You could reasonably look at an incredible and devastating year of Western forest fires and worry about the effects of climate change on what’s causing them.
President Donald Trump has taken a look at those wildfires and become worried there’s not enough water to put them out. Even though that does not appear to be the case. At all.
And that’s classic Trump. If the news points toward the need for a national conversation about climate change, he’ll make it about how much water firefighters have in California.
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That’s a very different thing to discuss than wildfires fueled by dry conditions and hot temperatures, a symptom of what’s described in the report published in the American Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, which CNN’s Euan McKirdy wrote about under the headline, “Earth at risk of becoming ‘hothouse’ if tipping point reached, report warns.”
On the water question, President Trump presumably could pick up the phone and call the authorities to ask them, but in this case he decided instead to score some political points against California Gov. Jerry Brown.
If he had called Cal Fire, he might have found, as reporters have, that “We have plenty of water to fight these fires,” as Deputy Cal Fire Chief Scott McLean told ABC News.
In addition to a much-needed disaster declaration he made recently to free up federal funds to help deal with the blaze, Trump has tweeted a few times about the deadly Carr wildfire in Northern California now, and each time he’s used it to suggest that three distinct things are to blame for the fires:
- There’s not enough water to fight the fires
- It’s Brown’s fault
- More water for California farmers and less for spawning fish would help fight the fires
Here are those comments, culled from his tweets on the subject over the past few days:
Tweet 1: “Governor Jerry Brown must allow the Free Flow of the vast amounts of water coming from the North and foolishly being diverted into the Pacific Ocean. Can be used for fires, farming and everything else. Think of California with plenty of Water - Nice! Fast Federal govt. approvals.”
Tweet 2: “California wildfires are being magnified & made so much worse by the bad environmental laws which aren’t allowing massive amounts of readily available water to be properly utilized. It is being diverted into the Pacific Ocean. Must also tree clear to stop fire from spreading!”
The first major problem with Trump’s reasoning is that the firefighters combating the blazes are not now nor have they been complaining specifically there is not enough water to fight the fires. The second is that the fight over water has to do with farmers, a key Republican constituency in the state, and not firefighters. That state debate has more to do with salmon spawning in the delta.
“We have plenty of water to fight these wildfires, but let’s be clear: It’s our changing climate that is leading to more severe and destructive fires,” Daniel Berlant, assistant deputy director of Cal Fire, the state’s fire agency told the New York Times, directly contradicting the President.
Despite his grousing on California’s “environmental laws,” left unsaid by Trump is anything about climate change, which he has generally opposed taking action to slow. So it’s interesting to note that Brown, Trump’s target here, has used the final years of his time in office to become an evangelist for states like California to step in and act on climate change and environmental regulation. California has a 2016 law that caps the amount of greenhouse gases companies can emit and allows them to buy access to more. A similar federal proposal was unable to pass the US Senate in 2010.
Brown said last week at a news conference that climate change is directly responsible for intensifying fires.
“[The] predictions that I see, the more serious predictions of warming and fires to occur later in the century, 2040 or 2050, they’re now occurring in real time,” he said in Sacramento.
How to attribute a single weather or fire event to climate change has long been debated. But the trends are clear. There are more destructive California wildfires recently. Thirteen of the 20 most destructive California wildfires have occurred since 2000, according to a list maintained by Cal Fire. The Carr fire was at No. 6 according to an update Monday. Seven of the top 20 are in the last five years.
There’s nothing in there about needing more water to fight the fires. But plenty about how the changing climate is going to make the problem worse.