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The Climate Apocalypse: ‘Permanently Immunized From Falsification’


In last Saturday’s post, I provided a quote from the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy that encapsulated the gist of the scientific method: “[T]heories that are permanently immunized from falsification . . . can no longer be classified as scientific.”

That seems simple enough. Surely we ought to be able to keep track of that one basic precept to distinguish the science from the non-science.

In practice, it turns out to be not so simple at all. To illustrate, let’s consider the latest from the climate apocalypse movement.

For today I’ll put aside the grand foretellings of planet-wide climate doom, and focus instead on just one little question: whether the current wave of wildfires in the West has been caused by human-induced global warming resulting from the burning of fossil fuels.

There’s an important difference between these two questions that relate to the potential for falsification. With the grand foretellings of doom, it is nearly impossible to pin the seers down to anything you might try to falsify.

Think about some of the phrasings you have likely encountered.

  • “The world has a temperature and we are the cause.”
  • “Unless drastic measures are taken to reduce greenhouse gases, we face a point of no return.”

What is the potential evidence that might emerge that all could agree had falsified these predictions? You will never get a climate alarmist to give you an answer to that question.

But you would think that the question of the causation of the wildfires would be different. There ought to be evidence out there that would bear directly on this question.

For example, what is the trend of wildfires worldwide during the past 20 or so years, when greenhouse gas emissions from the burning of fossil fuels have accelerated?

Or, can we get evidence on the extent of wildfires in the West from the time period before either European settlement or any significant human greenhouse gas emissions?

Meanwhile, of course, the question of the causation of the wildfires has gotten caught up in the maelstrom of our presidential election campaign and therefore is the subject of intense daily discussion from the media, as well as from the Biden campaign.

Seemingly definitive statements are everywhere, attributing the wildfires to warming caused by human burning of fossil fuels, generally phrased in terms to vilify or ridicule anyone who might question that inference in any way.

To take one non-random example, there was Democratic candidate Joe Biden at an appearance on Monday, where he accused President Trump of being a “climate arsonist” for not “heeding the science” on the subject of climate change being the cause of the wildfires.

The headline at the Politico article is “Biden labels Trump a ‘climate arsonist,’ accusing him of not heeding science.” Excerpt:

Joe Biden on Monday denounced President Donald Trump as a “climate arsonist” [for his] unwillingness to acknowledge the threat posed by climate change . . . . Biden’s remarks on Monday were meant to address the wildfires that have been raging across Western states for three weeks…

Politico then also quotes the head of California’s Natural Resources Agency, Wade Crowfoot, as follows: “I think we want to work with you to really recognize the changing climate and what it means for our forests, and actually work together with that science.”

Or consider the piece from the LA Times on September 14, with the headline “A Climate Apocalypse Now.” Excerpt:

In 2001, a team of international scientists projected that during the next 100 years, the planet’s inhabitants would witness higher maximum temperatures, more hot days and heatwaves, an increase in the risk of forest fires, and “substantially degraded air quality” in large metropolitan areas as a result of climate change.

That projection has become a reality on the West Coast, as wildfires have cut across California, Oregon, and Washington, killing at least 33 people and charring more than 4 million acres.

There are many more similar pieces out there if you care to look.

But suppose we are willing to open the door at least a crack to the idea that the proposition at hand — that warmer temperatures resulting from human burning of fossil fuels have brought about a great increase in wildfires in the West — could potentially be falsified.

Suppose further that we accept as given that temperatures in the relevant regions have increased at least a smidgeon during the era of human greenhouse gas emissions; and even further that we accept for these purposes the proposition that the human emissions caused the temperature increase.

There remains this completely empirical question: has there actually been a meaningful increase in the extent of wildfires over some relevant time period?

And the answer, of course, is that readily available data show that, notwithstanding an active wildfire season in the Western U.S. this year, the trend in wildfires over the relevant time, both worldwide and in the Western U.S., is strongly down, not up.

First, consider the worldwide data. In 1999 NASA began using satellites to study the worldwide extent of wildfires. In 2019 they published a 20-year summary of the accumulated data.

Here is the chart they provided:

Source: Nasa Earth Observatory

Obviously the overall trend is strongly down. The downward-sloping trend line on the chart was drawn by NASA, who certainly would not be considered climate skeptics.

I cannot provide an explanation of why the data seems to end sometime in 2015 when they say the report was published in 2019. In any event, here is the key relevant quote from NASA:

[O]ver recent decades human activities such as land management and agriculture, increasing population density and active fire suppression have succeeded in significantly reducing the global areas burned by wildfires, despite the rise in global temperatures.

But how about California? Surely, California is experiencing a wildfire apocalypse brought about by climate change? After all, everybody says so.

So let’s try comparing acreage burned by wildfires in California in recent years to acreage burned back in the “pre-historic” period (before 1800, at a time when human greenhouse gas emissions, let alone any other influences of settlers originating from Europe, could not have had any possible influence on the situation.)

Here is a California state government website called Cal Fire that has data on acreage burned by wildfires in California for this year through September 15, last year (2019) through September 15, and for the full year for each of the years 2016 to 2019.

The figure for acreage burned this year through September 15 is 1,410,113 acres. That sounds like a lot of acres. Last year, for the full year, the figure was only 135,573 acres burned. In 2018, it was 876,147 acres; in 2017, 505,956 acres; and in 2016, 244,319 acres.

But how about in that pre-historic/pre-1800 period? You might consider this 2007 article from the journal Forest Ecology and Management, by S.L. Stephens, R.E. Martin, and N.E. Clinton of the University of California at Berkeley, titled “Prehistoric fire area and emissions from California’s forests, woodlands, shrublands, and grasslands.”

Here is the money quote:

Using the estimates of MFRI [median fire return interval] and HFRI [high fire return interval] by vegetation type (Tables 5 and 6), the amount of area burned annually in California varied from 1,814,614 to 4,838,293 ha (excluding the desert region in Southeastern California) during the prehistoric period.

With the land area of California equaling 40,396,822 ha (CCDB, 2003), this results in 4.5–12.0% of the state’s lands burning annually.

Wow! In case you don’t know, a hectare (abbreviated ha) is about 2.5 acres. So they are saying that the annual acreage burned in this “pre-historic” period ranged from about 4.5 million acres to up to 12 million acres — areas as much as an order of magnitude larger than the areas burned in the worst of modern fire seasons, such as the current year.

From the Conclusion of Stephens, et al.:

The idea that the US wildfire area of approximately 2 million ha [i.e., 5 million acres] annually is extreme is certainly a 20th- or 21st-century perspective. Skies were likely smoky in the summer and fall in California before fire suppression.

An eye-witness account of smoke in northern California forests (C.H. Merriam 1898, quoted in Morford, 1993) reported ‘‘Of the hundreds of persons who visit the Pacific slope in California every summer to see the mountains, few see more than the immediate foreground and a haze of smoke which even the strongest glass is unable to penetrate.’’

In short, readily available empirical data completely refutes the proposition that the Western U.S. is suffering some huge increase in wildfires brought about by human-caused climate change.

But of course, another approach is to ignore any and all empirical evidence, and repeat the mantra of “climate apocalypse” over and over again until people come to believe it.

It is a proposition that must be, and therefore is, “permanently immunized from falsification.”

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