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Stop Blaming Climate Change For California’s Fires–Michael Schellenberger

August 26, 2020

By Paul Homewood



Michael Schellenberger counter attacks over wildfires:



Fires have burned 1.3 million acres of California’s forests over the last month. That’s one million acres more than burned last year, and is an unusually high number for this early in the fire season.

California political leaders including Governor Gavin Newsom and Senator Kamala Harris, the Democratic vice presidential candidate, blame climate change.

“If you are in denial about climate change, come to California,” Governor Gavin Newsom told the Democratic National Convention. “11,000 dry lightning strikes we had over a 72 hour period [led] to this unprecedented challenge with these wildfires.”

The New York Times NYT -1.1%, CBS News, and other news outlets have reported that the wildfires destroyed a forest of ancient redwood trees in Big Basin state park.

“Hundreds of trees burned at Big Basin Redwoods State Park,” reported Shawn Hubler and Kellen Browning for The New York Times. “Park officials closed it on Wednesday, another casualty of the wildfires that have wracked the state with a vengeance that has grown more apocalyptic every year.”

“The protected trees, some 2,500 years old, were nearly wiped out by loggers in the 1800s,” claimed CBS News’ Jonathan Vigliotti. “Now human-caused climate change has damaged or destroyed many of these ancient giants.”

“Big Basin Redwoods State Park has burned through,” reported New York Magazine’s David Wallace-Wells, pointing to climate change as the cause. “Some, older than Muhammad, had stood for a thousand years by the time Europeans set foot in North America. The youngest are older than the Black Death."

But every school child who has visited one of California’s redwood parks knows from reading the signs at the visitor’s center and in front of the trailheads that old-growth redwood forests need fire to survive and thrive.

Heat from fire is required for the release and germination of redwood seeds, and to burn up the woody debris on the forest floor. The thick bark on old-growth redwood trees provides evidence of many past fires.

And, indeed, video footage taken by two San Jose Mercury News reporters, who hiked into Big Basin after the fire, shows the vast majority of trees still standing. What was burned up was the visitor’s center and other park infrastructure.

Nor is it the case that California’s fires have “grown more apocalyptic every year,” as The New York Times reported. In fact, 2019 saw a remarkably small amount of acreage burn, just 280,000 acres compared to 1.3 million and 1.6 million in 2017 and 2018, respectively.

What about this year’s fires? “I see [the current California fires] as a normal event, just not one that happens every year,” Jon Keeley, a leading forest scientist, told me.

“On July 30, 2008, we had massive fires throughout northern California due to a series of lightning fires in the middle of the summer,” he said. “It’s not an annual event, but it’s not an unusual event.”

California’s fires should indeed serve as a warning to the public, but not that climate change is causing the apocalypse. Rather, it should serve as a warning that mainstream news reporters and California’s politicians cannot be trusted to tell the truth about climate change and fires. 

Graph showing that the area that burns annually in California has declined over 80%

The area that burns annually in California has declined over 80% since the arrival of Europeans, and … [+]

Environmental Progress

It’s Not About The Climate

Nobody denies climate change is occurring and playing a role in warmer temperatures and heatwaves. Keeley notes that, since 1960, the variation in spring and summer temperatures explain 50% of the variation in fire frequency and intensity from one year to the next.

But the half-century since 1960 is the same period in which the U.S. government promoted, mostly out of ignorance, the suppression of regular fires which most forests need to allow for new growth.

For much of the 20th Century, U.S. agencies and private landowners suppressed fires as a matter of policy. The results were disastrous: the accumulation of wood fuel resulting in fires that burn so hot they sometimes kill the forest, turning it into shrubland.

The US government started to allow forests in national parks to burn more in the 1960s, and allowed a wider set of forests on public lands to burn starting in the 1990s.

“When I hear climate change discussed it’s suggested that it’s a major reason and it’s not,” Scott Stevens of the University of California, Berkeley, told me.

Redwood forests before Europeans arrived burned every 6 to 25 years. The evidence comes from fire scars on barks and the bases of massive ancient trees, hollowed out by fire, like the one depicted in The New York Times photograph.

“There was severe heat before the lightning that dried-out [wood] fuel,” noted Stevens. “But in Big Basin [redwood park], where fire burned every seven to ten years, there is a high-density of fuel build-up, especially in the forests.”

In 1904, three large fires burned Big Basin for 20 days, scorching the crowns of many trees, just as the 2020 fire did.

Reporters for The New York Times were apparently as pyrophobic 116 years ago as they are today, reporting that year that Big Basin, “seems doomed for destruction.”

But redwood forests regularly burn. A 2003 fire in Humboldt Redwoods State Park burned 13,774. Forest in 2008 burned over 165,000 acres. And a 2016 fire burned 130,000 acres.

Climate activists who in the winter excoriate those, like Senator James Inhofe, for pointing to snow as proof that global warming isn’t happening, turn around and point to summer fires as proof that it is.

“In my [five years] as a Californian,” wrote Leah Stokes in The Atlantic. “I’ve seen a years-long drought. I’ve evacuated my home as a wildfire closed in. I’ve lived through unprecedented heat waves…. that climate is no more.”

Environmental scholars scoff at this ahistorical view. “The idea that fire is somehow new,” said geographer Paul Robbins of the University of Wisconsin, “a product solely of climate change, and part of a moral crusade for the soul of the nation, borders on the insane.”

Fire Does Not A Hell Make

The amount of California that burns year to year is not uniform, Keeley emphasizes. “It was a mistake for the politicians in 2017 and 2018 to say ‘This is the new normal’ because 2019 was totally abnormal compared to 2017 and 2018.”

Is that amount abnormal? Not historically speaking. Scientists calculate that, before Europeans arrived, 4.4 million acres of California burned annually, which is 16 times larger than the amount that burned in 2019.

“Of the hundreds of persons who visit the Pacific slope of California every summer to see the mountains,” reported a U.S. government scientist in 1898, who had surveyed the region, “few see more than the immediate foreground and a haze of smoke.”

Even if 1.5 million acres of burned area per year indeed ends up being the “new normal” for a decade, it will still be one-third of the pre-industrial, pre-European average.

Why do activist journalists and politicians get California’s fires so wrong?

Part of the reason is their determination to blame climate change for everything.

“If all you have is a hammer everything looks like a nail,” noted Keeley. “If all you study is climate change than everything looks like it is caused by climate change. Every climate change research center finds climate is a problem. They are trying to find climate as the explanation.”

Climate bias is compounded by partisan bias. For example, journalists ridiculed President Donald Trump for suggesting that California’s fires were due to the state’s failure to remove undergrowth from its forests, even though scientists agree that the build-up of wood fuel through fire suppression is a massive problem.

Part of the problem is that many environmental journalists are so disconnected from the natural environment.

“I’m not an environmentalist,” confessed Wallace-Wells in his 2019 book, The Uninhabitable Earth, “and don’t even think of myself as a nature person. I’ve lived my whole life in cities… I’ve never gone camping, not willingly anyway…”

But if Wallace-Wells had been more of a “nature person” he might have known that fires are part of the cycle of life for redwood and many other forests.

The New York Times and other news media published a photo of a large, ancient redwood tree whose inner trunk is on fire. Many readers might have reasonably assumed the tree was dead, but that’s not necessarily the case.

In 1911, a reporter for the Santa Cruz Sentinel stood inside one of the trees hollowed out by the 1904 fire and noticed that it was still growing.

“To stand in the trunk of this tree and look up through the charred interior to the patch of blue sky far above, interlaced there with green branches, emphasizes the work of nature when producing the strange and awe-inspiring.”

The picture that Wallace-Wells and other activist journalists paint has more to do with religious depictions of a burning underworld than scientific descriptions of burning underbrush. “Looking from the vantage of today,” Wallace-Wells said last year, “we see that world and can think of it basically as a hell.”

Facts seem unlikely to get in the way of his desire to tell a good story. “Fires are among the best and more horrifying propagandists for climate change,” he notes, “terrifying and immediate, no matter how far from a fire zone you live.”

Analysis of the last couple of decades shows that a massive year-on-year variability in wildfire acreage in California, but no obvious trends.




And nationally this year so far is well below the long term average:




But that won’t stop environmental journalists and politicians blaming every fire on climate change.

  1. wirralexile permalink
    August 26, 2020 11:33 am

    One of the truly fascinating aspects of fire adapted ecosystems is that there is a species of pine that covers both fire scenarios, frequent surface burning and infrequent crown canopy burning. For frequent burning the sapling pines produce viable serotinous cones in their second year, The trees do not live long in the presence of regular ground fires but their seed survives.

    This same species has a second survival trick. It never releases its cones, they remain on the stem and eventually get overgrown and remain lodged deep within the trunk. If after many years of growth the woodland is burned in a catastrophic canopy fire, some cones within the trunk will survive the death of their parent and these now freed cones will provide a seed source for new trees after the fire has passed.

  2. MrGrimNasty permalink
    August 26, 2020 11:52 am

    I seem to recall a map of California showing how often each area had been burnt down over the century/centuries and the only not burnt areas were not vegetated, bare rock etc.

    Haven’t read this yet but looks related, on fires and forested area globally.

  3. August 26, 2020 12:07 pm

    Unlike the coast redwoods (the ones which are grown for furniture, decking ,etc.), the Big Tree, Sequoiadendron giganteum, grows in the dry Sierra Nevada range of California. The Sequoiadendron is fire resistant and most older ones show the typical open trunk burn pattern. They are also extremely disease resistant. Fire keeps out competitive species. Most of these giant trees die when they topple over due to wind or flooding as they have very shallow root systems. I have had the privilege of seeing both species in their native habitats. Although the coast redwood (Sequoia sempervirens) is not a hardy species, the big tree and the Chinese dawn redwood (Metasequoia glyptostroboides) are both hardy where I live and are growing in the WVU Arboretum about a miles from my home.

    Some pines have serotinous cones, meaning they are sealed closed by resins which only melt at high temperatures. Thus fire is necessary to their reproduction. Pinus contorta, the lodgepole pine, was the major species which burned in the wildflres of Yellowstone National Park in 1988. Within 2 years the burned forest floor was a carpet of seedlings among the standing dead trunks.

    • MrGrimNasty permalink
      August 26, 2020 12:14 pm

      I wouldn’t be surprised if some seeds require to be burnt/heated before they will germinate and that the thermals from the fires actually help to carry off and distribute some seed.

      Nature knows how to exploit nature.

      • August 27, 2020 12:54 pm

        The cones of Sequoiadendron giganteum and not shut with resins. According to my dendrology text the cones take 2 years to fully develop. However the cone can remain green and closed for up to 20 years. Few seeds are shed until the cones dies or becomes detached from the tree. The “Sequoias” are members of the Cupressaceae (Cypress family).

        As a point on interest, the Sequoias are named for the Cherokee Indian, Sequoyah aka George Gist/Guess, who was born near Knoxville, Tennessee in 1770. He is known for creating an alphabet for the Cherokee language making it one of the few Indian languages which can be written and read. He published a newspaper using his unique alphabet.

        And this has nothing to do with the above. However, the Navajo language is not a written one and is very difficult. During WWII, the Navajo Code Talkers were a unit of the Marines which was employed in the South Pacific. They spoke via radio to advise of troop movements, call in reinforcements, etc on the various islands. It was impossible for the Japanese to break the “code” as it was not written. The original Code Talkers are almost all gone now. Due to classification, their work was unknown. President Reagan, in 1982, recognized their work. The original 29 received Congressional Medals of Honor. At the Battle of Iwo Jima, Major Howard Connor, 5th Marine Division signal officer, had six Navajo code talkers working around the clock during the first two days of the battle. These six sent and received over 800 messages, all without error. Connor later stated, “Were it not for the Navajos, the Marines would never have taken Iwo Jima.”

  4. Graeme No.3 permalink
    August 26, 2020 12:35 pm

    The same in Australia. Many eucalyptus trees require a fire to start seeds growing. A completely burnt tree in some species rejuvinates from an underground tuber.
    Also, the blackened trunks of other species rapidly sprout new branches (so much so that even the media avoid the cliché).

  5. Chaswarnertoo permalink
    August 26, 2020 12:35 pm

    Just like Australia. Useless forest management leading to excess fuel availability.

  6. Broadlands permalink
    August 26, 2020 1:27 pm

    Over the long term the major wildfires have correlated well with population. This only makes sense. Many wildfires are caused directly by people, intentionally or accidentally. With more people visiting the forests the increasing chances for fires to break out should be obvious. But since people are the cause of increased CO2, and that is the putative cause of a small increase in global temperature, blaming climate change is popular, especially with green deal people.

  7. Mad Mike permalink
    August 26, 2020 1:37 pm

    Shellenberger will soon have very few people left on his Christmas card list.

    • wirralexile permalink
      August 26, 2020 1:51 pm

      He is burning his boats.

  8. August 26, 2020 1:53 pm

    Fires are going to get worse, on the average, with no help or hindrance from climate change. To take at risk areas of California: weather conditions suitable for fires occur every year. The reason things must get worse is i) development in the forest, necessitating ii) fire suppression operations. Every time you stop a fire, you light the fuse on a worse fire some time down the road. There is no easy way of avoiding this.

    If I were California governor, I’d ban housing in the dry forest. At the very least there needs to be a significant buffer between habitation and forest. Yes it’s a lovely place to live. Nice bit of shade from summer heat. But every few years, it will turn into an inferno, and residents will be wondering why.

    Take a look at Paradise, Butte County, Ca, in Google Earth to see what I mean (destroyed in the 2018 Camp Fire).

  9. August 26, 2020 3:58 pm

    While I don’t believe that a 20-yr trend is all that significant (at least in relation to climate change), in the ‘California Wildfire Acreage” graph above, there certainly appears to be an increasing trend during the period.

    • Romeo R. permalink
      August 26, 2020 8:10 pm

      Please note that these fires have gotten worse since the mid 1990’s due to the moratorium placed on logging in all national forests of the west. Not only logging but any kind of prescribed burns or selective clearing or forest maintenance was halted. Additionally, private residences were not allowed to remove vegetation from their properties. These same tactics continue today and the forest service and private land owners have their hands tied because of environmentalism.
      There was great economic destruction because of it and many communities died. We are talking about hundreds of thousands of people who lost their jobs overnight because of it.
      Only recently have places like Arizona finally won court challenges to allow them to continue to do prescribed burns and forest cleanup operations to ensure a safe and healthy forest. It took a fire of over 500,000 acres to finally get the message through.

      There is no one to blame for any increase in fires except for the politicians and environmentalists who put trees ahead of safety and all in the name of an owl and a small sea bird.
      Nature does what nature does and anyone who lives out west knows that fire is part of what nature does.

    • posa permalink
      August 30, 2020 2:21 am

      Correct gary. The charts and graphs contradict the texts and each other. While “prehistoric” wildfire acreage averages 4.4 million, the chart has years when wildfires burned over nearly 7 million acres. The graphics in tghis report are a mess and undermine credibility.

  10. C Lynch permalink
    August 26, 2020 3:58 pm

    The majority of politicians in California are Leftist and they believe in the man made global warming theory because they want to believe it’s true. It has all the same hate figures.
    It also offers a perfect excuse for abdicating responsibility for anything and blaming everything that goes wrong on global warming – always a very attractive proposition for politicians.
    To a large degree therefore they are just doing what politicians always do.
    The people I want to see hauled before the courts when this fraud collapses are the media. Their role is much more sinister because the truth was available to them but they have chosen falsehood instead.

  11. August 26, 2020 4:43 pm

    Nor is it the case that California’s fires have “grown more apocalyptic every year,” as The New York Times reported.

    But the NYT coverage of them has “grown more apocalyptic every year”, and they believe their own hype. Plenty of other folk have more sense.

  12. Ed Bo permalink
    August 26, 2020 8:05 pm

    Fifty years ago, I visited several national parks in California for the first time. Several park naturalists I talked to were very worried about the fire suppression policies in place then, for the resulting massive tinder build up, and the potential for major conflagrations they created.

  13. George Let permalink
    August 27, 2020 12:35 am

    Good Article However…
    I disagree with the paragraph beginning “Nobody denies climate change is occurring and playing a role in warmer temperatures…” Tony Heller has shown that in the U.S. there were more periods of intense heat covering wider areas and much more burned acreage in the first half of the twentieth century than anything in recent decades.

  14. czechlist permalink
    August 28, 2020 8:48 pm

    I have read that some of the indigenous people of California spent the hot summers in the mountains and forests then moved to the valleys to winter. When they left the forests they would intentionally set fire to the underbrush. In early spring there was ample moisture in the trees to suppress ignition and the burning dry undergrowth would not reach the high limbs so it was confined to the forest floor. The forest floor was cleared and the fires would be intense enough to open grounded cones to reseed.
    But tradition through experience is not always respected. How our ancient ancestors survived without our current knowledge is nothing short of miraculous.

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