10 Aug

NYT: Opinion Where There’s Fire, Trump Blows Smoke

The president, either willfully ignorant or playing to his base, tweets nonsense about the California wildfires and refuses to acknowledge the role of climate change in the disaster.

Credit Lucy Jones

What’s really alarming about President Trump’s preposterous tweets about the California wildfires is not what he gets wrong, which is plenty, but what they say about his stubborn refusal to grasp the basics of climate change and, perhaps worse, his administration’s contempt for the science that is drawing an ever-tighter link between a warming globe and extreme weather events around the world.

Sunday night, Mr. Trump, in his first comments on the wildfires that have raged for weeks, said the fires had been “made so much worse by the bad environmental laws which aren’t allowing massive amount[s] of readily available water to be properly utilized.” A second tweet, on Monday, complained that water needed for fighting the fires was being “diverted into the Pacific Ocean.” In neither tweet was there mention of lives lost, the 600,000 acres of woodland so far consumed and the 1,100, and counting, homes destroyed.

Dumbfounded state officials dismissed the president’s remarks as nonsense. Daniel Berlant, assistant deputy director of Cal Fire, the state’s fire agency, said, “We have plenty of water to fight these wildfires.” The most generous interpretation of Mr. Trump’s remarks was that he had been confused by complaints from California Republicans that state law, which seeks to allocate water among farmers, urban users and the environment, had unfairly favored fish over farmers. But even if that were true, which it is not, that ancient dispute has nothing to do with the availability of water for firefighting, which comes largely from lakes and ponds.

Mr. Berlant made one other comment. “Let’s be clear,” he said, “it’s our changing climate that is leading to more severe and destructive fires.” Here, too, he was very much on point. Numerous studies that have sought to weigh the effects of climate change on the environment by teasing them out from other factors have concluded that human-influenced warming is increasingly a major player in a variety of natural disasters. An authoritative paper published in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in 2016 looked specifically at forest fires in the Western United States and concluded that rising temperatures linked to climate change had been heavily responsible for the greatly increased range of these fires, mainly by intensifying droughts.

Any doubts about global warming’s pivotal role in extreme weather events have been put further to rest by a long, hot and dangerous summer of climatological surprises. Add them up. Wildfires raced not only through California but also Greece and as far north as the Arctic Circle. Japan recorded its highest temperature in history, 106 degrees, in a heat wave that killed 65 people in a week. Europe continues to suffer through one of its hottest summers ever.

“We know very well that global warming is making heat waves longer, hotter and more frequent,” said Corinne Le Quéré, director of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research at the University of East Anglia in Britain, long a center for cutting-edge climate research. A preliminary analysis released last month by World Weather Attribution scientists said that climate change had made Europe’s scorching temperatures more than twice as likely.

The future? Not at all rosy. “This is really frightening, if this is the new normal,” Thina Margrethe Saltvedt, an energy industry analyst, told The Times. And to many climate scientists, this will be the new normal unless nations, particularly big emitters of greenhouse gases like the United States, move decisively to limit greenhouse gas emissions from the burning of fossil fuels. As Michael Mann, an eminent American climate scientist, put it, “What we call an ‘extreme heat wave’ today we will simply call ‘summer’ in a matter of decades if we don’t sharply reduce carbon emissions.”

Doctor Mann is the scientist who climate deniers most like to beat up on, mainly because of his seminal work linking the steady rise of atmospheric concentrations of heat-trapping gases to the increasing use of fossil fuels since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. He’s been right a lot, and unfortunately may be this time as well.

And where is Mr. Trump in all of this? Playing the ostrich, in full denial mode. Having promised to withdraw the United States from the Paris agreement on climate change, he continues to press his officials to roll back or weaken every initiative undertaken by President Barack Obama to resist the carbon-loading of the atmosphere, including policies aimed at reducing emissions from power plants, automobiles and oil and gas operations. The very words “climate change” remain verboten throughout most of the administration, having been replaced on agency websites by vaguer words like “sustainability.” The administration’s 2018 and 2019 budgets have cut funding for a host of scientific and clean energy programs intended to prepare the country for the consequences of climate change and ensure an energy future less dependent on fossil fuels.

Mr. Trump’s cabinet, meanwhile, offers no resistance. Take Ryan Zinke, the secretary of the interior, who is hellbent on increasing America’s production of fossil fuels on public lands, who has discouraged discussion of climate change throughout his agency and who seems to go all wobbly at the very mention of the word climate. In a confused op-ed in USA Today on Wednesday, Mr. Zinke, who manages about one-fifth of the nation’s land, blamed environmentalists for much of the problem of wildfires because, he said, they oppose the thinning of forests to reduce combustible materials. What worries environmentalists is that “thinning” is often a pretext for unnecessary logging of healthy trees, a sop to the timber industry. Mr. Zinke made no mention of the role of climate change in creating the conditions for these devastating fires. It seems as though that’s something for the world outside Trumpville to worry about.

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