Orange skies over San Francisco as a result of wildfires raging in California, September 9, 2020. Photo: cmichel67/Flickr, CC BY 2.0.
With wildfires raging through parts of California, one question continued to spark debate: Is climate change to blame?
President Donald Trump, for his part, has taken the stance that he doesn’t “think science knows,” despite extensive evidence linking climate change to the hot and dry conditions that paved the way for the fires. When challenged on this stance in the first presidential debate, he pointed solely to forest mismanagement as the fires’ culprit.
While misinformed, Trump’s errors are instructive: They highlight a recurring problem with the way we talk about the connection between climate science and environmental disaster.
First, Trump’s take reflects the false choice – that either climate change or poor governance is to blame for this disaster – that has caused tension in much recent discussion of extreme weather. Not only are these two factors not mutually exclusive, but they almost always share responsibility for these tragedies’ scales. Second, this false choice underscores a key distinction: There is a difference between the scientific act of modelling climate change’s influence on individual weather events, known as attribution, and the moral and political act of ascribing blame and responsibility. Conflating attribution and blame can distract from important questions about the responsible stewardship of natural resources – questions that are becoming increasingly urgent as climate change takes its toll.
While for decades there has been scientific consensus that the climate is changing, only in the past few years has it become possible for scientists to link that change to particular weather events. Even as it advances, however, attribution science, also called probabilistic extreme event attribution, has uncertainties built into it. Broadly speaking, it’s done by comparing two computer models – one that reflects the world as it is, and another that reflects the world as it would have been without global warming – to determine whether the probability of a weather event was affected by climate change and, if so, by how much.
But the results come with caveats. For instance, attribution science doesn’t determine whether climate change made an event possible, but rather if it made the event more likely. The method is also difficult to apply in locales that have little historical data on weather patterns. And certain kinds of events – hurricanes and droughts, for instance – are harder to model than others. Hard evidence of climate change’s influence on Hurricane Sandy, which battered the northeastern US in 2012, didn’t come until years after the fact.
But for wildfires like the ones currently burning in the West, the links with climate change are relatively easy to model and affirm. Although attribution scientists have yet to publish a formal empirical analysis of this year’s wildfire season, the connections between climate change and wildfires are well-established.
The problem is that the simple scientific question – Did climate change increase the likelihood of the fires in California? – is, in practice, bound up with a much bigger political question: Should our governments be reining in our greenhouse gas emissions? Attribution science tends to be championed by those who say yes to that second question and rejected by those who answer no. The science takes on a moral and political dimension that extends far beyond the local weather phenomenon it sets out to model.
As a result, we end up with officials who, like President Trump, cast doubt on attribution science in order to defend the narrative that clean energy reforms are unnecessary. And we get climate activists and organisations leaning on attribution science to marshal support for tighter emissions regulations – sometimes setting aside other factors like resource management in order to stress the havoc caused by burning fossil fuels. This blurring of the line between attribution and blame muddles conversations about environmental disaster, and makes it harder to make sense of the multitude of factors that play into them.
Indeed, in California, fire ecologists agree that factors unrelated to carbon emissions ought to share the blame for this year’s destruction. For the past 100 years, the federal and state agencies in charge of managing these forests have largely embraced a policy of suppressing natural fires that, had they been allowed to burn, would’ve helped clear the forests of flammable underbrush. Due to financial and jurisdictional challenges, as well as pushback from residents, forest managers have largely held off on doing controlled burns, a technique widely seen as an effective tool for reducing the risk of uncontrollable fires. Compounding these effects, the number of new houses situated near or amid wildland vegetation grew by 41 percent nationally between 1990 and 2010, according to a 2018 study. That incursion on wildland areas not only increases the risk of fire ignitions, it puts more people in harm’s way when fires do arise. Several ecologists have speculated that controlled burns and reduced development in and near forests might have mitigated the vast destruction of this year’s fire season.
Assuming both climate change and poor environmental management share culpability for the blazes, it might seem reasonable to ask: Which deserves more blame? Since this is an ethical question, neither attribution scientists nor fire ecologists have the tools to answer it. But ultimately, it shouldn’t matter. Both issues are worth addressing if we don’t want next summer to be like this one.
To avoid playing into this unhelpful framing, both attribution scientists and the activists who use that science to advocate for change should be careful not to obscure the other factors that exacerbate environmental disasters – and not to sweep the nuances of attribution science under the rug. In recoiling from the possibility that forest management might have contributed as much as, if not more than, climate change to heightening this year’s wildfire risks, activists fighting the good fight against climate change denial risk undercutting an important part of their own message: The fact that the climate is changing does not absolve governments of the responsibility to help their constituents adapt to it.
We know that climate change will hit the poorest, most vulnerable populations the hardest, but that even well-resourced places like New York City will also struggle to withstand the effects of rising seas and storms like Sandy. Thus, the big-picture problems are fossil fuel companies and the subsidies that keep them afloat, not the leaders who work to cushion people from their collateral damage. Still, governments made both good and bad decisions about managing their forests long before CO2 levels began to rise – and the bad ones are still worth calling out.
Moving forward, we should expect this tension to continue; around the world, the most devastating extreme weather events are likely to be those in which climate change’s effects are compounded by weak governance, and so parsing the ways that these factors coalesce will continue to be important. There will be water shortages, floods, fires and famines that could have been avoided, and chalking them all up to climate change’s wrath will do a disservice to their victims. As environmental disasters arise, we must continue to highlight climate change’s role in making them more frequent and severe, but not at the expense of crucial conversations about the messy politics of adapting to them.
Eve Driver is a writer based in Brooklyn. She graduated from Harvard, where she studied social studies, wrote a thesis on Cape Town’s “Day Zero” water shortage and the politics of climate change attribution, and was a member of Divest Harvard, a campaign to divest the university from the fossil fuel industry.