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Global Warming and the Wildfire Problem


California's wildfires have been getting worse, larger, and more frequent over the past few decades. Estimates suggest that about half the reason is land-use decisions, but the other half is — wait for it — global warming. "The mechanism is pretty straightforward," writes Kevin Drum. "Higher temperatures lead to both reduced snowpack in the Sierra Nevadas and an earlier melt, which in turn produces a longer and drier fire season. Result: more and bigger fires." And then there's this whole other thing about warmer conditions encouraging a particular species of beetle that kills a lot of underbrush and creates the conditions for worse fires.

But this is also what makes the global warming issue a bit difficult. The relationship between being uninsured and having problems accessing or purchasing medical care are pretty straightforward. You don't need to spend a lot of time explaining causal mechanisms. Absence of insurance is the causal mechanism.

The rise in global temperatures is a bit different. Wildfires, for instance, have been around a lot longer than humans. They're a problem, but not a problem associated with carbon emissions. So too with drought. And malaria. And all sorts of other disasters that are worsened, but not intuitively caused, by global warming.

The case against global warming has a lot to do with the earth being a delicate ecosystem with infinite parts that interact in unknown ways and can be destabilized with destructive results, and we shouldn't put that in the microwave. But the nature of these arguments politically is that you have to point to discrete and specific and simple harms, preferably ones that are going to happen very soon, and even more preferably ones that seem like they'll be fixed if the policy problem is solved. But wildfires will never go away, and making them go away isn't even the point.

Photo credit: By LM Otero — Associated Press

By Ezra Klein  |  September 2, 2009; 3:45 PM ET
Categories:  Climate Change  
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Next: The Divisions in the White House Over Health-Care Reform


I agree. The real conversation should be about land use and how people move into fire prone areas and expect the rest of us (SOCIALISM) to pay to protect their houses which shouldn't be there in the first place. No public option for wildfire fighting!

Posted by: srw3 | September 2, 2009 4:16 PM | Report abuse

srw3 is correct.
this is what happens out here. forests burn as part of their cycle of regrowth.
the land uses tongues of fire to speak....
"stay the heck out of here. this land will never belong to you."

Posted by: jkaren | September 2, 2009 4:46 PM | Report abuse

Removing fire from fire-dependent ecosystems through a policy of 100 percent suppression has also contributed to today's more intense fires. The landscape used to burn every several years, clearing out accumulated fuels and competing undergrowth while sparing big, healthy trees. Now fires meet 80 or more years of accumulated growth. For the past few decades, fire managers have worked to restore fire to the ecosystem through prescribed burns and by setting parameters to allow some naturally-caused fires to burn. It's slow work though. For example, on my favorite national forest, the Kaibab in Northern Arizona, they treated about 30,000 of the forest's 1.6 million acres in 2008

Posted by: jackiebinaz | September 2, 2009 10:26 PM | Report abuse

You know, I just love it when people on the WaPo don't give people with legitimate evidence concerning the LACK of human induced global warming are muzzled. You guys never mention that Albore all but lied when he made a fool of himself on that cherry picker. It is just amazing that you fools parrot what Albore says without questioning it. Sad.

Posted by: A1965bigdog | September 2, 2009 10:28 PM | Report abuse


We had massive problems near Melbourne, Australia, earlier in the year with bushfires (you like to call them wildfires!). Clearly climate change has a massive impact. The day our bushfires commenced was the hottest day in Melbourne on record.

About a week before we had the third hottest day on record. This coupled with an unprecedented extended drought period (we are on water restrictions that prevent you washing your car and watering a lawn, and you can only water garden beds 2x per week)and dry undergrowth creates a situation where bushfires are a lot more likely to occur.

What is scary about this is that the ongoing drought is causing our state government to warn that this year's bushfire season is likely to be even worse than the last.

Posted by: rpj1 | September 2, 2009 10:30 PM | Report abuse

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