Climate change didn’t leave California forests loaded up with fuel

[Editor’s note: This story originally was published by Real Clear Energy.]

By David W. Kreutzer
Real Clear Energy

Hot weather can raise your body temperature. One study found that the temperature of its participants rose by nearly a degree F above the normal temperature when the air temperature was 95 degrees F. Though the impact on core temperatures is very likely to be much less, it still would be evidence supporting the theory that hot weather adds to a fever.

Should this change the recommended therapy for a bacterial infection? That is, when presented with a patient suffering an infection should a physician recommend a climate policy as the cure? Of course not. First, none of the proposed climate policies would have any measurable impact on climate and much less impact on body temperature, and second, even this immeasurable impact would not occur anytime soon. On the other hand, an antibiotic has a curative impact in a matter of days. It is a good thing doctors are not as insane when treating infections as some politicians and climate activists are when addressing wildfires.

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It’s no secret that dryer wood burns more readily than wet wood. Nor is it news that hotter, dryer weather will dry things faster. What seems to be a secret from less self-evident to some is that parts of the West Coast get really hot and dry, over and over. According to studies on past droughts, the recent ones in California are not even close to being the longest. Some droughts have lasted more than a century. It seems the past 100 years have actually been relatively wet.

Even if a one-degree-warmer world led to warmer West Coast forests, the high intensity of the recent wildfires can’t be attributed to air temperatures being 109 degrees instead of 108. The much bigger problem is fuel loading—the amount of dead wood and other organic matter on forest floors, compounded by a higher density of small trees. Two years ago, the non-partisan Legislative Analyst’s Office of the California Legislature warned:

A combination of factors have resulted in poor conditions across these forests and watersheds, including excessive vegetation density and an overabundance of small trees and brush. Such conditions have contributed to more prevalent and severe wildfires and unprecedented tree mortality in recent years, and experts are concerned these trends will continue if steps are not taken to significantly improve the health of the state’s forests.

Reducing this forest fuel load involves multiple steps, including forest-thinning and prescribed burns. As noted in 2018, California’s forests have been in dire need of such policies for years. Nothing will end wildfires, but ignoring the problems of tree density and fuel load helps turn manageable, regenerative fires into overwhelmingly destructive blazes like the ones we have seen this year.

Carbon-neutral electricity mandates will not reduce the frequency or intensity of wildfires—but they will raise prices and increase the likelihood of blackouts. No number of photo-ops or press conferences can change this reality.

Carbon dioxide is well mixed in the atmosphere—and thus, reducing (or increasing) CO2 emissions brings no local effects. The global impact of a California carbon-neutral power mandate is negligible. A total elimination of CO2 from all power sources in the U.S. would moderate world temperature by less than 0.2 degrees Celsius, and even that impact would not occur before the year 2100.

Blaming wildfires on climate has some data problems, too. NASA satellites observed a 25 percent reduction in burned area worldwide between 2013 and 2019. Assessment of a longer U.S. record fails to support the global-warming-equals-more-fires story. Numbers for the past century from the National Interagency Fire Center show huge variability, uncorrelated with world temperature or CO2. Going back even farther, it is estimated that California’s prehistoric wildfires burned an average of 5.5 million to 19 million acres each year—considerably more than the “record” 2.2 million acres burned this year. Even if climate change worsens wildfires, its impact is dwarfed by other factors.

To be sure, this year’s wildfires are devastating, but blaming them on a president who opposes extreme climate policies is a total fraud. It is like suing a physician for malpractice should they not prescribe windmills for a sinus infection. Pure diversion.

There are policies for reducing the intensity and frequency of wildfires, but they too often have been ignored. Over the last several decades, while one party has dominated California politics, the state’s forests became a timebomb. This summer, the counter hit zero.

Following a 25-year academic career, Dr. David Kreutzer spent the past 12 years researching climate/energy issues and is now Senior Economist at the Institute for Energy Research.

[Editor’s note: This story originally was published by Real Clear Energy.]

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