Scientists Blast LA Times Story On Wildfires And Climate Change

Times Publishes Letters By Experts Who “Say The Article Was Wrong To Assert That Climate Change Isn't Fueling” California Wildfires

CA firefighter

The Los Angeles Times has published several letters to the editor by scientists and other experts criticizing its October 18 article that wrongly challenged the link between climate change and the wildfires that have been ravaging California. The Times article baselessly claimed that “experts” say California Gov. Jerry Brown's comments describing such a link are “unsupported,” when in fact numerous scientists and major scientific reports have detailed the connection global warming has to both recent and future wildfires in the Southwest United States.

The assertions in the deeply flawed Times article were subsequently echoed by several on-air figures at the Fox News Channel, including Fox & Friends co-host Elizabeth Hasselbeck, who declared: “Brown blamed wildfires on global warming, and now scientists say there's no data linking the two. How about that?” The Times story was also praised by right-wing outlet Breitbart News, in an article that directly contradicted the scientific consensus that human activity is the primary cause of climate change.

On October 24, the Times published letters to the editor from three experts who, as the Times explained, “have written to say the article was wrong to assert that climate change isn't fueling the state's historically large fires.” The experts included UC Berkeley environmental scientist Max Moritz, who said the “troubling” Times story “implies more uncertainty about climate change than there really is among experts;” Climate Resolve Executive Director Jonathan Parfrey, who said, “The Times really blew it in this piece;” and UCLA climate researcher Alex Hall, who said the article “misleads readers by implying that science” linking wildfires to climate change “has been disproved.”

From the letters section of the October 24 edition of the Los Angeles Times:

Max Moritz, a UC Berkeley environmental scientist, says raising awareness is what's important:

It's splitting hairs, as scientists often will, to note that we may not know conclusively whether climate change has caused this particular drought and these specific wildfires. As a wildfire scientist, I find it troubling that this nuance became front-page news because it implies more uncertainty about climate change than there really is among experts.

In fact, there is relatively strong agreement among fire scientists about links between climate change and wildfire, even if quantitative attribution poses challenges. To raise awareness about climate change and to reduce its long-term impacts, we need our leaders to speak out.

Climate Resolve executive director Jonathan Parfrey bluntly assesses the article:

The Times really blew it in this piece.

For example, the recent UC Irvine wildfire study was wildly misinterpreted. The Times failed to note the study's most likely outcome for the period of 2040-60: The area to be burned by Santa Ana-wind-induced fires will increase by 64%, and acres consumed by summer fires will increase by 77%.

It's important to get the science right because good science leads to good policy. And with higher temperatures predicted, Southern California will need to adapt to worsening fire conditions in our hills and mountains.

Alex Hall, director of the UCLA Center for Climate Change Solutions, clarifies what we do and don't know:

The article misleads readers by implying that science is in on this and any link between fires and climate change has been disproved. In fact, a detection-and-attribution study -- an analysis of the probability that the current fire season in California would play out as it has, if climate change were not in the picture -- has not been done.

Even if the link has not been definitively proved, the scientific works referenced in the article provide plenty of reason to suspect climate change is playing some role in the severity of this fire season. Climatologist Park Williams' study shows that human-caused warming is contributing to drier conditions, which would make fuels more susceptible to burning. The study I co-wrote with UC Irvine and UC Davis colleagues shows that heat is an important determinant of how much area is burned by fire -- particularly in those fires, like the ones we have been experiencing all summer, not driven by Santa Ana winds. So the warming climate we're already experiencing should increase the area burned.

The Times should take care to more accurately characterize scientific evidence in the future.

Image at top via the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Photostream on Flickr using a Creative Commons license.