Governor Pinocchio’s Nose Grows Over California Wildfire Claims
Few governors have done more than California Gov. Jerry Brown (D) to reduce their state’s economic performance, energy security, and economic mobility for the poor in the vain quest to counteract climate change. The climate and environmental efforts undertaken by Brown and the state’s Democrat-controlled legislature have raised energy prices (making electricity and fuel prices in California among the highest in the nation), made housing even more unaffordable than it already was, and limited job creation.
Along the way, Brown has told numerous fibs about the job creation potential of green energy, the harm fossil fuels are doing to the environment – both in absolute terms and when compared to green energy sources – and humanity’s impact on, and ability to control, the climate.
Recently, Brown told another whopper. In a 60 Minutes interview on December 10 and an earlier interview with The Orange County Register, Brown claimed anthropogenic climate change was causing California’s wildfires to become more frequent and severe: in his words, “unprecedented” and “the new normal.”
Normal, yes; new, not at all.
A survey of literature examining extreme drought and wildfires in North America and globally, published as part of the Nongovernmental International Panel on Climate Change’s peer- reviewed book, Climate Change Reconsidered II: Physical Science, finds no evidence Earth has experienced worsened drought conditions or wildfires in greater number or size, either in North America or worldwide, during the past century and a half, when humans have purportedly been contributing to dangerous climate change.
Locally, California has unique conditions that make it prone to wildfires. California is arid, with much of it being high-mountain and lowland-scrub desert. Historically it has had limited freshwater supplies, which is one reason it was one of the least populated (and lowest population density) regions of the country before European colonizers spread across the continent. Throughout its history, California has been prone to wildfires driven by the Santa Ana winds. Research shows us droughts in the region have on occasion lasted a hundred years or more. And there is historical evidence massive wildfires periodically swept through the region.
Government policies have exacerbated the size and costs of California’s wildfires in the past century. Federal efforts to deliver water to the state for agriculture and urban settlement – “to make the desert bloom like a rose” – were successful, helping make the state habitable for millions of people. Without water diverted from western rivers to California much of the state would not have been habitable for the number of people presently living there. More people and associated buildings and property means more people and property are at risk, and higher costs when wildfires do occur.
In addition, U.S. Forest Service policies actively suppressed natural wildfires for much of the century, and later policies reduced logging, producing forests where too many trees crowd public acreage. The unnatural tree density allowed what were formerly isolated pockets of insect infestations killing small groves of trees to morph into massive infestations killing large swaths of forests. These factors combined to create tinderbox conditions in many California forests.
Also, California only recently came out of a multiyear, but not historically unusual, drought. In December 2016, 82.53 percent of the state ranged from “Abnormally Dry” to “Exceptional Drought,” with more than 40 percent of the state experiencing “Extreme Drought” or worse. The situation has improved dramatically; as of September 2017, just 22 percent of the state was “Abnormally Dry,” the lowest level of aridity rating, and none of the state suffered from Extreme Drought. The area currently experiencing the horrific blazes corresponds to the region still considered abnormally dry. This spring’s plant growth quickly died off as summer waxed, leaving more fuel for the current fire season.
Scientists cite two other natural factors as contributing to the severity of California’s ongoing fires: the Santa Ana winds and La Niña conditions. A weak La Niña system in the Pacific Ocean has kept storms, which normally hit the state in autumn, from making landfall in Southern California. Normally, California’s wet season would have started by now, suppressing fires, but this year the La Niña has kept the rains away.
The Santa Ana winds blow from the desert to the coast, usually peaking in September or late October. John Abatzoglou, an associate professor of geography and climate at the University of Idaho, explained to The Atlantic, Santa Ana winds increase the availability of fuel for fires by drying out vegetation, and of course they help fires spread once they start.
“These fires are not immediately emblematic of climate change,” Abatzoglou said in an e-mail to The Atlantic. “[T]he big anomaly here is the delay in the onset of precipitation [La Niña related] for the southland that has kept the vegetation dry and fire-prone.” “All December fires in the southland since 1948 have been associated with Santa Ana wind,” said Abatzoglou. Abatzoglou says there is no evidence Santa Ana winds are becoming more prevalent or arriving later in the year on average. “At least in Southern California right now, we are largely seeing textbook wildfires,” concludes Abatzoglou.
In short, contra Gov. Brown, nature – not humankind – still rules the roost with regards to the frequency and severity of wildfires in California. Brown’s fake news statements don’t change that fact.
H. Sterling Burnett, Ph.D. is a Heartland senior fellow on environmental policy and the managing editor of Environment & Climate News. Full Bio