PBS News Hour attacked climate science this weekend, publishing alarmist claims about hurricanes and wildfires that defy findings of the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). In an interview between PBS reporter Hari Sreenivasan and Andrew Freedman, editor of Washington Post’s Capital Weather Gang, the two journalists blamed global warming for severe wildfires and hurricanes. According to the IPCC, however, there is little or no evidence indication global warming is impacting hurricanes or drought.

The interview’s headline reads, “Climate change is driving wildfires, giving ‘rocket fuel’ to tropical storms.” Sreenivasan prefaces the interview by stating, “[t]he last two decades have seen an increase in the number and intensity of both wildfires–like those currently burning in California and tropical storms, with this year’s hurricane season on track to be one of the busiest on record.”

Freedman agrees, saying, “Climate change is having a very clear and significant impact on wildfire size wildfire patterns … you’re seeing more extreme fire behavior now than you did before.” Regarding hurricanes, Freedman added, “[i]t’s a record season for tropical storm season in the Atlantic already.”

Sreenivasan and Freedman get the facts wrong. IPCC findings, confirmed by meteorological data provided by the U.S. government, show no increase in either the frequency or intensity of wildfires or hurricanes despite modestly rising temperatures over the past century.

Drought is the primary climate component that would affect wildfires. As reported in Climate at a Glance: Drought, the U.N. IPCC reports with “high confidence” that precipitation has increased over mid-latitude land areas of the Northern Hemisphere (including the United States) during the past 70 years. Also, IPCC has “low confidence” about any negative trends occurring globally. Moreover, In 2017 and 2019, the United States registered its smallest percentage of land area experiencing drought in recorded history. Still further, The United States is undergoing its longest period in recorded history with fewer than 40 percent of the country experiencing “very dry” conditions.

Date from federal government sources confirm the IPCC findings. As reported in Climate at a Glance: Wildfires, long-term data from U.S. National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC) show wildfires have declined in number and severity in recent decades. Using data on U.S. wildfires from as far back as 1926, NIFC reports the numbers of acres burned is far less now than it was throughout the early 20th century. As the Figure below shows, current acres burned run about 1/4th to 1/5th of the record values which occurred in the 1930s.

Figure 1: Total wildfire acreage burned by year in the United States, 1926 to 2019. Data from https://www.nifc.gov/fireInfo/fireInfo_stats_totalFires.html
Graph by meteorologist Anthony Watts

Globally, the data on wildfires are just as clear. In his book False Alarm, Bjorn Lomborg observes:

There is plenty of evidence for a reduction in the level of devastation caused by fire, with satellites showing a 25 percent reduction globally in burned area just over the past 18 years … In total, the global amount of area burned as declined by more than 540,000 square miles, from 1.9 million square miles in the early part of last century to 1.4 million square miles today.

And the hurricane data are just as powerful, with the IPCC reporting there is, “only low confidence for the attribution of any detectable changes in tropical cyclone activity to anthropogenic influences.” (See the image below, courtesy of meteorologist Dr. Ryan Maue at http://climatlas.com/tropical/)

 

And, as explained in Climate at a Glance: Hurricanes, hurricane impacts have recently been an all-time low in the United States. “The United States recently went more than a decade (2005 through 2017) without a major hurricane measuring Category 3 or higher, which is the longest such period in recorded history. The United States also recently experienced the fewest number of hurricane strikes in any eight-year period (2009 through 2017) in recorded history,” according to data from the National Hurricane Center. If at the conclusion of this hurricane season, it proves to be busier than average for the year, it would just represent a return to normal from the 1970s and before.

With major hurricanes at historic lows and wildfires numbers and scope well below the 20th century average, PBS is inventing fake news by claiming climate change is pouring “rocket fuel” on wildfires and hurricanes.

H. Sterling Burnett, Ph.D. is managing editor of Environment & Climate News and a research fellow for environment and energy policy at The Heartland Institute. Burnett worked at the National Center for Policy Analysis for 18 years, most recently as a senior fellow in charge of NCPA’s environmental policy program. He has held various positions in professional and public policy organizations, including serving as a member of the Environment and Natural Resources Task Force in the Texas Comptroller’s e-Texas commission.

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