Near the end of last night’s catastrophic “presidential” debate, moderator Chris Wallace lobbed a surprising question at Donald Trump: “What do you believe about the science of climate change? And what will you do in the next four years to confront it?”
It was surprising because, for one thing, it wasn’t on the list of questions Wallace told the campaigns he’d be asking. For another, climate change typically rests out of view at the very bottom of the dumpster fire that is modern American politics. And more significantly, after an hour and a half of nearly constant interruptions and insults, mostly from Trump, what followed was a discussion that inched toward civility.
“It was kind of interesting that that was the most watchable part of the entire debate, I think,” says University of California, Los Angeles climate scientist Daniel Swain. “And that seems to be something that other people have noticed, too. It was the part of the debate with fewest interruptions. I don’t know—maybe that’s because Trump just hadn’t prepared for it at all and didn’t really know what to say.”
What Trump did say was that he wants “crystal-clean water and air,” which might be a tall order given that he’s gutted the Environmental Protection Agency. Also, the Paris Agreement, which the US abandoned during his presidency, was a disaster, he added. As for the wildfires currently ravaging the western states? “The forest floors are loaded up with trees, dead trees that are years old and they’re like tinder,” Trump said. “And leaves and everything else. You drop a cigarette in there, the whole forest burns down. You’ve got to have forest management.”
When Wallace pressed him on whether he believes human-made greenhouse gas emissions cause climate change, Trump said: “I think a lot of things do. But I think to an extent, yes. I think to an extent, yes. But I also think we have to do better management of our forests.”
It’s a common refrain from Trump, who tends to boil down the extremely complex problem of wildfires into a singular issue: Western states aren’t doing enough to fix their forests. (Never mind that the Feds manage 60 percent of California’s forests, a quarter of Oregon’s, and 44 percent of Washington’s.) Fire season after fire season, Trump calls out the mismanagement of forests. Why, exactly? “I don’t know what he has in mind—he probably doesn’t know either,” says fire historian Stephen Pyne. “He’s just looking for attention, he’s just shouting. But the people behind him, I think, want to open up the public domain—national forests and so on—to more logging. Logging does not help fire protection. It does the opposite.”
That’s because logging companies aren’t interested in removing all the brush that grows between large trees. “Logging takes the big stuff and leaves the little,” Pyne says. “Fire burns the little stuff and leaves the big. So the next time you see a forest moonscape that’s been blasted by fire, what is standing? What is standing are the tree trunks that logging would have taken out. They’re not contributing to the fire.”
Indigenous people in the Western states have a long history of land management practices that involve deliberately setting fires to, in a sense, reset ecosystems. It clears the way for new growth, which attracts large herbivores, which make for good food. Then, without so much fuel to burn, wildfires sparked naturally by lightning don’t burn so intensely. But as more and more people have crowded into the American West, the modern approach has moved away from prevention and toward reaction—defending cities and homes. Firefighting agencies have been under increasing pressure to quickly squelch wildfires to protect human populations. By not letting fires eat through a landscape’s brush, we’ve in turn let the little stuff build up in western forests. A lot of folks call this policy “fire suppression,” a different tactic than outright prevention, since there’s no way to keep all fires from starting. But, says Pyne, the more appropriate term would be fire exclusion. “It’s not just that we’re putting out fires—we’re not lighting them anymore,” he says.
So the West is overgrown, and now it’s unbearably hot. Climate change has caused more intense droughts, desiccating whole landscapes, because a warmer atmosphere sucks more moisture out of plants. With humans pushing developments farther and farther into the wilderness, that means more opportunities for ignition. Power lines are particularly problematic, throwing off sparks that have ignited some of California’s biggest and deadliest blazes, like 2018’s Camp Fire.
Because the landscape is so loaded with fuels, and the climate is so much hotter, even naturally-occurring wildfires can quickly turn into blazes of unprecedented size and intensity. This August, a freak thunderstorm system rolled through California, setting dozens of huge wildfires, including the state’s biggest one ever by far, the August Complex, which has burned nearly a million acres and is not yet 50 percent contained. Indeed, five of California’s six largest recorded fires have burned in the last two months. Up and down the West Coast, fires have been loading the atmosphere with smoke, turning the Bay Area orange and creating an unprecedented public health crisis as the Covid-19 pandemic, extreme heat, and bad air collide.
“There’s this real desire for a singular villain in the wildfire story right now,” says Swain. “And the difficult part is there isn’t one. Climate change is really important. But it’s not just climate change.” It’s about overdevelopment and fire exclusion, too. “The problem,” he adds, “is that all the contributing factors are acting in the same direction to make the situation significantly worse.”
The solution is multifaceted, fire experts say. Firefighting agencies in the West need to embrace “good” fires, prescribed burns that clear out overgrown and desiccated brush. They need to make defensible space around individual homes and whole towns. Utility companies have got to keep their equipment from malfunctioning and igniting blazes.
As the planet continues to warm, the worst is likely yet to come for the West. But that doesn’t mean the situation is hopeless: Changing policies to avoid any warming we can will bring some relief. When Wallace asked Joe Biden about his plans, the former vice president ran through his program to get the country to net zero emissions by building out a green energy infrastructure and adding 500,000 public charging stations to encourage the adoption of electric vehicles. In the process, Biden said, building up the clean energy industry would create a new labor force. “Not only not costing people jobs—creating jobs, creating millions of good-paying jobs,” he said. “Not 15 bucks an hour, but prevailing wage, by having a new infrastructure that in fact is green.”
These were all policies he’d already outlined on his campaign website, sure. But the fact that Wallace bothered to ask was an important moment in the political discourse. Among Democrats, at least, 9 out of 10 say climate change is a major threat to the US. “Which is remarkable given that there are truly other major, very short-term problems that need to be addressed, like in the next year or two,” says Swain. “And yet, it’s still up there at the top of a lot of people’s lists.”
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