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Wildfires And Global Warming

The newly formed House Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming (a.k.a. the House Committee Created In Order to Prevent John Dingell from Being in Charge of Democratic Climate-Change Policy) held an interesting hearing yesterday morning on the connection between wildfires and climate change. The hearing reinforced two unfortunate trends: that the Bush administration continues to censor scientific findings at odds with its ideology (as if that weren't documented enough already), and that some Democrats simply can't restrain themselves from making absurd, overblown claims that unfairly point the finger Bush for all manner of environmental ills.

The hearing made it obvious that there's essentially unanimous agreement among scientists on one point: that climate change is making the West more susceptible to wildfires, and it's going to get much worse. The fire season is 78 days longer than it was in 1986, and there has been a six-fold increase in the number of acres burned annually in wildfires since then. Even James Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.), the ranking minority member on the panel and an environmentalist in no one's book, conceded in his statement that one consequence of global warming is to "create conditions that would amplify the effects" of wildfires. And yet, the Bush administration still can't bring itself to admit that reality. Two weeks ago, it forced CDC chief Julie Gerberding to delete the following line from her Senate testimony on the effects of climate change: "Forest fires are expected to increase in frequency, severity, distribution, and duration." So you can add the wildfire–climate change link to the long list of fronts in the Bush administration's disgraceful war on science.

Sadly, though, some liberals aren't much better. Rep. Jay Inslee (D-Wash.) unleashed a blistering tirade against Bush, whom he blamed for destroying forests in Washington state by refusing to back caps on carbon emissions. (It's not 150 years of economic activity that's the problem; it's Bush's fault.) On the campaign trail in New Hampshire last weekend, Senate hopeful Jeanne Shaheen fed similar red meat to a crowd of Democrats: "These wildfires are a direct result of this administration's failure to do something about global warming." Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), the chair of the House panel, deserves credit for saying the obvious: "Global warming dose not cause an individual fire or hurricane, and global warming is not the cause of the California fires." (Particularly since Southern California is one of the few areas of the West where wildfires have not increased in frequency over the past two decades.)

The problem is that this sort of gratuitous Bush-bashing obscures the real question at hand, which the hearing spent almost no time on: given that global warming is making wildfires worse, what should we do? Curbing carbon emissions is one step that would help (incidentally, the Lieberman-Warner cap-and-trade bill passed a Senate subcommittee yesterday). But that's a blunt, long-term instrument: wildfire danger in the West would still get substantially worse even if aggressive carbon caps were put in place tomorrow. A more important solution probably consists of mundane policy changes (better thinning of brush and trees around communities, more thoughtful zoning regulations, letting fire perform its natural ecological function in wilderness areas) that won't get anyone's partisan juices flowing in Washington but will help the West deal with the reality that this new era of heightened fire danger is here to stay.

--Josh Patashnik