With at least 40 lives taken and thousands of acres burned, the fires currently raging across California are an unpleasant reminder of what’s at stake in the climate fight.
Those who are opposed to the clean energy solutions that, while obviously wouldn’t put out the flames but would at least quit fanning them, haven’t let this moment go without their own commentary.
For example, we heard that Dr. Jane Orient of the American Association of Physicians and Surgeons (AAPS) sent out a press release on Sunday with two broad claims. One was that since warming has paused and more acres were burned in the 1930s, CO2 emissions aren’t the cause of increased wildfires. Orient also says that if the US adopted “California-like renewable energy mandates” that fight climate change, it still wouldn’t prevent forest fires. The claims link to two year-old page on a Doctors for Disaster Preparedness (DDP) website, one on wildfires, the other California energy policy.
Now before one dives into the veracity of these claims, one should consider their source. One association of doctors linking to another group of doctors certainly sounds respectable... But are they?
No. Not at all. Not even the slightest little bit.
As we’ve covered before, Dr. Jane Orient is the Breitbart-beloved anti-vaxxer who once compared a tobacco tax to “Third Reich measures” and more recently was the source of some of the conspiracy theories about Hillary Clinton’s health on the campaign trail. The AAPS, which she runs, along with DDP, considers Medicare and Medicaid “evil,” publishes pseudo-scientific claims with starkly conservative bents (like denying the existence of HIV and claiming abortions cause breast cancer) and once suggested President Obama was not actually “a brilliant orator,” but instead uses “neuro linguistic programing (NLP), a covert form of hypnosis.”
So while the organizations may appear legitimate at first glance, even a cursory search reveals their bald partisanship and outright insanity. Woe to the reporter who takes the press release seriously at face value.
However, since even a stopped clock is right twice a day, we’ll take a look at their actual claims.
On whether rising CO2 levels are making wildfires worse, Orient and the AAPS use a graph going back to 1926 to claim that since more acres were burnt then, it must be poor forest management causing fires now. They use the National Interagency Fire Center’s data to prove this point, despite the fact that the Center says explicitly that data prior to 1983 is unreliable, and “should not be compared to later data.” (Exactly why is complicated, but include the fact that pre-’83 fires may be double or triple-counted.)
Not only is Orient guilty of the classic logical fallacy of “people die naturally therefore murder’s a hoax,” but she’s also using unreliable data to do so.
In reality, the connections between fires and climate are varied and well-established. Temperatures were exceptionally high this season where the fires started, and have risen twice the global average in the west since 1970, while the wildfire season has grown from five to seven months, on average. This corresponds to a fourfold increase in large fires between 1980 and 2010. Further, warming has contributed to the drying-out of the west: one study shows that over half the increase in aridity (a key driver of fires) is because of climate change.
We can make similarly quick work of the second claim that a California-like renewable energy standard wouldn’t prevent forest fires. While obviously investing in renewables won’t completely stop wildfires, as the above links between warming and fires demonstrate, fossil fuel emissions make things warmer and dryer, which are the conditions necessary for fires like these.
By phrasing her question as though people are saying “Only YOU can prevent forest fires, by putting up solar panels,” Dr. Orient is just tossing a strawman onto the fires.
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