(Welcome new friends. Those looking for the best book on climate change I’ve written so far will find it here.)
The Earth was on fire before you were born, and it will be on fire long after you’re gone.
The entire Mountain West of the United States burned before you were born, many times. The entire Mountain West of the United States will burn again, many times, after you’re gone. Before CNN, the Mountain West was burning. After CNN, the Mountain West will be burning still. Forests burn.
Truth be told, it wasn’t only the Mountain West that burned, that is burning, and that will burn, but it is the discussion of the annual burning of the Mountain West that constitutes the greatest journalistic and scientific fraud perpetuated in the United States, annually. In Siberia, millions of acres burn, annually. Great swaths of Africa burn, annually. In Australia in a single year during the early 1970s, 15 percent of the entire continent burned. That’s 280 million acres! Millions of acres of northern Canadian forests burn, annually, and the fires are allowed – generally speaking – to burn until weather or topography shuts them down.
Again, the burning has been happening, annually, throughout the climate era you inhabit – the Holocene. And it was happening long before that – during other interglacials (pauses in the Ice Age that began three million years ago).
Any forest that experiences a dry season (even if only every few decades), as nearly all forests do, will eventually experience what we have taken to calling “wildfire.” But “wildfire” is simply fire, and fire is anything but wild. It simply is.
Most non-desert ecosystems experience cyclical burning. Indeed, most ecosystems – from treeless grasslands to savannas to deciduous and evergreen forests – depend on it for their own renewal. This has been true for millions of years. And it will almost certainly be true for millions of years into the future, no matter how many SUV’s you drive, or don’t drive.
And that brings us back to the subject of the Mountain West. This summer’s fires in Colorado were taken – by the Associated Press, by CNN, by The New York Times – as proof of the ever-worsening condition of the global-warming-compromised biosphere. Unfortunately, while a deeply satisfying narrative, this version of events has nothing to do with scientific facts.
Let’s isolate the global-warming-fire narrative for a moment. Get anything hazy about it out of your mind. The narrative states that one degree Celsius of warming, globally, since the mid-19th century is causing the Mountain West to burn in a way that is worse than before. Well, for about a century, the U.S. Forest Service has been counting the number of acres burned nationally each year. In the 1930s, the number of acres in the U.S. that burned averaged 39 million a year. In the past 12 years, the number of acres burned has averaged 7 million a year.
So, stop. Freeze-frame. Take a peak at the television image being distributed by CNN of devastating Mountain West fires. Listen, too, to the anchors’ somber narrative mentioning heat waves and global warming and increasing danger and – by implication – something very like Armageddon.
Realize, if you can, just for this moment, that the hellish images are simply nature. Fires are not made worse by being captured on camera, but the perception of them is. And technology is part of the reason that so many people perceive the world to be burning as never before. Images of fire are wonderful examples of the riveting power of digital video photography and the ability mankind has acquired to distribute such images internationally, instantly. Amazingly, images of American Mountain West “wildfires” are put in places of great journalistic prominence on foreign news websites, in news broadcasts, and in newspapers – just like at home, just like on CNN, year after year. If ever several years pass without millions of acres in the Mountain West burning, that would be news! And you could see, in that case, why people a continent away would find it of note.
None of this has anything at to do with the drama that unfolds when a fire claims habitat where human beings have chosen to introduce dwellings. As a species, even those of us living in the developed world, we are fond of nature. And many of us living in the First World wish to live as close to fully immersed in nature as possible. Unfortunately, being immersed in nature, when it comes to forests, means being immersed in flames. It’s sad when it happens. It makes me upset. And I wish it wouldn’t happen. But it happens.
Nonetheless, are the drama-laden interviews and images proof of global warming? Not by a long shot. Are they upsetting? You bet.
So, when the fire season gets going in earnest later this summer in the U.S. Mountain West, and your television and computer and tablet are blanketed with images of the flames, what you will be seeing and hearing, every single time global warming gets mentioned, is something other than journalism, and something other than science. Call it what you will. I call it sad.
Purveyors of climate terror are welcome to use whatever tools they choose to frighten the credulous. But fire in the Mountain West – that’s strictly off-limits.