Streetwise Professor

August 15, 2018

The Zinke Firestorm: Mitigation of the Impacts of Climate Change vs. Using Climate Change as Justification for Reordering the World

Filed under: Climate Change,Economics,Politics — cpirrong @ 2:07 pm

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke ignited a firestorm by blaming California wildfires on environmental extremists who oppose logging and other measures (e.g., controlled burns) to reduce fuel load, and denigrating the contribution of global warming.  For this, he has been accused of heresy, and no doubt many of those accusing him would like to consign him to the flames at the stake.

One particularly disturbing aspect about this debate is its polarity–it’s framed as forestry management vs. climate change.   And here, both Zinke and his critics are culpable.

It doesn’t have to be that way.  Policy on forest management can be analyzed quite independently of climate change.   Indeed, to the extent there is a dependence, logically one should be more supportive of measures to mitigate fire risk if you believe that other factors–including warming–have raised that risk.  That is, the warmists, and those who believe there is a connection between warming and fire risk, should be the biggest supporters of reducing the factors that increase the frequency and intensity of fires–and reducing fuel load would be at the top of the list.  These are measures that can be taken in the here and now, and which do not involve wrenching costs.

But that requires pragmatism, and that is something that is conspicuous by its absence on the environmentalist left.  Indeed, they largely view mitigation and other pragmatic, gradualist responses to climate change as a serious moral failing requiring a response befitting the Inquisition, culminating in an auto de fe.  That is, the response is religious in nature, and not logical or pragmatic.  Mitigation is about trade-offs, and evaluating costs and benefits.  These are not the terms of religious debate.

Indeed, I surmise that one of the reasons for raging against mitigation–and likely the most important reason, especially among the more strident–is that mitigation undermines the case for the totalitarian measures that many on the environmental left ardently support.  And if you think totalitarian is too harsh a word, I think you are quite wrong.  Fighting climate change is the justification by many on the left for a complete reordering of economic and social systems, achieved by coercion and force if necessary.

If mitigation reduces the harm, the case for such totalitarian measures is undermined.  And since for many on the left the primary value is not the environment per se, but a complete reordering of economic and social systems, this represents a mortal threat to their political agenda.

That is, environmentalism and climate change are largely instrumental–Trojan Horses, as it were.  This is why mitigation strategies are met with such intense hostility.  What’s the point in mitigation, if it deprives you of an opportunity to reorder society?

As a matter of rhetoric, people like Ryan Zinke (and Trump, for that matter) would be better to separate issues relating to mitigation of risk from the climate change issue, or to the extent that they bring up climate change at all, emphasize that mitigation is even more valuable to the extent that climate change does increase the risk of things like wildfires.  Do not let the Trojan Horse into the debate.  Emphasize that such measures can be a pragmatic response to a risk.  I think that would resonate much more with ordinary people, as much as it infuriates ideologues.


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  1. There was a troublesome wildfire on moorland in NW England during out heatwave this summer. Part of the problem, allegedly, had been environmentalists’ opposition to the customary controlled burns.

    Comment by dearieme — August 15, 2018 @ 3:38 pm

  2. There is a negative correlation between frequency and severity. Put out natural fires (which can happen anywhere there is fuel, even Siberia) prematurely and the underbrush builds up. So the next fire has more fuel and is more severe.

    Solutions have their own problems. Fire corridors in Mediterranean climates would have to be impossibly wide, and deter movement of wild beasts. Raking out the underbrush is ludicrously expensive and the existing forest depends on the brush rotting to make fertiliser. The best fertiliser is, of course, ash.

    Comment by bloke in france — August 16, 2018 @ 12:15 pm

  3. A happy side-effect, at least In Europe, came from coppicing and charcoal burning, which got rid of a lot of the small stuff. Not economic any more, though the greens are welcome to give it a go.

    Comment by bloke in france — August 16, 2018 @ 12:35 pm

  4. You need to familiarize yourself with Deep Ecology, Craig.

    Greens are idealists in the most destructively extreme sense. Deep ecology holds wild untouched nature as the highest good. The only good, really. Humans interfere with nature and are an evil upon and a curse to wild nature.

    The only good human is a human living “in balance” with nature; something that exists only in their fantasy. Nothing lives in balance with nature. Nature has no balance, in any case (balance is not the same as equilibrium).

    Their ideal is a world nearly empty of humans. Those few remaining are they, living in (in their fantasy) in reverence to nature, in wigwams, using stone tools, and wearing breech-clouts (leather from dead animals, only).

    Deep ecology is a widespread religion among them. It’s this that drives their opposition to mitigation. Their desire for totalitarian control is in service to their fantasy, not an end in itself. Mitigation not only interferes with nature (cutting down trees is murder), but it facilitates human safe entry into nature (a ritual impurity).

    These days, mitigation is probably also seen as part of the hegemonic abuse of the white male patriarchy. 🙂

    About climate changeᵀᴹ, I’ve studied the problem in considerable detail. I can demonstrate analytically that climate models have no predictive value. They cannot resolve a perturbation as small as CO2 forcing. There is no evidence human CO2 emissions have done anything except green up the global ecology and improve agricultural yields (another offense to the Deep Ecology crowd).

    I’ve been trying to publish a paper critical of climate models for 5 years, against very hostile and objectively incompetent reviews combined with editorial cowardice.

    Overview of incompetence here:
    Talk on the uselessness of climate models here:

    Comment by Pat Frank — August 16, 2018 @ 6:08 pm

  5. My grandfather was in the forest service. He had a masters in forestry from Minnesota in 1935. Rare in those days. He worked for the USFS for his entire career, ending up managing the Superior National Forest in MN at the end of his career. His generation were active managers of the forests. They allowed clearcutting to a point, and they were big on conservation. They saw logging as a partner, not an adversary. They worked with the big companies like Weyerhaeuser et al to make sure they didn’t have the kinds of fires we saw in the early part of the 20th Century. My grandfather fought a few of them and saw what they could do.

    In his later years he remarked that he didn’t like the way the US Forest Service was managing our forests. He was afraid we’d see more and fiercer fires. This year, there are not only the fires in the western US, but a big fire in Canada near where my cabin is in Grand Marais, MN. We get haze from that fire over our lake each day.

    Clearcutting isn’t pretty. Active management sometimes doesn’t fall into the emotionally prescribed solutions of today’s environmentalists. But, done correctly it can be beneficial because we won’t have the kinds of wildfires happening like we do today. There still will be fires. Man starts a lot of them, but nature does her part too. They just will be more easily managed and put out easier.

    Comment by Jeff — August 17, 2018 @ 10:40 am

  6. I live in California (Central Coast). At times I’ve seen the flames from a distance, for now – and it has snowed white soot. I hope for sensible mitigation practices. I’m concerned this gets harder as homes extend into the dry forests.

    I noticed the headline: Secretary Zinke saying these fires had nothing to do with climate change. Blaming environmentalists instead. Was that a political ploy? Red meat thrown to the ‘base? I thought his statement was unwise – not helpful in any way. Just egging on over reaction. Who really knows how much climate change has played a part? – How much forest management practices? Hoe much state/local politics?

    We need practical well thought out solutions… not scoring political points.

    Comment by howseth — August 18, 2018 @ 2:20 pm

  7. In Australia we are pretty familiar with bush fires and controlled burns for fuel reduction are an accepted tool – and in fact were used long before European settlement.

    Comment by Frank — August 19, 2018 @ 12:39 am

  8. @Frank–Yup. And used in the Americas long before European settlement too. The tallgrass prairies of my native Illinois and other places (e.g., Oregon and Washington) were the result of native burning.

    Comment by cpirrong — August 20, 2018 @ 7:15 pm

  9. @howseth–Zinke’s statement is what I find unnecessarily provocative, and actually detrimental to his message. By making it climate change vs. prudent management, he immediately gets a large number of people to write him off and ignore his message. A smarter move–a judo move–would be to say “if you believe in climate change you should especially support better management of the forests.” No use pushing on the weight of beliefs in climate change–use that weight to achieve your objective. Have it work for you, not against you.

    No, the climate change fanatics and deep ecologists (h/t Pat Frank) won’t be convinced–in part for the reasons laid out in my post–but many more moderate people may be, whereas they would be scared off by being associated with hardcore climate change skeptic remarks.

    Comment by cpirrong — August 20, 2018 @ 7:20 pm

  10. A small semantic point. In the official global warming conversation, “mitigation” is a term reserved for reducing the emission of greenhouse gases. What you call for is classified as “adaptation.” One going from this post to that literature might become confused.

    Comment by srp — August 22, 2018 @ 8:03 pm

  11. Mitigation/adaptation has another factor causing the warmist crowd to hate it: measurable cost/benefit metrics. If some guy comes out with improved techniques to, for example, iron-seed the oceans, that proposal can be tested: how much did it cost, how much more dissolved iron in the seawater, how much more algae, etc. and the endeavor becomes a public works engineering project. (One reason governments have done relatively well with highways is that the metrics, speed, safety, and capacity, are obvious to the voting public. When nebulous smart-growth ideas usurp engineering metrics, highway projects quickly become boondoggles.) Avoiding real-world testing is a large part of the reason the ivory tower is infested with so many intellectual cowards; they aren’t competent to do engineering that is accountable to meaningful metrics.

    Comment by M. Rad. — August 23, 2018 @ 11:04 am

  12. And dropping iron in the ocean or sulfur-seeding clouds goes by yet another name, “geoengineering.” Those are the three types of responses discussed in the literature: mitigation (cutting emissions to reduce the greenhouse gas level), adaptation (normal and extraordinary adjustments to climate change), and geoengineering (macro-interventions that aim to counter the effects of greenhouse emissions).

    Comment by srp — August 23, 2018 @ 4:46 pm

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