The Realities Conservatives Are Ignoring About Wildfires

Anti-science zealots and conservative talking heads have spent this week twisting themselves in knots to imagine that global climate change isn’t exacerbating wildfires around the globe.

In the U.S., climate change denial groups have made sweeping claims that the overall number of wildfires is down, ignoring the ballooning size and severity of infernos. In Canada, right-wing politicians have latched on to what they say must be a coordinated arson campaign, ignoring that fires are fueled by conditions on the ground regardless of how they start.

The partisan response — one that has played out many times amid extreme wildfire events in the U.S. — comes amid what a Stanford University research team confirmed to be the worst wildfire smoke day on record in the United States. The toxic plumes that have crippled cities across the Northeast and Midwest in recent days stem from “unprecedented” wildfires in neighboring Canada after a prolonged heat wave in May that shattered multiple temperature records.

As usual, the Heartland Institute is spearheading the right-wing disinformation campaign. In a press release Thursday, the group — known for its annual climate change denial and conspiracy conference — declared that “the reality is wildfires are becoming less frequent and severe as the planet modestly warms,” without bothering to link to a single study as evidence.

“Climate activists embarrass themselves when they claim that the fewer wildfires that still do occur must be caused by climate change and are proof of a climate crisis,” James Taylor, the group’s president, said in an accompanying statement.

Mandy Gunasekara, a former high-ranking Environmental Protection Agency official under President Donald Trump and a key figure in the U.S. withdrawal from the Paris climate accord, peddled that same message in a Friday interview with fringe conservative network Newsmax TV.

Canadian wildfires “have been declining for the past 100 years,” she wrote in a tweet promoting her appearance. “These facts haven’t stopped Team Biden from fear-mongering about them. It’s not climate change that’s the problem, it’s climate hysteria.”

At best, the Heartland Institute and Gunasekara are cherry-picking data to fit their own agendas.

This satellite image from June 6, 2023, shows wildfires burning in the Canadian provinces of Quebec, right, and Ontario, left, with smoke drifting southward.

It is true that the overall number of annual fires in Canada has declined in recent decades, from approximately 87,000 blazes throughout the 1980s to 60,000 during the 2010s, according to CBC News’ analysis of national data.

But the number of wildfires says nothing of their size, severity and the myriad complex forces driving extreme fire behavior, including climate impacts and decades of fire suppression. Wildfires are forecast to become increasingly severe as climate change fuels heat waves and worsening drought events.

The Canadian government published a national risk report last month that found that the total acreage burned annually by wildland fires has more than doubled since the 1970s and is forecast to double again by the end of the century.

“The impacts of climate change on wildland fires are already being felt and are expected to cause a dramatic increase in the variation and extremes in fire-conducive weather,” the federal report states. “Nationally, climate change is creating longer fire seasons and contributing to the increased intensity, frequency, and size of wildland fires, regardless of the ever-increasing effectiveness of fire suppression tactics.”

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Thursday that the nation is experiencing its “worst wildfire season” on record. As of Friday, the blazes had consumed nearly 11 million acres, roughly 15 times the 10-year average, according to the Canadian Interagency Forest Fire Centre. That’s an area larger than Maryland.

An orange sun rises behind One World Trade Center and the New York City skyline as smoke from Canadian wildfires fills the air on June 8, 2023.
An orange sun rises behind One World Trade Center and the New York City skyline as smoke from Canadian wildfires fills the air on June 8, 2023.

Eduardo Munoz Alvarez/Getty Images

The situation mirrors that in the United States. While the number of fires year-to-year has dipped slightly since the mid-1980s, their size and the total annual acreage burned have drastically increased. Since 2000, wildfires in the U.S. have consumed an average of 7 million acres annually, more than double the 3.3 million acre annual average in the 1990s.

In 2020, when historic wildfires plagued Australia, conservatives, including Donald Trump Jr. and Fox News host Sean Hannity, focused their attention not on clear trends in fire size and behavior, but on cases of alleged arson. In doing so, they conveniently ignored that the majority of the blazes were ignited by lightning strikes.

Similarly, when wildfires were raging in the Pacific Northwest that same year, Loren Culp, the Republican nominee for governor of Washington state, pushed an internet conspiracy theory that they were the result of a coordinated arson campaign.

The same right-wing conspiracy has reared its ugly head in Canada.

“I bet a good portion of the wildfires raging across the country were started by green terrorists who want to give their climate change campaign a little boost,” Maxime Bernier, the far-right leader of the People’s Party of Canada, tweeted Monday, linking to a story about a woman charged with 32 counts of arson in connection with a series of wildfires in April. “The far left are experts at inventing and creating crises that they can then exploit.”

Danielle Smith, the conservative premier of Alberta, also promoted the idea, telling podcast host Ryan Jespersen she is “very concerned that there are arsonists.”

“Denial, misinformation and partisan talking points have become an unfortunate part of extreme weather events.”

To be clear, arson is a problem. Each year, a handful of people are arrested for intentionally setting fires. But to focus on arson distracts from the realities and magnitude of the current problem.

“The accusation of arson is commonly used to detract from the real drivers of these extreme wildfires and their impacts on people and ecosystems,” Lori Daniels, a forestry professor at the University of British Columbia, told the Toronto Star. “Pointing fingers at fake causes for political gain is an insult to the people who have lost their homes, the firefighters trying to stop those wildfires, and all affected by the smoke and other secondary effects.”

Lightning strikes and human negligence are believed to be the primary triggers of the current spate of fires.

Denial, misinformation and partisan talking points have become an unfortunate part of extreme weather events, as climate change — for reasons that defy logic — remains a partisan issue. But the most disgusting segment of quackery this week goes to Fox News’ Laura Ingraham’s show, which gave a microphone to anti-science hack and professional troll Steve Milloy.

Milloy, a staunch climate change denier and former tobacco and coal lobbyist with no medical background, falsely declared that the wildfire smoke blanketing cities like New York and Washington, D.C., poses no human health hazard.

“Look, it’s ugly, it’s unpleasant to breathe, and for a lot of people, they get anxiety over it,” Milloy told Ingraham. “But the reality is, there’s no health risk, OK? There’s EPA research; they’ve done lots of clinical research on asthmatics, on elderly asthmatics, on children, on elderly with heart disease — not a cough or a wheeze from any of them.”

His claim is utter bullshit.

As HuffPost reported Thursday, Republican lawmakers in Washington have done somersaults this week to ignore or downplay the link between wildfire and planetary warming, instead using the smoke event to peddle pro-logging talking points about the need for better “forest management.”