Must-see climate change video connects the dots, while a NY Times story on the record Arizona wildfires fails to

Must-see climate change video connects the dots, while a NY Times story on the record Arizona wildfires fails to

Last month, founder Bill McKibben published a must-read op-ed about the failure of the media and others to connect any dots between recent extreme weather events and climate change.  Stephen Thomson of Plomomedia has combined McKibben’s words with striking images.

Underscoring McKibben’s point is an uber-lame New York Times story today, “As Arizona Fire Rages, Officials Seek Its Cause,” which, you guessed it, is dot free.   Meteorologist Dr. Jeff Masters wrote Friday, “The return of critical fire conditions this weekend means that the Wallow fire will likely become Arizona’s largest wildfire in history.”

Before taking on the NYT piece, let’s look at the video:

McKibben’s piece is a nice work of rhetoric.  After April saw records set for most tornadoes in a month and in 24 hours, I examined the climate-tornado link in great detail here, looking at the data, the literature, and expert analysis.  That piece concluded:

  1. When discussing extreme weather and climate, tornadoes should not be conflated with the other extreme weather events for which the connection is considerably more straightforward and better documented, including deluges, droughts, and heat waves.
  2. Just because the tornado-warming link is more tenuous doesn’t mean that the subject of global warming should be avoided entirely when talking about tornadoes.

The NY Times has been doing some very good science reporting recently (see NY Times Bombshell: “The latest scientific research suggests” climate change is “helping to destabilize the food system”).  But their  overall reporting team is not connecting the dots (see, for instance, my May piece “New York Times blows the Dust Bowl story“).

The NYT had promised two years ago to do  more coherent reporting, as the Columbia Journalism Review noted at the time:

Environmental S.W.A.T. Team

On Thursday, The New York Times will launch a new, crack environmental reporting unit that will pull in eight specialized reporters from the Science, National, Metro, Foreign, and Business desks in a bid for richer, more prominent coverage.


The more prominent coverage simply never happened, as I detailed in the second half of my January piece, Silence of the Lambs: Media herd’s coverage of climate change “fell off the map” in 2010, which shows that in all of 2010 none of “the largest lead headlines” in the paper dealt with climate.  As professor Robert Brulle, an expert on environmental communications, wrote me at the time:

Apparently, the editorial board of the NY Times has yet to fully grasp the importance of global climate change to our collective survival.  As the science becomes stronger and more dire, the editors of the NY Times bury their head deeper into the sand.

Today’s Arizona story is a case in point.  Now I don’t necessarily think that every single story written on the record Arizona wildfires must focus on or even mention climate change.  But the NYT story is quite specifically on the “cause” of the fires.  Worse,  the newspaper has no difficulty repeating dubious right-wing myths as to the cause of the fires

Many wildfires are caused by humans — and investigators say this one may have been started by two unattended campfires — distinguishing them from hurricanes, tornadoes and earthquakes….

Residents heaped plenty of blame on Mother Nature as harsh winds spread the flames and low humidity left the forest full of fuel. But residents and experts also pointed their fingers at a variety of policies that they said had contributed to wildfires that seem to have grown in intensity over the years.

Some complained that it was environmentalists who had caused the forests to become tinderboxes by preventing the thinning of trees as they sought to protect wildlife. Others, like William Wallace Covington, a forestry expert at Northern Arizona University, countered that the leading factor was the grazing of forest grass for generations. The government’s longstanding practice of quickly extinguishing forest fires was also seen as adding to the thick clusters of highly combustible trees.


You would never know from the NYT that this standard right-wing talking point has actually been examined in the scientific literature and found wanting.  Back in 2006, Science magazine published a major article analyzing whether the recent soaring wildfire trend was due to a change in forest management practices or to climate change. The study, led by the Scripps Institute of Oceanography, concluded:

Robust statistical associations between wildfire and hydroclimate in western forests indicate that increased wildfire activity over recent decades reflects sub-regional responses to changes in climate. Historical wildfire observations exhibit an abrupt transition in the mid-1980s from a regime of infrequent large wildfires of short (average of 1 week) duration to one with much more frequent and longer burning (5 weeks) fires. This transition was marked by a shift toward unusually warm springs, longer summer dry seasons, drier vegetation (which provoked more and longer burning large wildfires), and longer fire seasons. Reduced winter precipitation and an early spring snowmelt played a role in this shift.

That 2006 study noted global warming (from human-caused emissions of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide) will further accelerate all of these trends during this century.

Again, this isn’t to say that forest management practices played no role whatsoever in a specific fire — only that if the New York Times is going to publish an article on the “cause” of this massive wildfire,  and push this dubious talking point with the wishy-washy attribution “some complained,” then at the very least they have to put forward the far better documented science that human-caused climate change is creating ideal fire conditions in the West.

As meteorologist Dr. Jeff Masters explained last week, whatever the triggering cause was (i.e. “unattended campfires”), this record-setting wildfire season as a pretty straightforward underlying cause:

Extreme to exceptional drought conditions over most of Texas, New Mexico, and Eastern Arizona are largely responsible for the record fire season.


It’s a sad commentary on affairs when a video of an op-ed is more informative than a major article in the most important newspaper in the country.

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