Are all these wildfires caused by climate change? Don't lie to me!
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That’s Smoke, Not Climate Change
Canada’s forest fires provide fresh fuel for a familiar simplistic political narrative.
Mary Anastasia O’Grady hedcutBy Mary Anastasia O’GradyFollow
June 11, 2023 12:50 pm ET
Journal Editorial Report: Progressive policies helped create the orange smoke storm. Images: AP/NurPhoto via ZUMA Press Composite: Mark Kelly
Around 1 p.m. on Wednesday the sky began to darken, and an orange haze descended on Manhattan. I watched in amazement from my Midtown office as Mother Nature dimmed the lights and quietly reminded Gotham City of her awesome power.
What made New Yorkers feel as if they were on Mars was smoke from forest fires that wafted south from the Canadian province of Quebec and hung around amid a stalled weather pattern. People in New York tend to be outside more than most Americans because their commutes involve traveling on foot rather than going from door to door in a car. Residents were told to avoid exposure to the bad air. The Yankees postponed their game with the White Sox. Exceedingly low visibility forced LaGuardia Airport to ground planes for a time. By evening the worst had passed, though the smell of something burning lingered.
Evaluating the causes of this complex event calls for humility, curiosity and thoughtfulness. But politicians are in charge. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer jumped in front of a camera on Wednesday to proclaim that “we cannot ignore that climate change continues to make these disasters worse.” President Biden called the Canada burn “another stark reminder of the impacts of climate change.” Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau joined the chorus.
Their claims are bunk. A 2020 study, “Trends in Canadian Forest Fires, 1959–2019,” found that “there was a sharp increase in destruction caused by forest fires” in the first half of that 60-year period, “and a general decline in the second half.” The study, published by the Vancouver-based Fraser Institute, reported that “the all-time peak of fire activity in 1989 involved some 7.6 million hectares burned, while the most recent national data show only 1.8 million hectares burned in 2019.” Fire activity varied significantly across the country. Whereas Alberta had its second-highest fire loss in 2019 (1981 was its worst), in the prairie provinces “peak fire activity occurred several decades ago.” In the east, levels of forest fire activity were “steady.”
Robert Murphy, the author of the study, said his objective was “merely to document” what had happened with fire during that time. As to possible explanations, he mentioned “temperature and rainfall, but also local fire suppression policies, human-forest interactions, and agricultural practices.” He warned against trying to oversimplify the matter. “Any simple cause,” he observed, “would not have such disparate impacts across provinces and territories.”
Two years later, Quebec’s boreal forests are ablaze, New York is eating the smoke—mostly due to a fluke weather system—and the anti-fossil-fuel crowd isn’t about to let a crisis go to waste.
Drought conditions make matters worse when there’s a fire. But the blazes themselves are often caused by lightning. Fire is part of the natural life cycle of a forest; it’s what spurs those pine cones, carrying seeds, to open up. Some extreme environmentalists think forests should remain out of bounds to all humans. But as Natural Resources Canada points out, “There is no such thing as untouched forest in Canada”—or one that’s unchanging. “In the forest, nothing is ever static. This is particularly true in the boreal forest, which is ecologically adapted to renew itself through disturbances such as fire.”
Changes in climate may be a contributing factor to the latest fire outbreak in Quebec. But there are other circumstances that invite trouble, and some of them are the result of policies that increasingly cordon off forests from people. What is intended to protect trees can lay the forest floor for disaster.
Most Canadian forest land is owned by the crown. It leases some of that land to forestry companies. They practice sustainable management, by doing such things as keeping the ground clean and seeding and planting saplings after a harvest. They do this as part of their contract with the government and because it’s in their own interest to be good stewards.
Yet according to Seth Kursman, an executive for the Montreal-based Resolute Forest Products, “As public policy has gotten more restrictive and more land has been set aside for preservation, there is less harvesting of mature trees and less cleaning of the forest floor. Trees in unmanaged boreal forests usually die of disease, insect infestations or fire. When lightning strikes where there is a lot of dry tinder, the fire is worse.”
It may be counterintuitive, but greater use of Canadian woodlands by forestry companies could reduce the risk of catastrophe. “About two tenths of 1% of the boreal forest is harvested annually, while more than 25 times that amount of forest is impacted by fire, insects and disease,” Mr. Kursman said in a telephone interview last week. Those are trees that need humans.
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