This is a guest post by ClimateDenierRoundup.
Earlier this month we discussed how during Australia’s devastating fires, conservatives tried to claim that it was green party forest management policies that were to blame. That is, of course, wrong. It throws us back to 2018 in the U.S., when Secretary Ryan Zinke and others wrongly blamed environmentalists for California’s wildfires and Trump wrongly blamed a lack of raking.
Now, new emails obtained by The Guardian show that messaging around forest management in 2018 was more than just a way to pin the blame on California and deny climate change. Like most other actions taken by this administration, it also helped prop up industry profits by embracing the industry’s propaganda.
According to The Guardian, a week after the Camp Fire raged through Paradise, California, James Reilly, the U.S. Geological Survey director, asked scientists to “gin up an estimate” on how much carbon emissions the Camp and Woolsey fires had produced because it “would make a decent sound bite” for Secretary Zinke to use. And earlier that year when emailing with a DOI staffer about emissions estimates from fires, Reilley admitted they didn’t have “details on the overall land cover,” which is important because the type of tree would vary the amount emitted, but planned to assume woodland mix because it “makes a good story.”
The idea was to hype up the emissions from the fires in order to justify an increase in logging, because fewer trees means less fuel for fires, and therefore less emissions. Except it doesn’t actually work like that. As The Guardian explains, while forests do emit carbon emissions when they burn, “logging wouldn’t necessarily help prevent or lessen wildfires.” In fact, “logging could negate the ability of forests to absorb carbon dioxide.”
Despite this, less than a week after the Camp Fire was extinguished, Zinke used that data on fire emissions in a press release titled “New Analysis Shows 2018 California Wildfires Emitted as Much Carbon Dioxide as an Entire Year’s Worth of Electricity.” The release quotes Zinke who said “There’s too much dead and dying timber in the forest” and that good forest management could “reduce the risks of wildfires” and “curb emissions.”
Of course, the best way to both reduce emissions and the risk of wildfires is to stop burning fossil fuels but not surprisingly there’s no mention of that. Zinke also claimed that “the intensity and range of these fires indicate we can no longer ignore proper forest management.” Again, he ignores the fact that what is really driving the “intensity and range of these fires” is climate change.
The Guardian reported that when it showed scientists the email exchanges, they determined “at best Reilly used unfortunate language and the department cherry-picked data to help achieve their pro-industry policy goals; at worst he and others exploited a disaster and manipulated the data.”
Chad Hanson, a California-based forest ecologist, called Reilly’s behavior a “blatant political manipulation of science”. Hanson said the amount USGS claimed the fires emitted was an “overestimate” that “can’t be squared with empirical data” from the fire sites.
And it didn’t stop with Zinke’s press release. In January of 2019, Trump signed an executive order that expanded logging on public lands by as much as 31 percent, claiming that it would help control wildfires. As Jayson O’Neill, deputy director of the Western Values Project put it, “The Trump administration and the Interior Department are pushing mystical theories that are false in order to justify gutting public land protections to advance their pro-industry and lobbyist dominated agenda.”
Main image: California Army National Guard leads a team conducting search and debris clearing operations, November 17, 2018, in Paradise, California. The engineers worked in support of state agencies following the deadly Camp Fire. Credit: U.S. Air National Guard/Senior Airman Crystal Housman, CC BY 2.0