PolitiFact analyzed President Obama’s September 26 comment at a fundraising event, in which he said, “I mean, has anybody been watching the debates lately? You’ve got a governor whose state is on fire denying climate change.”
If you’re not familiar with PolitiFact, you can check out political claims at PolitiFact.com the same way and for the same reason we check out viral online rumors at Snopes.com. If you have an interest in the subject matter you should read the full PolitiFact article. It’s a good read and not that dense.
I found PolitiFact did a good job on their in-depth analysis of the President’s remark, which some White House aides dismissed as a tongue in cheek wise crack. After all, Perry is on record of being a climate-change denier, even as his state was ravaged by some of the worst fires on record – 3.8 million acres, to be exact.
PolitiFact rated the Obama statement “Half-True.” Cutting to the chase, scientists do not think it is good science to attribute a single event to a long-range phenomenon:
However, climate-change experts have also long urged caution in assuming that particular weather events are caused or influenced by climate change.
Consider a June 2011 paper published by the Pew Center on Global Climate Change, an independent research organization. In the paper — titled “Extreme Weather and Climate Change Understanding the Link, Managing the Risk” — co-authors Daniel G. Huber and Jay Gulledge write that “when we ask whether climate change ‘caused’ a particular event, we pose a fundamentally unanswerable question.” In fact, they say it is “nonsense” to debate a direct climatological link between a single event and the long-term rise in the global average surface temperature.
The reason, Huber and Gulledge write, is the distinction between “climate” — a long-term pattern that averages many weather events over the years — and a particular weather event.
So we cannot say that any one specific forest fire, wildfire or hurricane is directly caused by climate change. What we CAN do is observe the long-range pattern of those events, and compare that to regional historical data. We can even say that increasing average temperatures may be expected to increase the incidence and severity of the events.
What no one can prove is that any one specific Texas fire was caused by global warming. Anyone can claim that it could have occurred anyway.
What they cannot say is that a long-range increasing trend in such events cannot be related to climate change. As long-range temperatures rise, average humidity goes down, long-range rainfall decreases, and any firefighter or forest ranger can guarantee us there will be more fires. Do the math.
Fine, but is there any evidence this incendiary uptrend is already occurring? The Pew study cited by PolitiFact addresses a fact of life already well known to residents of Texas, California, Arizona and New Mexico, for example:
“There is a well-documented link between the earlier start of spring, higher summer temperatures, and drier conditions during summer and fall — that is, climate change — and a dramatic increase in wildfire activity in the western U.S. since the late 1980s,” he said. “These observations reveal an increase in fire risk due to climate change.”
So climate-change deniers aren’t off the hook. Are there are other phenomenon which ARE directly related to climate change? Yes. Rising sea levels, for example, are already the cumulative global result of many individual events as snowpack, glaciers and icecaps melt in the mountains, on the fjords, and at Earth’s poles.