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The ‘Straightforward’ Link Between Climate and California’s Fires

[Follow our live California Wildfires coverage.]

Welcome to the Climate Fwd: newsletter! Join us on Sept. 22 for the second episode of Netting Zero, a series of virtual events looking ahead to key international climate negotiations next year. This panel, focusing on cities trying to become carbon-neutral, will be moderated by Brad Plumer, a reporter on The Times climate team. You can register here.


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Credit…Josh Edelson/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

California is on fire. Almost 2.5 million acres of land have burned there so far this year — nearly 20 times what had burned at this time last year — and the wildfire season is far from over.

That means many scientists in the state aren’t just studying their field; many of them are living it.

When I got in touch with Nina S. Oakley on Tuesday for an article about the connections between climate change and California’s wildfires, she was in her car, driving toward the ocean.

Dr. Oakley, a research scientist at the Center for Western Weather and Water Extremes at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, was driving with her husband, Benjamin Hatchett, a climatologist, away from their home in Santa Rosa, Calif., where choking smoke from wildfires and power failures had made it impossible to work.

For these climate scientists, and, increasingly, for all of us, their discipline is anything but academic. The links between climate change and some extreme weather phenomena can be hard to distinguish from natural weather variability without extensive attribution analysis, but the links between wildfires and a warming planet, especially in California are “straightforward,” said Park Williams, a bioclimatologist at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. “Warmer temperatures dry the fuels, and all you need from there is a spark.”

The effects of global warming on wildfires are varied. Want to learn more about how people live in fire-prone areas and protect themselves? How about the increasing problems for people who need to insure their homes areas where fires are likely, or the growing support among Americans for tough limits on building in fire and flood zones? In California’s fields where farm laborers are suffering under the burdens of punishing heat and rising levels of wildfire smoke, as well as the coronavirus pandemic. And as the wildfire season continues, California is dealing with depleted ranks of inmate firefighters.

This year’s fire season in California is far from over, and you could say the same for the state’s fire crisis. Dr. Williams published a paper last year that pointed to the drying effects of human-induced warming in much of the West. It concluded that the effects on wildfire activity “over the next few decades will likely be larger than the observed influence thus far.”

That, counterintuitively, gave me chills.


Credit…Photo Illustration by The New York Times; Ted S. Warren/Associated Press; Drew Angerer/The New York Times

This week I spoke with Christine Todd Whitman and William K. Reilly, former Environmental Protection Agency administrators who served under Republican presidents and who recently said they were backing Joseph R. Biden Jr., President Trump’s Democratic challenger, in the November election.

The Trump campaign derided their group, Republicans and Independents for Biden, as “has-been politicians,” but the former E.P.A. chiefs brushed off the criticism. They told me they felt strongly that the rule of law, respect for science and action on climate change were on the line in 2020.

Here is a condensed version of our conversations, edited for length.

How much success do you think you can have in convincing Republicans to vote against Trump?

Whitman: Our focus is simply giving some cover to those Republicans and independents who won’t vote for Trump but are reluctant to pull a Democratic lever. We want to send a message that this is a time to put country over party.

Reilly: I think there is significance in staking your principles, so that it can be said that there were people who were not just opposed but who actually stood up and were recognized, and that they were prominent people in the party.

Are you still a Republican?

Whitman: I’m still a registered Republican, yes. I believe in the Republican Party of Dwight Eisenhower and Ronald Reagan. I don’t believe, frankly, that Donald Trump is a Republican.

Reilly: This is not a party of principle at the national level so I left it. I am now an Independent. It’s a very discouraging time for someone who was part of the party for so long.

Have you had your conservative credentials questioned?

Whitman: Of course I get some flak. But I think my parents and my grandparents would be cheering me on. I’ve been a Republican all my life and I respect the party. I don’t respect Donald Trump. I deplore what he’s doing to the country.

In what direction do you see the Republican Party moving on climate change?

Whitman: I definitely think there is support for movement on climate change amongst Republicans. Conservation is conservative and there is real potential for economic growth.

Reilly: Over the next four years no matter who the president is, we are going to have to see very significant investments to save communities. I think that will cause the party to at least moderate its hostility toward doing anything about climate.

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