Current Affairs

The Last-Ditch Talking Point on Climate Change

How to keep denying climate change when the inferno reaches your doorstep.

Faced with a giant inferno consuming Oregon, California, and Washington which has turned the skies an apocalyptic orange, those who insist that climate change isn’t a big problem are faced with a somewhat awkward situation. How do you explain that? Coincidence? Aberration? But explain it away they must. In fact, anyone who supports Donald Trump is locked in to climate change denial. They have to keep denying it no matter what facts present themselves, because if they were to admit that climate change is a serious and deadly problem, Trump’s approach to it would seem massively irresponsible. In fact, he would seem incompetent and stupid. But what does that mean when the hottest week on record produces a towering wall of flames that starts destroying entire towns? 

There is a right-wing talking point for every situation, though, and the one they’ve come up with for this one is: it’s not climate change, it’s the government. The government has badly managed the forests. If private enterprise had managed the forests, we would be okay. Hence Donald Trump told his supporters to “remember the words—very simple—‘forest management.’” The words are a shield one can use to fend off uncomfortable facts. Without some alternate explanation for the fires, people might be forced to concede that they were wrong, or at least become very uncomfortable at their inability to explain the stubborn reality in front of their faces. The talking point offers an alternative story, relieving one from the risk of having to think: it’s not climate change, the government just managed the forests badly. 

Have a look at this incredible clip from Tucker Carlson’s show. Carlson doesn’t deny that the fires are horrible and out of control. What he says is that anyone who blames climate change is doing so for “political” reasons. They are exploiting a tragedy, he says. “It took no time at all for the usual vultures and parasites to swoop in and try to make a political advantage,” Carson says, outraged that anyone could use a natural disaster to make a political point. Showing clips of Barack Obama and Gavin Newsom saying that climate change was responsible, and an MSNBC anchor calling the fires the “direct result of climate change,” Carlson says that these people are “lying on television” and that there’s “no evidence” climate change is responsible. “In fact,” Carlson says, “we know that a pyrotechnic device at a gender reveal party” set off one of the largest fires. Carlson also blames “state regulations preventing deforestation” and cites the fact that Oregon “sent a number of its [firefighting] helicopters to Afghanistan” for a “neocon” war that “Donald Trump is attacked for trying to end.”

Carlson then brings on “environmentalist” Michael Shellenberger, who has made a reputation as a skeptic of the environmental movement and recently published a book called Apocalypse Never: Why Environmental Alarmism Hurts Us All. Shellenberger tells Carlson it’s irresponsible to talk about climate change. Instead, the fires on the West Coast happened  because there are “more people and more electrical wires that they’ve failed to maintain because we’ve focused on other things like building renewables” and we’ve been “so focused on renewables, so focused on climate change.”  He further tweeted that it is “gross misinformation to blame climate change for our fires.” (Elsewhere Shellenberger chastises those who show “pyrophobia”—fear of fires—like, I suppose, the residents of Paradise, California.) 

The posture of Carlson and Shellenberger is that alarmists do not care about facts or the science, but instead are doing politics instead of rationally thinking about the problem. It is a very effective posture; now, no matter how bad the fires get, your Fox News-watching relatives will simply blame renewable energy and bad forest management. This will be done for every single climate catastrophe; hurricanes, we can expect, will be blamed on people living in hurricane-prone zones. 

If Fox is your sole source of information, this segment may actually seem persuasive. After all, some of it is even true. Oregon did send helicopters to Afghanistan (though Carlson manages to blame neocons and Oregon for this rather than the Trump administration’s Defense Department). A gender reveal did spark one of the larger fires. But Carlson and Shellenberger are propagandists; they deliberately bury every single piece of evidence that does not fit their narrative. They want you to think it’s alarmists and politicians who are blaming climate change, all to deflect attention from the government’s bad policies. In fact, let’s hear from some people who actually know what they’re talking about: 

  • “This is climate change… This increased intensity and frequency of temperatures and heat waves are part of the projections for the future. . . . There is going to be more morbidity and mortality [from heat.] There are going to be more extremes.” — Susan Clark, heat expert and director of the Sustainability Initiative, University at Buffalo.
  • David Romps, director of the Berkeley Atmospheric Sciences Center “[told] the MIT Technology Review we are living in a fundamentally climate-altered world. Said Romps: “To cut to the chase: Were the heat wave and the lightning strikes and the dryness of the vegetation affected by global warming? Absolutely yes… Were they made significantly hotter, more numerous, and drier because of global warming? Yes, likely yes, and yes.”
  • Here’s a paper by six climate scientists: “Since the early 1970s, California’s annual wildfire extent increased fivefold, punctuated by extremely large and destructive wildfires in 2017 and 2018. This trend was mainly due to an eightfold increase in summertime forest‐fire area and was very likely driven by drying of fuels promoted by human‐induced warming. Warming effects were also apparent in the fall by enhancing the odds that fuels are dry when strong fall wind events occur. The ability of dry fuels to promote large fires is nonlinear, which has allowed warming to become increasingly impactful. Human‐caused warming has already significantly enhanced wildfire activity in California, particularly in the forests of the Sierra Nevada and North Coast, and will likely continue to do so in the coming decade.” 
  • Here’s a paper that came out just last month from seven climate scientists called “Climate change is increasing the likelihood of extreme autumn wildfire conditions across California.” UCLA’s Daniel Swain says there’s been a “really big increase [in high fire-risk days] over a relatively short period of time that can be attributed directly to the changes in climate.” 
  • Here’s Friederike Otto, acting director of the University of Oxford Environmental Change Institute: “There is absolutely no doubt that the extremely high temperatures are higher than they would have been without human-induced climate change. A huge body of attribution literature demonstrates now that climate change is an absolute game-changer when it comes to heat waves, and California won’t be the exception.” Then here’s Jennifer Balch, director of the Earth Lab at the University of Colorado at Boulder, on the connection between that heat and the fires: “As a fire scientist, I can say fires are really responsive to warming… With just a little bit of warming, we’re seeing a lot more burning. We have twice as much burning now as we were seeing in the early 1980s.”
  • “Fire, in some ways, is a very simple thing… As long as stuff is dry enough and there’s a spark, then that stuff will burn… This climate-change connection is straightforward: warmer temperatures dry out fuels. In areas with abundant and very dry fuels, all you need is a spark.” — Park Williams, bioclimatologist at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory.

Okay, I can throw many more experts at you, but you get the point. When Shellenberger says it is “gross misinformation to blame climate change for our fires,” he is not sticking up for science against politicians, he is deliberately ignoring the testimony of fire scientists and climate researchers. He is simply generating propaganda. Joan Conrow of the Cornell Alliance for Science has gone into great detail on this, refuting Shellenberger’s specific claims and citing several other scientific papers showing the impact of climate change on the severity of wildfires. 

But Shellenberger is stuck in his climate denial. He has to downplay the connection between the West Coast fires and climate change, because his book just came out, and anything titled Apocalypse Never is going to look a bit silly in the light of distinctly apocalyptic occurrences. If Shellenberger were to admit that climate change played a significant role in creating this situation, his whole attack on “alarmist” environmentalists and the media would seem completely misplaced. Unless he’s planning to repudiate his book, and retitle it “Ooh, looks like I spoke too soon,” then regardless of the circumstancesshould, for example, temperatures rise even higher next year, and the wildfires grow twice as largehe has to keep insisting that “focusing on renewable energy” is the real culprit, and climate change’s contribution is negligible. 

Importantly, none of this means that poor forest management did not contribute, or even contribute significantly, to the escalating severity of Western wildfires. Any event that ever happens has many contributing causes. The increasing concentration of people in fire-prone areas and the failure to effectively manage forests are indeed factors—this National Academy of Sciences paper cites “the warming and drying climate, the build-up of fuels, and the expansion of the wildland–urban interface” as major contributing elements. The New York Times reports that the Forest Service hasn’t done a good job thinning out forests, in part because it is underfunded (austerity!) and in part because “forest-thinning programs can be poorly targeted… as they often support logging efforts, rather than effectively reducing fire risk.” But what people like Trump, Carlson, and Shellenberger do in order to downplay the threat of climate change is seize on the non-climate-related causes and ignore every piece of scientific evidence pointing to the influence of climate change. One reason this is so insidious is because it means much of what they say is factually correct, but they select only the facts that allow them to create a narrative about the problem in which climate change doesn’t matter much. If, say, there is a buildup of fuel on the forest floor, and it is also much hotter because of global warming, and the two factors together cause fires to be more likely, they leave aside the latter and fixate on the former, calling anyone who talks about climate change an alarmist who won’t focus on the real cause.

Let us briefly examine another exhibit. We expect Fox News and Donald Trump to be climate change deniers, and while Shellenberger has been treated as reasonable by mainstream publications, he has made it clear that he has no interest in presenting the science fairly. But look at this op-ed that the Washington Post chose to run, called “Bad forest policies and political indifference kindled Oregon’s wildfires.” The writer, Julie Parrish, is a Republican former Oregon lawmaker and a board member of the “Timber Unity Association,” a lobbying group. Parrish’s argument is that Democratic governor Kate Brown is blaming “weather” for a failure of government: 

Gov. Kate Brown (D) blames a “wind event” and climate change for the conflagrations. I’m a seventh-generation Oregonian, and like others who’ve paid attention to what’s been happening here for a long time, I know better. Our state is ablaze for reasons much deeper than weather. For years, we’ve suffered from misguided priorities and dramatic failures of leadership… Consider, for example, the gross mismanagement of Oregon’s forests. Under an 80-year-old contract, responsibility for most forest lands falls to the state. The understanding is that the state’s sustainable harvesting and replanting of timber on these lands would provide long-term income for rural counties…But in recent decades, political power in Oregon has accumulated in urban Portland and its surrounding suburbs. Residents of these areas—insulated from the dangers of land mismanagement—have insisted on preserving the forests as untouchable playgrounds. Since 2001, the state has overprioritized recreation and environmentalist concerns such as ecotourism. As a result, Oregon’s forests were allowed to become overgrown, creating fire hazards. The state has screwed up so badly that, in November last year, it was ordered by a jury to pay Oregon’s rural counties $1.1 billion for failing to uphold its contractual obligations for responsible forest management. In February, I joined fellow members of the Timber Unity movement—representing more than 62,000 loggers, truckers, ranchers, miners, farmers and other working Oregonians who rely on the land—who met with Brown in Salem, the state capital. We made it quite clear that the state’s management failures with forests and rural lands would lead to a catastrophic, carbon-releasing fire event. Our warnings went unheeded.

Now, if you’re a casual reader of the Post you might wonder if there is something to Parrish’s argument. But it’s important to actually think carefully about what Parrish is saying and how she supports it. When you click the links, what you discover is that the state of Oregon was accused of “mismanagement” because they allegedly violated a contract that required the state to maximize “values” from its forests and give the money to certain counties. Maximizing revenues would have meant doing more logging than the state thought necessary. Instead, the state interpreted “value” to mean something broader, and with the purposes not just being to maximize revenue but to provide for “lean water, fish and wildlife habitat, timber supply, revenue, hiking and camping and hunting, off-road vehicle use, and carbon storage.” It was a lawsuit “all about economic development and jobs,” and Oregon lost because a court decided that it was contractually required to maximize strictly economic development rather than a mixture of different public interests.

Parrish wants readers to think “responsible forest management” was all about fire protection. In fact, that’s a propagandistic euphemism. In the context of the lawsuit, “responsible” meant “most financially lucrative.” The Timber Unity Association, which as she says, represents trucking, mining, and logging interests, naturally wants to see forests maximally devoted to logging rather than preserved for the enjoyment of the public and as wilderness habitats. 

But wait: Parrish says that she and the logging companies warned Brown about fires but the governor didn’t listen. Try clicking the link, though. You’ll find that what actually happened is that they were lobbying against a bill to cap carbon emissions! There is no mention of fire anywhere. The Timber Unity Association was vigorously trying to stop an effort to control carbon emissions, arguing it would kill Small Businesses. (Generally a euphemism for “eat into corporate profits.”) In other words, Parrish’s group is literally trying to stop efforts to control climate change. No wonder she just waves it away as “weather” and wants to pin responsibility on Forest Mismanagement. If she were to admit that climate change was responsible, the logging interests she represents would have far less of a case against the emissions control scheme. (Note that there is no “free market” case for opposing carbon caps, since emissions are an externality—a harm that companies inflict without paying for the consequences.)

Parrish is, then, another propagandist. She tries to mislead readers about the core disagreement in the case where Oregon was accused of “mismanaging” forests. And she declines to disclose the fact that she has aggressively lobbied against emissions restrictions. Of course, none of that is surprising from an industry lobbyist. What we should be surprised and upset by, and what tells us a lot about why climate change action has been stalled for so long, is that the Washington Post chose to print this, without examining whether the linked sources supported any of the claims being made in the article. The Post, a supposedly liberal bastion, is printing sheer baseless climate change denial as legitimate commentary. 

Climate change denialists will never run out of talking points. You know the phrase “It’s hard to get someone to understand something when their job depends on their not understanding it”? Well, people like Carlson and Shellenberger could probably find themselves burning alive and they’d still be insisting the environmental “alarmists” were wrong. Of course, as the effects of climate change become ever more apparent, the talking points will become ever more absurd. Trump is now blaming exploding trees; his supporters are blaming Antifa arsonists. Whatever story they need to come up with to avoid rethinking their viewpoint, they will insist upon as Scientific Fact. All we can do is endeavor to expose how the trickery works, and help people to avoid being misled by these increasingly desperate forms of denial. 

More In: Climate Change

Cover of latest issue of print magazine

Announcing Our Newest Issue

Featuring

A more punctual issue than usual! But no less full of surprises and delights.

The Latest From Current Affairs