The ash of the Rocky fire was still hot when Gov. Jerry Brown strode to a bank of television cameras beside a blackened ridge and, flanked by firefighters, delivered a battle cry against climate change.
The wilderness fire was “a real wake-up call” to reduce the carbon pollution “that is in many respects driving all of this,” he said.
“The fires are changing…. The way this fire performed, it’s not the way it usually has been. Going in lots of directions, moving fast, even without hot winds.”
“It’s a new normal,” he said in August. “California is burning.”
Brown had political reasons for his declaration.
He had just challenged Republican presidential candidates to state their agendas on global warming. He was embroiled in a fight with the oil industry over legislation to slash gasoline use in California. And he is seeking to make a mark on international negotiations on climate change that culminate in Paris in December.
But scientists who study climate change and fire behavior say their work does not show a link between this year’s wildfires and global warming, or support Brown’s assertion that fires are now unpredictable and unprecedented. There is not enough evidence, they say.
University of Colorado climate change specialist Roger Pielke said Brown is engaging in “noble-cause corruption.”
Pielke said it is easier to make a political case for change using immediate and local threats, rather than those on a global scale, especially given the subtleties of climate change research, which features probabilities subject to wide margins of error and contradiction by other findings.
“That is the nature of politics,” Pielke said, “but sometimes the science really has to matter.”
Other experts say there is, in fact, a more immediate threat: a landscape altered by a century of fire suppression, timber cutting and development.
Public attention should be focused on understanding fire risk, controlling development and making existing homes safer with fire-rated roofs and ember-resistant vents, said Richard Halsey, who founded the Chaparral Institute in San Diego.
Otherwise, he said, “the houses will keep burning down and people will keep dying.”
“I don’t believe the climate change discussion is helpful,” Halsey said.
Brown does not contend that climate change alone is making California’s fires worse, said Nancy Vogel, spokeswoman for the governor’s Natural Resources Agency. But she said addressing fires in the same breath as global warming “broadens the discussion and encourages us to think about the future.”