Some prominent scientists are becoming increasingly restive about the shrill portrayal of global warming science in popular media. The latest round concerned a paper by A. L. Westerling (Scripps Institute of Oceanography) relating an dramatic increase in western forest fires to regional warming and changes in the onset of snowmelt.
Coloroado University’s Roger Pielke Jr., one of the nation’s preeminent scholars about how science and society interact, called it “a useful paper that adds to our knowledge and hopefully will stimulate further research on the integrated effects of climate-society-policy.” But then, he warned that “At the same time I can envisage the paper being used simply as a caricature in the global warming debate—Global Warming Causes Forest Fires!—but that would be a shame because fire policy is more complex than that.”
Well, of course, what he feared would happen, did happen. And the resultant headlines are another sad commentary on how cursory reporting on global warming has become, and how little attention is paid to the facts as they stand. Nowhere, for example, did we read Westerling’s words: “Whether the changes observed in western hydro-climate and wildfire are the result of greenhouse gas-induced global warming or only an unusual natural fluctuation, is presently unclear.”
Why so unclear? In large part, because the science isn’t straightforward, and three decades is a very short period of climate time.