After a dramatic video of a fire on the surface of the water in the Gulf of Mexico went viral last week, many journalists, scientists, and elected officials referred to it as more evidence of catastrophic climate change. “The ocean is literally on fire,” tweeted California Governor Gavin Newsom, “but yeah, sure. We can’t afford climate action.”
But the fire had nothing to do with warmer temperatures of either the air or water. It resulted from a pipeline rupture, a fairly common accident in transporting natural gas. It also had no discernible impact on the environment. The fire went out less than six hours after workers shut off the pipeline’s interconnection valves. As such, it paled in significance to the 2010 Deepwater Horizon spill, which killed 11 people and spilled oil, not gas, for a month.
In other words, the Gulf of Mexico fire was yet another misattribution of a disaster to climate change, like we have seen with forest fires, floods, and hurricanes. In truth, fires have declined by one-quarter globally since 1998, according to NASA, and the primary cause of California’s high-intensity fires is forest mismanagement, not warmer temperatures. Meanwhile, flood and hurricane deaths and costs have declined dramatically over the last few decades as nations have built flood control systems, better housing, and hurricane warning systems.
To be fair, many of the people who shared the video pointed to the unintended consequences of oil and gas production, not climate change, and its apparent lack of regulation. In 2019, a pipeline leaking fuel exploded in Mexico, killing 20 people. More than a decade has passed since the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill and yet the U.S. government agency in charge of overseeing 9,000 miles of oil and gas pipelines in the Gulf of Mexico still lacks “robust oversight,” according to a recently-released report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office.
But the oil and gas industry has grown dramatically cleaner and safer, as have fracking and off-shore drilling. There are still accidents, leaks, and explosions. But the number of serious pipeline incidents per unit of production has declined by more than half over the last decade. And we are so much better at responding that despite spilling 10 times more oil than the 1989 Exxon Valdez accident in Alaska, the Deepwater Horizon accident killed just 2 percent the number of birds.
Meanwhile, rising natural gas production, both through fracking and off-shore drilling, is the main reason that both US carbon emissions declined by 22 percent since the year 2000, and Europe’s emissions declined by a similar percentage since 1990.
In truth, the public’s misattribution of fires on water and in forests stems not simply from ignorance of how the oil and gas and forestry industries work but also ignorance of how nature itself works. The public sees forests and water burning and assumes that what’s happening is both unnatural and bad. That assumption reveals a religious worldview, not a scientific one. And it is driven by a deep alienation from, not a connection to, the natural world.
Liar, Liar, Forests on Fire
In December last year, The New York Times published a long article which strongly implied that climate change-driven fires were burning up so many of California’s ancient redwoods, sequoias, and Joshua trees that they risked going extinct.
“THEY’RE AMONG THE WORLD’S OLDEST LIVING THINGS,” screamed The Times’ digital headline, in all-caps. “THE CLIMATE CRISIS IS KILLING THEM.”
Lest readers doubt that climate change might be making redwoods extinct, The New York Times emphasized that blackened trees meant they were dead. “The blackened wreckage sends a clear message,” claimed The Times. “These trees are in the fight of their lives.”
But anyone who has hiked in one of California’s redwood forests knows from reading the signs at the trailhead that the ancient forests need fire to germinate seeds and burn up woody debris on the forest floor. Park Rangers and visitors centers teach that the blackened bark on old-growth redwood trees is a sign of forest health.
I pointed that out in a widely-read column for Forbes, and on Twitter, four months earlier, but it had no impact on The New York Times. Faced with facts that challenged its framing, the Times doubled down on pseudoscience. “In a relative instant,” it claimed, “countless ancient redwoods, hundreds of giant sequoias and more than one million Joshua trees perished.”
And what evidence did The Times provide for its extraordinary claim that “countless ancient redwoods… perished”? None whatsoever. The article instead just relied upon quotations from scientists and the speculations of the author, John Branch.
“Do we know how many ancient redwoods were killed by the fire?” I asked Joanne Kerbavaz, who Branch quotes as an expert, a few days after the Times ran the article.
“It’s true that some of those old growth probably were killed,” she said, “in that the fire served to undermine the structural support and some of them toppled over.”
“You know for a fact and have seen them?” I asked. “How many?”
“We don’t know,” she admitted.
“Is countless the right word?” I asked.
“What I’m excited by is the opportunity to tease out more specific effects,” she said. “We have remote sensing to map the height of the vegetation that might allow us to more particularly define for all trees what’s not normal.”
I pressed her. “But couldn’t the fire have been good for the ancient redwoods?”
“In some of the old growth groves we expect the fire effect was more beneficial than detrimental,” she finally admitted. “We have a high expectation that almost all of the old growth survived.”
As such, the use of the word “countless” by The New York Times is inaccurate, according to the scientist who it relied upon to make its false claim. The Times should issue a correction.
What about Joshua Trees and Sequoias? One of them, the so-called Joshua Tree, isn’t even a tree. It’s a kind of yucca. And its habitat requires fire.
Earlier this year the U.S. National Parks Service felt the need to debunk the alarmism “As devastating as it may appear, fire is a natural process,” it wrote, “and Joshua Tree National Park has seen centuries of lightning-caused fires.”
Was the fire caused by climate change? “The fires that burned the Joshua Trees are driven by lighting,” said Jon Keeley, one of California’s most published forest scientists, “and I don’t think there’s any evidence that climate change is causing more lighting.”
Fires have increased in the Mojave Desert, but because of invasive grasses that create fuel for more frequent and hotter fires, not because of warmer temperatures. “I’d say we had a huge growth of exotic grasses and that drove the fires,” said Keeley.
In other words, the fires in the Mojave are hotter and more intense for the same reason that many of California’s mountain forest fires are: the build-up of fuel in the form of biomass. “Many of these invasive plants are fast-growing annuals that fill in the areas between shrubs,” wrote the Parks Service. “When they dry out in the heat of summer, these non-natives serve as a fuel source that allows fires to spread.”
What about the sequoias? “I don’t think you have to resort to anthropogenic climate change to explain the fires in the sequoias,” said Keeley, who studies the forest. “The climatologists want to tell you that it’s all climate change but it’s not by any stretch of the imagination.”
The real issue was the 2012 – 2015 drought, said Keeley, and there’s no evidence that climate change is making California’s droughts more frequent. “It’s way more likely that past management activities and the 2012 and 2015 drought were bigger factors than the heat wave.”
I asked Keeley what he thought of The New York Times piece. “It’s what most people would describe as sensationalism,” he said. But Keeley saved his harshest words for alarmist climate scientists. “The climatologists follow the ‘law of the instrument.’ If all you have is a hammer, nails are all you study.”