Friday, October 9, 2020

Cause and Effect: The Last Refuge of Denialists, part two.

One of the most important ways in which denialists use a deliberate misunderstanding of multiple causation (see previous essay) is to ridicule global warming. In this essay, I will look at just one example of an effect of global warming that is dominating the news now (September/October 2020): the wildfires in the west, particularly in California.

Scientists are certain that global warming, primarily of human cause, is already increasing the number and severity of wildfires. Of course, global warming is not the only cause. Another factor that makes wildfires in California so big and deadly is the accumulation of dead wood in the forests. I have seen first-hand that buildup of dead wood is also a problem in the Black Hills of South Dakota, where I taught field botany for eleven years. Once a fire gets started, there is an incredible amount of fuel for it to burn. (Then, of course, yet another cause is whatever ignited the fire. It is usually lightning strikes, though in one case it was sparks from fireworks at a gender reveal party.

This is hierarchical causation: a spark starts a fire, which burns a massive accumulation of dead wood. This is multiple causation: once the fire starts, it is more likely to spread if global warming has made hot, dry conditions worse than they would otherwise have been.

But some people who deny global warming like to ignore multiple causation. They blame the dead wood, then ridicule one of the other causes, global warming.

According to an article, California has been allowing dead wood to accumulate in its forests for decades.

Why has the dead wood accumulated? Because there is no easy way for humans to get rid of the dead wood. Nature’s way of clearing away dead wood is, in fact, fire. Fire is a part of all natural ecosystems, particularly coniferous forests in California. Almost without exception, scientists claim that we need to have natural fires to reduce the accumulation of dead plant matter. In Oklahoma, where I work, fire is the best way to control the spread of red cedar.

The ash from the fire releases nutrients back into the soil, actually promoting the forest to grow back more vigorously (see my YouTube video). Some species of trees actually require fire in order to germinate, as shown in another of my videos.

The problem is that there is no safe way to start control burns, that is, small fires that burn away the wood in wild forests but not on private land holdings. It is so easy for a control burn to get out of control. If California conservation officials started a control burn, which would clear away wood and reduce the risk of future fires, and if a puff of wind sent the fire onto private land, where it destroyed a house, the state might be on the hook for millions of dollars of liability. The article linked above said that, in order to bring California forests back into a stable fire balance, it would be necessary to set fires to wild forests the equivalent of the area of Maine. There is simply no way to do this safely. Having participated in control prairie burns in the Midwest, I can tell you they are risky undertakings. We have a university class in which an expert fire manager was teaching techniques of control burns; the fire got out of control and burned a fence, for which either he or the university (or insurance) had to pay. This was a scientific expert, in a grassland. Imagine what would happen with a fire crew in a dry forest full of dead wood.

It appears to me that California has allowed wood to accumulate in its forests because of the fear of lawsuits. Anyone who lives in a fire zone, let me know: would you be happy if a control burn, which would make life better for future generations, destroyed your home?

The article took an extreme position, however. The author accused the fire control agency CalFire of letting wood build up in order to create new wildfires. Why? Because the money and the glamor comes from fighting wildfires, not from doing control burns. The firefighters get lots of hazard pay, and, friends have told me, it is nearly a carnival atmosphere. The author of the article compares it to “the Halliburton model.” This is a conspiracy theory that says Dick Cheney, who headed up Halliburton corporation, fanned the flames of the Iraq War when he was vice president of the US, in order to get billions of dollars of contracts from the federal government. I am willing to believe almost any conspiracy theory about Dick Cheney, but even I am a little skeptical about this one. Cheney starting a war to get contracts for Halliburton? I haven’t seen quite enough evidence for this.

We’re stuck between a rock (Iraq?) and a hard place. We need to burn that dead wood, but we need to avoid destroying human habitations. This is a problem created by human civilization. The Natives who lived in the forest before Smokey the Bear got there had temporary dwellings, and could usually just get up and move if they saw a fire coming. If you have a big house back in the woods (or, worse, in the chaparral), you can’t do that. You may save your life, but nothing else.

The article also says that California should adopt the model that is successful in the Southeast: namely, control burns. The author seems unaware that control burns are easier in the Southeast because it rains more, and fires are less likely to get out of control.

The denialist problem is this: Denialists say that dead wood causes wildfires and global warming (which doesn’t exist, and they ridicule it) does not. The simple fact is that both of them are causes, just waiting for that spark. Denialists should stop twisting the truth by focusing on some causes and ignoring others.

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