Backfire: How misinformation about wildfire harms climate activism (commentary)

Backfire: How misinformation about wildfire harms climate activism (commentary)

When large wildfires in the forests of the western United States generate dramatic headlines, it can be particularly tempting for climate activists to adopt negative messages about wildfire and link them with global warming as a means of building public concern about dangers from anthropogenic climate change. While such efforts are well-intentioned, in this essay I examine how negative messages about wildfire will ultimately backfire for climate activists by inadvertently giving cover to logging schemes that are harmful to forests and the climate. There are two key aspects of the forest fire issue that makes it a particularly tricky territory for climate activists. The first is that human-caused mechanical wildfire suppression by the US Forest Service and similar agencies has caused a significant shortage of fire in forests of the western US over the past century and continuing to this day. Fire is a natural and beneficial component of western forests, just like rain is. Mixed-severity fires create great wildlife habitat and stimulate nutrient cycling that enables the long-term vitality of the forest. Thus, the anthropogenic shortage of fire is harmful to forests. In this human-altered context, an increase in fire amount from the current depressed levels actually functions as an ecological recovery for forest ecosystems. The second tricky aspect of the forest fire issue is the role of the Forest Service, the timber industry, and other logging proponents. Faced with widespread public concern over the damage from logging on national forests, in the 1990s and 2000s the Forest Service…

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