we seek to stop fires in natural environments as quickly as possible, we also have long land management traditions of hazard reduction (or fuel reduction) burning. So the situation regarding management of public lands is quite different.