The Ecological Insurgency

By Keith Kloor | August 31, 2013 9:27 am

A new video by Climate Desk explains “how climate change is fueling wildfires” in the U.S. West. The truth is a good bit more complicated, which James West attests to in the accompanying text:

In this video, Matthew Hurteau—assistant professor of forest resources at Penn State University—explains how warming temperatures, prolonged drought, and a century’s worth of fire suppression policy are “priming the system to make it more flammable.

Climate Desk produced a longer, more detailed explainer earlier in the summer titled, “How climate change makes wildfires worse.”

While I wouldn’t discount climate change as a factor, it’s highly arguable whether global warming should be highlighted as a major driver of western wildfires.

For a more sophisticated take, see this recent post by Andy Revkin at his New York Times Dot Earth blog, which opens:

Assessing the drivers of wildfire trends in the American West these days can be akin to Hercule Poirot’s task on the Orient Express, on which there was one murder with 12 final suspects — all of whom were guilty.

I really like this analogy and the nuanced discussion that follows it, which includes input from superb fire experts, such as tree ring researcher Tom Swetnam and environmental historian Stephen Pyne.

These are two authorities that I have relied on for years to help me make sense of the complex set of factors that have turned much of the West into a volatile tinderbox. In this 2012 piece, Pyne offers a number of analogies that I find particularly interesting. Here’s an excerpt:

If you think that our firefight from the Big Blowup to today has only created an ecological insurgency, there is the Arab Spring model.  The American fire scene was held in check for decades by ever more repressive regimes, but each cycle of protest and suppression only added to instability.  Armed dictatorships can’t keep the lid on indefinitely; eventually the scene boils over.  Some places have made the transition quickly and with relatively little havoc.  Others have slid into biotic civil war, with more savage outbreaks and harsher suppression.  No one has a clue what the final outcome will be.

The reason is that the primary driver of the American fire scene is not amenable to technical fixes and funding.  It’s about how Americans live on their land.

Focusing on climate change in this context distracts from that much needed discussion.

  • https://delicious.com/robertford Robert Ford

    It’s ok, they’ll spend their lives discussing GW and not accomplish much. That’s their punishment.

  • Tom Fuller

    This argument greatly resembles the one about climate change’s impacts on biodiversity. Few believe that climate change can have dramatic future impacts on both biodiversity and vulnerability to fires/floods in various regions. Alarmists are trying to drag future threats into the present with very little in the way of data.

    With biodiversity, it’s essentially 1% climate and 99% everything else that humans do that is a threat to other species. I strongly suspect the same is true for wildfires.

  • jh

    Nice piece, Keith.

    The real problem here is that much of the AGW lunacy focuses attention on the wrong problem, moving us further from, rather than closer to, dealing with the majority of relevant problems.

    Just the same, the idea that the west had recently turned into a volatile tinderbox is mistaken. It’s always been one. The current dry conditions in the west are, at best, only slightly exacerbated by climate change – most of the dryness and heat is cyclic.

    Much has been made of the bark beetle epidemic and it’s relationship to climate change. I’m not convinced. The basis of this argument is just about the same as the basis of the argument that CFCs caused the 1950-1975 pause: it’s convenient and simple.

    And, of course, on human timescales, the current fire situation is epic. But in the larger picture, from even a short-term geoecological perspective, this is hardly epic change. So when we cut through all the BS about ecological collapse, the real question is this: how does it affect us? And that’s what we’ll ultimately have to mitigate.

    • Eli Rabett

      You are confusing aerosols with CFCs

      • thrib

        I often confuse Eli with an aerosol.

        • YeOldeMoptop

          so exactly how do you pronounce “aerosol”? ;’)

  • disqus_atlq8Zmtsd

    It really shouldn’t be news to anyone that preventing the burning of underbrush year after year creates the eventual inevitability of large conflagrations. Despite efforts to mitigate this, there simply aren’t the resources to replace yearly fires with manual labor.

    It has been a concern for decades.

  • john n-g
  • Matthew Slyfield

    All of this ignores the fact that wild fires are down significantly this year.

    http://www.coyoteblog.com/coyote_blog/2013/08/summer-of-the-flaming-shark.html

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Collide-a-Scape

Collide-a-Scape is a wide-ranging blog forum that explores issues at the nexus of science, culture and society.

About Keith Kloor

Keith Kloor is a NYC-based journalist, a senior editor at Cosmos magazine, and adjunct professor of journalism at New York University. His work has appeared in Slate, Science, Discover, and the Washington Post magazine, among other outlets. From 2000 to 2008, he was a senior editor at Audubon Magazine. In 2008-2009, he was a Fellow at the University of Colorado’s Center for Environmental Journalism, in Boulder, where he studied how a changing environment (including climate change) influenced prehistoric societies in the U.S. Southwest. He covers a wide range of topics, from conservation biology and biotechnology to urban planning and archaeology.

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