Patty Limerick on Wildfire and Global Warming

July 31st, 2006

Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr.

Patty Limerick, a renowned historian of the American West and valued colleague here at the University of Colorado, has written a thoughtful perspective in the Los Angeles Times on western wildfires, human responsibility, and climate change. In many ways her views on fire in the context of climate change are quite similar to those I express on hurricanes. Here is an excerpt:

The new responsibility had many forms. Homeowners cleared trees and brush around their houses. Local governments adopted tougher rules on development in high fire-risk zones. Insurance companies revised their policies to reward owners who exercised foresight and took action to prevent fire.

But a recent scientific study could easily be misinterpreted as an invitation to go back to sleep. It is also an indicator of how politicized some environmental science has become and the problem that poses for taking responsibility in a region prone to fire.

The authors of “Warming and Early Spring Increases Western U.S. Forest Wildlife Activity,” published this month in the journal Science, reach a thought-provoking conclusion: Climate change has been the “primary driver” of the increase in big wildfires in the West, even more than recent changes in land use or the unnecessary suppression of natural fires. Warmer temperatures have melted the snowpack earlier in the spring, producing a longer dry season and more combustible materials. Thus the opportunities for big fires to start have multiplied.

Should we now blame a changing climate for the West’s wildfire problem? Or should we continue to change land use and management practices to reduce the fire danger? And how should our answer shape our conduct?

The battle over global warming has far reaching consequences for how we think and act. And for some people, the battle over climate change trumps everything else. Patty expresses some concern that by being sucked in to the maw that is the global warming debate, discussion of climate change might work to derail a fragile consensus of effective practical strategies for dealing with vulnerabilities to forest fires.

After Colorado’s 2002 fire season, representatives from environmental groups, federal and state agencies, utilities, insurance companies, universities and county governments convened in the state to find a solution to a problem caused by decades of fire suppression. It was a very mixed group, and I imagine many of them would cancel each other out at the polls. The group’s name was a bureaucratic mouthful: the Front Range Fuels Treatment Partnership Roundtable.

The key word in this undertaking was responsibility, and in the judgment of many who participated, myself included, we accomplished something. The “fuel” in forests along the Front Range had reached worrisome levels. In the absence of fire, the density of flammable trees and underbrush had greatly increased. We surmounted mutual distrust and reached a consensus for which fuel areas to target and which strategies would best reduce the danger of future fires.

But now, if we declare climate change the primary driver of increases in wildfires, as the study in Science suggests, what could a plucky group of Coloradans possibly do to find a remedy for this problem?

Of course, if climate change explains the greater frequency and intensity of the West’s wildfires, the question of responsibility shifts levels, and we are immersed in one of the most contentious issues of science and public policy. Is human behavior — the use of fossil fuels as the main energy source — warming the planet, or is the rise in temperature part of a natural cycle that has occurred in Earth’s past?

She concludes by asserting, correctly in my view, that whatever role climate change has in forest fires does not let anyone off the hook as far as needed on-the-ground actions. Yet the climate scientists who reported the possible connection of fires and climate change abandoned ship when it came time to address questions of policy. In my view, the authors of the recent study set the stage for having their research results to be caught up in the debate over global warming, when they might have diffused such controversy from the start by clearly describing the policy terrain, as did a group of hurricane/climate scientists in recent weeks.

The study’s authors skirt this question. “Whether the changes observed in Western hydro-climate and wildfire are the result of greenhouse gas-induced global warming or only a usual natural fluctuation is presently unclear,” they write.

But is it possible for a group of scientists in 2006 to study an issue — wildfire — immersed in contention, put forward an explanation based on climate change and then sidestep the question of whether humans bear any responsibility for that climate change?

The question of human culpability is a big roadblock to resolving many environmental dilemmas. Thanks to it, the findings of environmental scientists are often the spark for contention and misinterpretation rather than understanding and discussion. It’s not easy to think of a scientific study on the natural world that doesn’t have some connection to contested public policy. Biologists who simply want to study wildlife may find themselves enmeshed in political battles over the status of threatened or endangered species. Geologists and hydrologists may be drawn into disputes over the safety and permanence of waste disposal sites.

In such circumstances, these scientists have reason to feel like zookeepers feeding hungry animals: Their study findings barely hit the ground before advocates and rivals pounce on them, snarl and tug at each other over them, then tear the whole into pieces to secure the choicest parts.

This rowdiness is called “data dispute,” and it’s becoming a popular sport in environmental circles in the West. It doesn’t show us at our best. Nor does it make the most of the enormous resources of the natural scientists studying the West’s environment.
So let’s not dispute data this time.

In too many environmental disputes, we squabble over the management of materials — sewage, spent nuclear fuel, carbon emissions, outdated computer parts. Meanwhile, the question of who will take custody of that unpopular substance called responsibility remains the most contentious and consequential matter of all.

The current condition of the West’s forests has multiple causes. Climate, fire suppression, government regulation (or its absence) and the construction of buildings in forested areas all play a part in creating it. Regardless of which factor we accent in our explanations, we still have a big problem before us. And we still must take responsibility for it and find a remedy. The findings of climate scientists do not diminish that responsibility.

Well said!

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