California fires: blame game

Experts are mixed as to whether climate change is responsible for the recent fires.

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The wildfires that raced through southern California have turned up the political and scientific heat about climate change's possible role in the conflagrations.

The United Nations-sponsored Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change predicts increased frequency and severity of extreme weather events, including droughts, heat waves, and resulting fires. Will this make southern California communities more vulnerable to fires?

Many experts believe such blazes will become routine "because global warming is intensifying nature's cycles by lengthening fire seasons," reports The San Diego Union-Tribune.

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Walter Oechel, a biology professor at San Diego State University, who had to evacuate, sees it in personal terms. He told the San Diego newspaper:

"The fires we just experienced are some of the first effects we are feeling from climate change. We now have a very graphic representation of what many of us have been saying for a long time."

Europe, too, had a record fire year, according to some reports. A story in The Vancouver Sun surveyed the fire damage around the world starting with Greece and Spain and then noted:

"Flames swept through the olive groves of Lebanon. There were serious burns in Cyprus, Bulgaria, Croatia, and Italy. Russia reported more than 14 million hectares scorched in remote Siberia. There were big fires in Australia, too ... in South America fires burning in remote regions left plumes of smoke so vast they could be observed from space."

Still, the overlapping science of climate, weather, and wildfires makes for a very complicated picture. Researchers at the University of California, Merced, and the University of Arizona said in a statement:

"At present, the connection between global warming, Santa Ana winds, and extremely low Southern California precipitation last winter are not known with sufficient certainty to conclusively link global warming with this disaster."

In the same statement, these scientists point to research suggesting that the extent of the recent drought may be related to early snowmelt driven by climate change:

"Climate model projections suggest that with rising greenhouse-gas concentrations in the atmosphere, these phenomena will become increasingly likely in the future."

Others note a combination of trends, including long ocean cycles, which may increase fire danger. Says Thomas Swetnam of the University of Arizona in an article at ScientificAmerican.com:

"Whether or not what we're seeing in the western US is mainly a function of the [Atlantic Multidecadal Oscillation] or warming temperatures or some combination of both, we can't see ... It's warming up, which is likely to lead to more large fires."

Meanwhile, the politics of global warming continue to flare. Critics took issue with an assertion by Senate majority leader Harry Reid (D) of Nevada that global warming is directly linked to the fires in California.

On his blog, Carter Wood of the National Association of Manufacturers wrote:

"Global warming did not cause power lines to fall and spark, arsonists to set the fires, or human activity to become more widespread in an arid yet forested area."

Mocking a statement by Rep. Ed Markey (D) of Massachusetts that western fires "are burning more frequently and with greater intensity" due to climate change, Mr. Wood wrote:

"This is not evidence, this is testimony from the scriptures of the Church of Global Warming... Trouble is, you can't debate faith. But you can debate the propriety of politicizing every bit of human tragedy in the world."

Another fuss occurred when a government official's congressional testimony about the impact of climate change was edited by the White House. According to an article in the San Jose Mercury News, one of the sections eliminated was "Forest fires are expected to increase in frequency, severity, distribution and duration." It added:

"They were part of six pages of testimony deleted by White House officials before Dr. Julie Gerberding, director of the Centers for Disease Control, spoke Tuesday to the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee on the health impacts of climate change.... The West Coast, she said in prepared testimony, 'is expected to experience significant strains on water supplies as regional precipitation declines and mountain snowpacks are depleted.' That finding was followed by the warning on wildfires."

Administration officials and Dr. Gerberding played down the incident. But, according to the Associated Press, Sen. Barbara Boxer (D) of California, who chairs the committee where the testimony was given, demanded to see the unedited version "because the public has a right to know all the facts about the serious threats posed by global warming."

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