Last night I wrote a shorter version of my Fort McMurray fire article for my regular blog at the Huffington Post titled: We Can’t Blame Climate Change For The Fort McMurray Fires. [As always, I had no say in the headline so don’t criticize me on that topic.] The Huffington Post piece took my earlier blog post and updated it with some new information and shortened it to meet the Post’s strict word limit. Now usually when I finish a blog I let it sit for a bit to allow me time to consider alternative formulations, but since I finished it very late last night I decided to go ahead and hit “send”. Typically the editors at the Post hold my articles in the edit queue for a day or two and so when I woke up this morning I decided to edit the piece one more time to soften the conclusion. Imagine my surprise when I looked online, before breakfast, to discover that the piece was already online.
My hesitation last night in sending the article had nothing to do with the content, but rather dealt with how I anticipated the article would be received. I am a writer who tends to do a reasonable amount of research for my articles since the point of my blog is to provide evidence-based blog posts. The problem was that the more I researched the more the research clearly indicated that climate change did not cause the Fort McMurray fire. The problem was that the information I uncovered was more nuanced than I typically include in a blog and was somewhat challenging for non-scientists to understand given my word limit. More problematically, a lot, and I mean a lot, of climate activists have a tremendous amount of emotional energy invested in blaming the fire on climate change and my blog post would really skewer a lot of sacred cows.
My concern in posting the blog was that I would get a backlash, but even I was surprised by the profound illogic and vitriol directed my way today. Since I spent much of the morning chaperoning my daughter’s first-grade field trip and had a series of meetings this afternoon, I encountered this fury in short but intense bursts during my lunch and coffee breaks. The rest of this blog is going to address some of the most egregious failures in logic I encountered today.
On quoting experts:
From a purely logical perspective the most obtuse set of negative comments were directed at me for my comments about El Nino. As I described in my piece, the former vice-chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and one of the preeminent experts on El Nino, Dr. Fredolin Tangang, has made some very definitive statements about the absence of links between climate change and El Nino. The climate activist responses to these statements were mixed. About half the people who sent me angry tweets, or commented about the topic at the Post, simply ignored Dr. Tangang’s research and claimed that there was a link between the two phenomena. These are the same people who quote the IPCC freely when it agrees with their point of view; but in the one case where the consensus research does not agree with them then they simply ignored that pesky fact. It is common knowledge that climate change increase the frequency and intensity of El Nino events and nothing the experts can say will change the spread of that factoid.
The second group were even more entertaining. They accused me of heresy and blamed me for what they perceived as my bad science. These people disassociated the information from its formal source and attributed it to me instead. That is they ignored the source of the quote and simply attacked me personally for my bad taste in citing a researcher in context while providing a direct link to the research in question. Let’s say that again since it makes so little sense. I cited one of the preeminent scholars in the field, an icon of the climate research field, who made a statement based on his life-time of research and people expected me to justify that opinion and attributed the information to me personally? They don’t seem to get that it is not up to me to justify Dr. Tangang’s life’s work or the written conclusions of the IPCC. My responsibility as a scholar is to correctly cite his research, to place that research in context and to provide links to demonstrate that my interpretation was correct. Reporting his opinion doesn’t make it my opinion and doesn’t place the onus on me to justify that research.
On complex research and the difference between correlation and causation
In a similar vein to the attacks on me for citing Dr. Tangang; I was also attacked for quoting Dr. Flannigan and Ms. Elizabeth May in context. As I noted in my piece, Dr. Flannigan and Elizabeth May both state categorically that this fire was not caused by climate change. That being said, Dr. Flannigan is on record as pointing out that the amount of area burned each year has more than doubled since the early 1970s. The direct quote is “this is a result of human-caused climate change. There’s a lot of year-to-year variability with area burned, but we have doubled”
Now to the uninformed these two statements sound mutually exclusive and yet Dr. Flannigan has repeatedly made both statements in the same interviews. So the alternatives are that Dr. Flannigan doesn’t understand his own research or that the two statements mean two different things. My bet is on the latter. You see there is a difference between correlation and causation and the fact that the fire was not caused by climate change does not mean that conditions in the area have not changed due to the effects of climate change. Specifically, based on the models, the land in Alberta is supposed to get drier as the temperature rises which means that a fire, once it has started, will be harder to fight and stop and is more likely to burn or to burn more extensively. According to Dr. Flannigan’s research the conditions have not changed enough to be a proximate cause of fires, or even the main reason for their spread, but it can still enhance the fires to some extent. He sees the effects and identifies a strong correlation but does not have the data to demonstrate causation.
Going back to my earlier point, I am not responsible for coming up with these theories I am responsible for reporting them fairly; which I did within the word limit provided to me by the Post. As I described in the Post, it is clear that El Nino is responsible for the elevated temperatures in the Alberta this winter/spring and poor forest management practices are responsible for the size and extent of the specific fire in the Fort McMurray area. Did climate change have an effect on the El Nino? Not according to Dr. Tangang. Did climate change have any effect on forest management practices in the forests to the south of Fort McMurray? Absolutely not. And that is why Dr. Flannigan and Ms. May have repeatedly said that climate change did not cause the fire.
A thought Experiment
Having addressed the illogic of the activists who spewed their vitriol in my direction today, let’s do a thought experiment about the facts of this fire with respect to its causes and possible policy implications. Let’s start by supposing I am right, that climate change did not cause the fire. What does that mean in the context of the climate change debate?
Well if climate change is not the cause of the fire then for the believers in climate change (like myself) this should serve as a cautionary tale. It is a warning of things to come. Recognize that absent the full effects of climate change we had a catastrophic fire that left thousands homeless and destroyed over 100,000 hectares of forests. Once again, this is without the full effects of climate change. Now imagine what it will be like once we add full-blown climate change to the mix? The story only gets scarier doesn’t it? From an activist’s perspective this is the baseline scenario and things can only get worse from here unless we do something about climate change right now. There is no intellectual down-side to accepting the conclusion of the researchers that the fire was not caused by climate change since that scientific truth only makes it clear that we need to work hard to fight climate change since doing so would have an economic benefit of reducing future costs associated with massive fires.
In this scenario, the only benefit for demonstrating that climate change be considered the cause is sentimental (and for some truly sad people maybe some schadenfreude). It might allow the activists to show the world that they are right after all and to rub that fact into the faces of the skeptics; but it does nothing to build their case. Rather the opposite is true.
On the other hand, if climate change was the CAUSE of the fire then what more do we have to fear? Since the effects are already here and it is too late to address climate change at a local level a pragmatic government would direct all available resources to fire mitigation and forest management rather than investing heavily in options that would have a minimal effect of addressing climate change in foreign areas still unaffected by climate change. After all the critical effects are already here. In exchange for a few minutes of satisfaction the activists cost themselves all the resources and the good will necessary to make the changes necessary to fight climate change. All the money would go to mitigation instead, pretty ironic isn’t it.
As for the skeptics, well since they don’t believe in climate change their approach would be to go directly to mitigation in both cases. Don’t waste any money on fighting climate change and spend more money on forest management and address the interface zones. Sounds a lot like the activist’s “this is climate” scenario doesn’t it?
In carrying out my thought experiment I am reminded about the big problem with the climate activists out there these days. They seem to live off emotion and not logic or science. Repeatedly I was told that it was my responsibility to prove that climate change did not cause the fire. But that is not how science works. The null hypothesis is that climate change is not having an effect and data is required to prove otherwise. Dr. Flannigan and Dr. Tangang clearly understand these ideas and Ms. May clearly was reminded of the fact which resulted in her providing her clarification press release. Now if someone could point it out to the rank and file in the “attack-first” group. The foot soldiers whose first instinct is to attack any idea they don’t understand. These people who make honest scientists think twice before hitting “send” on a blog post that is 100% correct but is, at the same time, politically incorrect because it goes against their easy narrative. You think I am exaggerating? Try looking up the name Roger Pielke Jr. on Google and see what happens when a good scientist makes the mistake of speaking out against the popular narrative armed only with good science and the truth. He never stood a chance.