Data Prove Climate Change Is Not Making Droughts, Heatwaves, or Wildfires Worse

Data Prove Climate Change Is Not Making Droughts, Heatwaves, or Wildfires Worse
President Donald Trump speaks during a briefing on wildfires in McClellan Park, Calif., on Sept. 14, 2020. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)
H. Sterling Burnett

Over the past few weeks, thousands of “news” stories have claimed human-caused climate change is responsible for more frequent and severe droughts, heatwaves, and wildfires in the western United States.

The problem is, and it’s a big problem for those making these claims, data don’t support them. Sadly, the mainstream liberal media, in search of attention-grabbing headlines, routinely ignore this fact.

For instance, California Gov. Gavin Newsom, standing in a burnt-out area, hosted a news conference, duly reported across the United States, in which he went on an inane rant saying, “I quite literally have no patience for climate change deniers.” I say inane because I know of no one who denies that the climate changes over time.

Days after, President Donald Trump visited California and met with state officials to discuss what aid the federal government can give by way of wildfire relief and prevention going forward in the wake of this horrific, not historic, wildfire season.

The headline in The New York Times’ coverage of the event was titled “Trump Again Rejects Science in California Wildfire Briefing,” while CNN’s story covering the event began, “President Donald Trump on Monday baselessly asserted that climate change is not playing a role in the catastrophic wildfires overtaking forests across the west, rebutting an official briefing him who pleaded for the President to listen to the science. ‘I don't think science knows, actually,’ Trump said at a Monday briefing.”

The truth is it is the mainstream liberal media baselessly asserting science proves current wildfires are being caused by climate change. By contrast, Trump is following the science.

Data show the number and severity of heat waves, droughts (which are a critical factor in the severity of wildfires), and wildfires have all decreased over the past 150 years, even as the planet has modestly warmed.

Concerning heatwaves, the U.S. Annual Heat Wave Index tracks the occurrence of heat wave conditions across the United States. This index defines a heat wave as a period lasting at least four days with an average temperature that would only be expected to occur once every 10 years, based on the historical record. The index value for a given year depends on how often heat waves occur and how widespread they are.

Data from the U.S. Climate Reference Network and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration show, in recent decades heatwaves have been far less frequent and severe, for example, than in the 1930s. Indeed, 40 states’ record-high temperatures were set before 1960, with 25 of the record highs being set or tied in the 1930s alone. The most accurate nationwide temperature station network, implemented in 2005, shows no increase in daily or sustained high temperatures in the United States since at least 2005.
And data from the National Integrated Drought Information System are similarly unalarming, showing, contra repeated assertions made by media pundits, that droughts have declined recently, with the United States undergoing its longest period in recorded history without at least 40 percent of the country experiencing “very dry” conditions. In 2017 and 2019, the United States registered its smallest percentage of land area experiencing drought in recorded history.
The U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) also reports with “high confidence” that precipitation over mid-latitude land areas of the Northern Hemisphere (including the United States) has increased during the past 70 years, while IPCC has “low confidence” about any negative trends globally.
Drought is a key contributing factor to wildfires. Thus it should surprise no one to find that records from the U.S. National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC) show that wildfires have declined in number and severity in recent decades. Data from the NIFC, tracking U.S. wildfires back as far as 1926, show the numbers of acres burned currently run about one-fourth to one-fifth of the record values that occurred in the 1930s.
Moreover, research shows massive wildfires regularly swept through California centuries ago. A 2007 paper in the journal Forest Ecology and Management notes prior to European colonization in the 1800s, more than 4.4 million acres of California forest and shrub-land burned annually, far more than the area of California that has burned since 2000, which ranges from 90,000 acres to 1,590,000 acres per year. Globally, wildfire data are just as clear. In his book, "False Alarm," Bjorn Lomborg notes that research shows:

“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 has 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.”

The heatwaves, droughts, and wildfires in the West are producing tragic results. They are destroying property and taking lives, as they do every year. However, there is no evidence that these events have become more severe or frequent in recent years, as our planet has modestly warmed.

Fact-checking the media, this means Trump is right. Science—actual data, not model projections or “expert” opinions—cannot link the current heatwave or this season’s wildfires to human-caused climate change. Anyone saying otherwise is a science denier.

H. Sterling Burnett, Ph.D., is a senior fellow on energy and the environment at The Heartland Institute, a nonpartisan, nonprofit research center headquartered in Arlington Heights, Illinois.
Views expressed in this article are opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.
Sterling Burnett, Ph.D. is a senior fellow on environmental policy at The Heartland Institute, a nonpartisan, nonprofit research center headquartered in Arlington Heights, Illinois.