Devastating wildfires out West inject climate change into the presidential campaign

By Seung Min Kim and ,

Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden excoriated President Trump on Monday over his environmental record as wildfires continued to burn through much of the West and as the president used a trip to California to cast doubt on the scientific consensus that climate change is a leading cause of the devastating blazes.

Biden said during a speech in Wilmington, Del., that the “undeniable, accelerating, punishing reality” of global warming was playing out in the wildfires and hurricanes that have marked the end of summer, arguing it is a problem that “requires action, not denial.”

Across the country in California, Trump sought to pin the blame for the fires on another culprit — forest management — while shrugging off warnings that human-caused climate warming will continue to make western states a tinderbox with annual fires that destroy communities.

“It will start getting cooler. Just you watch,” he said during a briefing with state and local leaders in McClellan Park, Calif.

The dueling appearances injected the issue of climate change squarely into a presidential campaign that has been dominated by the coronavirus pandemic, a faltering economy, racial justice protests and questions about which candidate has the character to lead. But the warming of the planet and its impact on daily life is now difficult to ignore with millions of acres burning in California, Oregon and Washington state, leading to dozens of deaths, tens of thousands displaced and skies filled with a smoky, dangerous haze that blocks out the sun.

Biden called Trump a “climate arsonist” who had belittled the factors worsening the wildfires and likened the president’s stewardship of natural disasters to his handling of the pandemic and racial tensions across the country that flared this summer following police shootings of black men.

“Donald Trump’s climate denial may not have caused these fires and record floods and record hurricanes,” Biden said Monday. “But if he gets a second term, these hellish events will continue to become more common, more devastating and more deadly.”

While heavily criticizing the president for his lack of vision, Biden stuck to promoting climate change policies with wide support and avoided addressing politically thorny topics like the “Green New Deal” many liberal activists have demanded.

[How Joe Biden’s surprisingly ambitious climate plan came together]

Not long after Biden’s remarks in Delaware, California leaders focused on climate change during their briefing with Trump. Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) made it clear he wasn’t seeking a confrontation with the president on the topic but that “we come from a perspective humbly where we submit the science and an observed evidence itself is self evident that climate change is real and that is exacerbating this.”

Wade Crowfoot, the secretary of the state’s Natural Resources Agency, pushed the issue more aggressively after the president dismissed concerns that temperatures were on the rise, telling Trump: “I wish science agreed with you.”

The president responded: “Well, I don’t think science knows, actually.”

Trump’s assertion ran contrary to the scientific consensus that human-caused climate change has undoubtedly made the West hotter and dryer, enabling more fires to behave in extreme, unpredictable ways.

Warming temperatures dried out vegetation during a record-shattering heat wave — the second since mid-August. Recent blazes exploded in size during an outbreak of strong winds that simultaneously hit the Cascades, Sierras and coastal mountain ranges. Gusts pushed flames down canyons, through campgrounds, past highways and into neighborhoods.

Studies have documented an increase in acres burned in large fires across the West due to global warming, and projections show that the region is trending toward hotter and drier conditions that leave the region more susceptible to large blazes.

[Two major Antarctic glaciers are tearing loose from their restraints, scientists say]

But the dismissal was consistent with a president who has called climate change a “hoax.”

Trump has also continued to solely blame mismanaged forests in the Western states for the intensifying wildfires. He claimed Monday that he spoke to a foreign leader — whom he did not name — who insisted to Trump that his or her country “have trees that are far more explosive than they have in California and we don’t have that problem.”

“When trees fall down after a short period of time they become very dry — really like a matchstick … and they can explode. Also leaves,” Trump told reporters when he landed in California. “When you have dried leaves on the ground, it’s just fuel for the fires.”

Indeed, the management — or mismanagement — of forests across California and elsewhere have resulted in massive amounts of fuel on the ground that has only intensified and deepened the reach of the wildfires. And the ever-encroaching community developments, more and more neighborhoods have been built on fire-prone land, certainly have played a role in the current devastation.

But fire ecologists say no amount of “clearing” in the forests could have prevented this year’s disasters. In many cases, research shows, management practices such as salvage logging actually exacerbate fire susceptibility.

Tim Ingalsbee, a retired wildland firefighter and certified fire ecologist, pointed to the Holiday Farm Fire, a blaze near his home in Eugene, Oregon that has burned through thousands of acres of an industrial tree plantation. “This area has experienced the maximum timber management possible,” he said. “And has made these lands even more flammable than the native forests.”

[Warmer. Burning. Epidemic-challenged. Expensive. The California Dream has become the California Compromise]

Newsom told the president that state officials “have not done justice on our forest management.” The California governor also noted to Trump that 56 percent of the land in California is owned by the federal government, which bears a major responsibility in keeping the forests cleared.

The wildfires unfolding in the West are what climate scientists call a compound disaster, in which more than one extreme event takes place at the same time across a varied geography. While researchers have warned that compound disasters are an inevitable result of climate change, few would have predicted the spate of simultaneously burning, rapidly expanding fires spanning the entire West Coast to happen so soon.

“Everything we didn’t do in the past is now coming due in the present,” said Char Miller, professor of environmental analysis and history at Pomona College, east of Los Angeles.

Trump — who rarely hesitates to weigh in on the topic du jour — had stayed mum about the wildfires until a tweet last Friday. Asked in Sacramento why it took him three weeks to visit California, Trump dismissed it as a “nasty question” and said he promptly issued a disaster declaration for the state.

On Monday, Biden vowed to meet the threat of climate change aggressively as president, through setting new fuel efficiency standards, spurring more electric vehicle use, and creating a climate corps to make the country less vulnerable to wildfires and floods.

Earlier this summer, Biden rolled out a $2 trillion plan that treats climate change as one of the central threats facing the nation. It would include eliminating carbon pollution from the electric sector by 2035, rejoining the Paris climate accord, making huge investments in renewable energy and creating incentives for more energy-efficient cars, homes and commercial buildings.

In contrast, the Trump administration has aggressively rolled back scores of key environmental regulations, including weakening federal fuel efficiency standards for the nation’s automobiles and easing curbs on emissions from the nation’s power plants. The administration has overhauled a bedrock law meant to give ordinary people a say in projects that threaten to pollute their neighborhoods. It has sought to expand offshore drilling, as well as oil and gas exploration in previously off-limits places such as the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

His administration also recently tapped an academic who has long questioned the scientific consensus on global warming to help run the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the agency that produces much of the climate research funded by the U.S. government.

[NOAA taps David Legates, professor who questions the seriousness and severity of global warming, for top role]

Even as the president has referred to himself as a “great environmentalist,” he has rejected growing calls to act on the economic and security threats posed by a warming climate. He has promoted the fossil fuel industry, criticized renewable technologies such as wind power and vowed later this year to withdraw the United States from an international effort to cut greenhouse gases that fuel global warming.

Lawmakers from the states hit hardest by the fires have pressed the administration for swift emergency disaster declarations to free up federal funds that have been approved by the White House, although aides said Congress will likely make more specific requests once the scope of the damage becomes more clear.

There is no immediate need for funding action from the Hill, according to congressional aides, because federal disaster relief fund has sufficient funding and will be automatically replenished in a stopgap government funding resolution that has to pass before the end of this month.

“In the past, this White House has been certainly willing to use emergency funds to carry out their agenda,” said Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.). “I hope that won’t be the case now.”

Erica Werner, Karoun Demirjian and Sarah Kaplan in Washington and Sean Sullivan in Wilmington, Del., contributed to this report.

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