Obama and George Will — Cherry-picking the facts on climate change

Whenever I write a column on climate change, I am almost guaranteed to receive a few emails from the Coachella Valley’s climate skeptics, citing their evidence that any claims to a scientific basis for global warming are baseless and a hoax.

My quoting of President Barack Obama’s inaugural address in my Jan. 27 column quickly brought an email directing me to George Will’s column first published in the Washington Post and reprinted in The Desert Sun.

Will challenges the President’s reference to “raging fires” with figures suggesting that wild fires have decreased since 2006:

“Are fires raging now more than ever?” Will writes. ”(There were a third fewer U.S. wildfires in 2012 than in 2006.) Are the number and severity of fires determined by climate change rather than forestry and land use practices? Is today’s drought worse than that of the Dust Bowl, and was it caused by 1930s global warming?”

Joe Romm, writing on the Think Progress website, argues that Will is willfully (pun obviously intended) cherry-picking the facts.

“2006? Seriously, George Will . . .  If you wonder why in Hell (and High Water) Will just happens to pick the year 2006, you need look no further than the above graph of annual U.S. acreage burned from the National (Interagency) Fire Center.

“For Will . . . the ‘decline’ since the record-smashing 2006 disproves climate change. In Will’s logic, unless ever year is worse than the previous year in all respects, humans are not suffering the effects of global warming.”

Being a primary source kind of person, I went to the NIFC website and took a look at the chart tracking number of wildfires and total acreages burned. The numbers are revealing.

Yes, in 2006, there were 96,385 fires destroying 9,873,745 acres of land. That averages out to about 102 acres per fire.

In 2011, the comparable figures are  74,126 fires and 8,711,367 acres, averaging out at 117 acres per fire.

The 2012 figures continue the upward trend, with 67,315 wildland fires burning 9,211,281 acres for an average of 136 acres per fire. So while the number of fires varies wildly, the intensity and impact are on an upward trajectory — as the President said.

That speaks to another issue — Will’s editorial cherry-picking — which Romm takes on as well.  

“Will coyly asks, ‘Are the number and severity of fires determined by climate change rather than forestry and land-use practices?’ The key debater’s word there is ‘determined.’ It should be ‘increased.’

“The goal of disinformers and their media allies is to create a straw man whereby those who accept the overwhelming judgment of science are accused of saying global warming is the sole cause of a given extreme event, rather than an aggravating cause.”

Romm ends his article with a graphic from a 2010 presentation by John Holdren, the President’s science advisor, projecting the increase in acres lost to wildfires for each 1 degree Centigrade increase in the earth’s climate. The Southwest deserts, including the Coachella Valley, could be in for a 74 percent increase.

Climate change experts have long said that one cannot look at specific regional weather or extreme events; the bigger picture of climate change is much more complex and convincing.