Earlier this week, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke made a visit to Redwood, California, where he had some very interesting things to say regarding the wildfires currently devastating the city and much of the rest of the state. He told reporters at local news station KCRA it had "nothing to do with climate change" but rather "active forest management". He then went on to blame the disaster on "extreme environmentalists" who, he said, "are willing to burn [the land] up".
"I’ve heard the climate change argument back and forth. This has nothing to do with climate change. This has to do with active forest management," he told reporters.
"America is better than letting these radical groups control the dialogue about climate change," he continued. "Extreme environmentalists have shut down public access. They talk about habitat, and yet they are willing to burn it up.”
It almost sounded like he was using an environmental disaster to push industry interests. In this case, the logging industry.
"The irony is we have billions of board feet that is rotting on our forest floor, where we are importing lumber," he said, "and that lumber could be better utilized for people to build houses, lower the price and make it affordable for people to build a home."
This echoes a sentiment Trump made in a tweet last week, which (aside from blaming the fires on water being diverted into the Pacific Ocean) called for more trees to be cleared.
“They’re using the opportunity of fires... to advance some backward-looking approaches to the environment,” director of Sierra Club California, Kathryn Phillips, told the Sacramento Bee, while ignoring the role of climate change.
The 2018 wildfire season is the most destructive on record, reports Slate. As Zinke himself wrote in an op-ed for USA Today, "We are just now hitting the peak of a traditional fire season and already this year we have seen about 5 million acres [2 million hectares] of land and thousands of structures destroyed." And it just so happens to coincide with a worldwide heatwave that saw temperatures climb to an average of 42.2°C (108.1°F) in Death Valley last month – a record-breaking achievement.
So, how much of this strange weather can we really blame on the changing climate?
While it is very hard to pin anything on climate change, including the string of bizarre weather events we are experiencing, the science does suggest it makes occurences like these more intense and more frequent. A 2016 study, led by researchers at the University of Idaho and Columbia University, found that climate change has doubled the amount of land affected by forest fires in the western US over the last three decades.
"As the climate warms, moisture and precipitation levels are changing, with wet areas becoming wetter and dry areas becoming drier," the Union of Concerned Scientists reports. Hotter springs and summers will increase the likelihood of drought in the western United States – and will, therefore, mean longer and more intense wildfire seasons.
As Zinke himself has said, "There’s no doubt the (fire) season is getting longer, the temperatures are getting hotter."