Botkin: I’ve done research since 1968 on the possibility of human-caused global warming and its possible ecological effects, and have published widely on this topic, discussing possible effects on biodiversity and on specific endangered species as well as on forests, cities, and historical evidence of Arctic sea ice change. I’ve also been involved in the development of some aspects of some climate models, and having developed a computer model of forests that is one of the principal methods used to forecast global warming effects on vegetation, I sought out the UCS report with great interest.
Sea Level Rise:
The sea level has been rising since the end of the last Ice Age, starting about 14,000 years ago as the continental and mountain glaciers have melted and sea water has expanded with the overall warming. The average rate has been about a foot or two a century (about 23-46 cm per century). Data suggest that the rate was much greater until about 8,000 years ago.
But the graphs below of severe storm frequency, show variation over time but no overall increase. Therefore, during the recent past the claim by the UCS report is contradicted. And since the climate models don’t even come close to forecasting temperature change, we cannot trust them to forecast changes in storm frequency.
Number of Severe Storms affecting the United States since 1970
(Courtesy of Roger Pielke Jr., Professor in the Environmental Studies Program, University of Colorado, from his House of Representatives Testimony 11 December 2013)
Frequency of Extremely Hot Days
This is controversial, because it is difficult to get information that summarizes these trends for the entire United States, and there are a variety of opinions and discussions about these data, so I put this into the article with some caution to the reader. But several graphs indicate that there has not been an increase in the average number of very hot days. For example, this graph shows days with temperatures above 95° F. This graph is based on the summary from all United States Historical Climatology Network weather stations that have been in operation since 1930.
Wildfire Frequency in the U.S. Has Not Increased
The UCS report claims that two historic sites within the National Park System are being, and will be, damaged by increases in wildfire frequency. But once again, a graph from the U.S. government agencies involved, of number of wildfires, shows no increase.
Furthermore, it is well-established that most major wildfires that occur these days are from the failure to allow much more frequent, and therefore light fires, to burn. The 20th century policy dominated by Smokey Bear — “only you can prevent forest fires” — and the belief, ill-founded, that all forest and grassland fires are bad and must be prevented — have had a damaging effect.
(Source EPA http://www.epa.gov/climatechange/)
As I wrote in my latest book, The Moon in the Nautilus Shell, this Smokey Bear policy also caused the extinction of Kirtland’s warbler, which nests in young jack pine, a tree species that regenerates only after fire. It was only when ornithologists realized the population had dropped in half in a decade and that fire suppression was the cause that the Audubon Society, the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the state of Michigan began prescribed burning programs.
As I also discuss in that book, excellent work by Professor Wallace Covington of Northern Arizona University, involving careful historical analysis of the pre-European ponderosa pine forests of that state, followed by careful removal of excess fuel and trees, followed by prescribed burns every 3 to 5 years, as was the natural rate—restored some of these forests to their beautiful and natural condition: large pines widely spaced with grasses filling the land between. In contrast, next door to his experimental forests is one of The Nature Conservancy ponderosa pine protected, no-touch areas, which does not resemble the pre-European ponderosa pine forests at all, but instead forms a very dense stand of young, small trees and a lot of fuel on the ground, just waiting for a wildfire.
Carefully managed Ponderosa Pine Forest, with excess fuel built up over more than a century removed and light fires every 3 to 5 years (Photo by the author)
Next to the strongly managed forest is a Nature Conservancy no-touch Ponderosa Pine Preserve. (Photo by the author)
What Should be Done About Sea Level Rise and Wildfires and Our National Parks?
As I have shown, observations do not support the claim that our activities are currently warming the globe. Does this mean that we should stop worrying about climate change? Of course not. Because sea level has been rising for thousands of years, the encroachment of ocean waters and damage from ocean storms have been problems for coastal structures, which we have just ignored. We have to face up to these. But arguing about whether this is our fault or not is beside the point and detracts us away from doing anything useful, as we focus instead of what can best be called a fairy-tale debate. The same must be said about wildfires. For decades, experts on wildfires have been calling for improved management of America’s forests, and the need remains important. We must remember Frederick Law Olmsted’s approach to designing the Back Bay Fens— solve the problem, do not waste your time arguing if we are to blame.
However, global warming has become the sole focus of so much environmental discussion that it risks eclipsing much more pressing and demonstrable environmental problems. The major damage that we as a species are doing here and now to the environment is not getting the attention it deserves.
We need to keep in mind the reality of Nature, which I have portrayed in a replacement for Smokey Bear: Morph the Moose (Copyright and trademarked by the author).