Op-Ed: The new line of attack on climate science in the age of megafires

The August Complex fire burns in Mendocino National Forest on Sept. 16, 2020.
The August Complex fire burns near Lake Pillsbury in the Mendocino National Forest on Sept. 16. By Oct. 5, it had burned more than 1 million acres.
(Noah Berger/Associated Press )

Every morning, wildland firefighters gather around radios to listen to the weather forecast. This summer, I was part of the team that fought a fire near Big Sur. When I heard the staticky voice announce that temperatures would exceed 105 degrees, the forecast sounded like a death sentence.

Across California, unprecedented heat has made wildfires more difficult to predict and control. During the heat wave in Big Sur, the fire, which had been 40% contained at 30,000 acres, tripled in size in a matter of days. It has now burned nearly 125,000 acres.

Fighting wildfire involves hauling heavy packs and tools up mountains. Record heat makes this work more difficult and dangerous. After hours cutting atop an exposed ridge, my arms and legs spasmed from muscle cramps. Extreme heat makes hearts race and brains falter. Firefighters often collapse. In Big Sur, plumes of smoke grew like thunderclouds.


We have entered the age of megafires. Since 1970, yearly fire seasons in California have grown by 78 days. The amount of land burned annually across the Western U.S. has doubled since 1980. Last week, the August Complex fire in Northern California set a record for the state, burning more than 1 million acres. That record will probably not stand for long.

These extreme fires are caused by two main factors: fire suppression and climate change. The dangerous consequences of fire suppression are now widely acknowledged. But the role of climate change on wildfires — more heat, less rainfall and lower humidity in fire-prone regions — is either being minimized or pushed from the frame.

In Big Sur, when the sun melted into the Pacific and we returned to base camp, I sat by the internet hot spot to text my mom and touch base with the world. I was not surprised to see President Trump denying the existence of climate change during his visit to California in September. I was more concerned by the new form of attack on climate science being pushed by popular right-wing commentators like Ben Shapiro.

Faced with irrefutable evidence, this stance acknowledges that climate change exists, but denies how much scientists know, how much climate change currently matters and how possible it is to cut carbon emissions. This position may sound nuanced and pragmatic, but it is just as false and damaging to science-backed decarbonization efforts as outright denialism. In fact, it may be more dangerous because it sounds less extreme.

As a researcher of climate change and land management, I know that just several generations of fossil fuel emissions have produced higher atmospheric carbon concentrations than have existed at any point in human history. Scientists are certain that the majority of current climatic extremes are the result of this rapid carbon influx.

Scientists are also certain that the effects of climate change are catastrophic right now, not just in California, but around the world. Examples are so prolific as to be almost banal: fires in rain forests, fires in the Arctic, disappearing islands, refugees from droughts and floods.


As the planet changes, climate change denial also shifts. The idea that the U.S. is incapable of achieving decarbonization goals has become a particularly prominent excuse for inaction. “The question isn’t whether climate change is happening,” Shapiro wrote as smoke from California’s fires reached Europe. “It’s whether you have any solutions that aren’t crazy.”

Yet, as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says, we currently “have the means to limit climate change.” Reaching carbon neutrality is not only possible, but would be economically beneficial. Fossil fuel subsidies directly cost U.S. taxpayers $20 billion per year. The cost increases to $600 billion when accounting for negative externalities. By contrast, public spending in renewable energy and carbon mitigation solutions is an investment. As the Economist recently reported, “If America were to act on climate change — with, say, a carbon tax and new infrastructure — its capital markets, national energy laboratories and universities would make it a formidable green power.”

A whole genre of scholarship has attempted to explain the causes of climate change denial. Some contend that climate change is too widespread for individuals to perceive, making it difficult to believe. Others trace denial to religious beliefs that separate humans from nature. A more likely cause of this particular American delusion is the fossil fuel industry’s grip over lawmakers. Upward of 90% of the industry’s campaign donations are directed to the Republican Party, with the Koch network alone spending hundreds of millions per election cycle. As Upton Sinclair once noted, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on his not understanding it.”

Communicating with scientists can be a healthy antidote to the disorientation created by misinformation. As I bounced in a truck with my crew to help corral a new section of the growing fire, I emailed Leila Carvalho, a professor and climatologist at UC Santa Barbara, asking for her perspective on the summer’s wildfires.

I read her reply in a rain of ash under an orange sky. Scientists monitoring fire weather in California’s coastal mountains will soon need new charts, Carvalho said. The old charts won’t go high enough to track the temperatures firefighters work in. Scientists predicted this 50 years ago, but the extremes are happening sooner than expected.

Earlier generations failed to base policy on science. Our communities are now dealing with the consequences of that failure. It’s still possible to avert the worst impacts of climate change, despite what false pragmatists say. Until then, firefighters will be out in the heat cleaning up the mess.


Jordan Thomas is a doctoral student in anthropology at UC Santa Barbara researching the cultural forces that drive fire behavior. He also helps fight wildfires.