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All IPCC definitions taken from Climate Change 2007: The Physical Science Basis. Working Group I Contribution to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Annex I, Glossary, pp. 941-954. Cambridge University Press.

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Climate Change's Cause Confusion

Posted on 10 December 2020 by Guest Author

What causes climate change? And what can climate change cause? These simple questions often have complex answers, but from Australia's bushfires to burning greenhouse gases, we see that humans are playing a crucial role.

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Comments 1 to 9:

  1. How hard can it be to see that climate change doesn't cause forest fires, but makes them worse? Virtually anyone should be able to understand this. The cause confusion people have mostly looks deliberate to me. Anything to avoid confronting reality.

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  2. Per Nigel's remark, a sampling of our imperfect tracking of research output on this, from this year alone:

    • Vegetation response to wildfire and climate forcing in a Rocky Mountain lodgepole pine forest over the past 2500 years
    • Climate change significantly alters future wildfire mitigation opportunities in southeastern Australia
    • Past variance and future projections of the environmental conditions driving western U.S. summertime wildfire burn area
    • Wildfire risk science facilitates adaptation of fire-prone social-ecological systems to the new fire reality
    • Large wildfires in the western US exacerbated by tropospheric drying linked to a multi‐decadal trend in the expansion of the Hadley circulation
    • Climate change is increasing the likelihood of extreme autumn wildfire conditions across California
    • Increasing concurrence of wildfire drivers tripled megafire critical danger days in Southern California between1982 and 2018
    • Applying intersectionality to climate hazards
    • Projected Changes in Reference Evapotranspiration in California and Nevada
    • Assessing Climate Change Impacts on Live Fuel Moisture and Wildfire Risk Using a Hydrodynamic Vegetation Model
    • The Australian wildfires from a systems dependency perspective

    So yeah, climate affects wildfires. And it does seem true: if all the signals from science are "wildfire is affected by climate" yet it's a common misunderstanding that climate isn't related, there must be a reason for that. 

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  3. Doug: A lot hinges on how one defines the word, "cause" and whether one has used the adjectives "direct" and "indirect" to motify the word "cause." 

    For example, I believe a fairly good argument could be made that a California wildfire started by a bolt of lightening from a massive T-storm could have been indirectly cused by dlimate change. (All weather occurs in the ambient climate sysem.) It would be much more dificult to argue that the wildfire was directly caused by climate change. This dinstinction is, in my mind, similar to the distinction made between "primary" and "secondary" environmnetal impacts as determined in an Environmental Impact Statement say for the construciton of a new highway.

    On the other hand, I may be "over thinking" this issue. :)  

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  4. John:

    I think you have a good point.  How do we decide what is a "cause" and what is an inderect cause.

    What if a lightning strike ignites a fire in Siberia.  50 years ago that fire might burn out after 10 acres were burned.  Today the fires in Siberia are gigantic.  Was the gigantic fire caused by climate change since before the change it would not have happened at all?  The same is true in Australia, California and other locations worldwide.  The gigantic fires have no precedent.  

    It seems to me that the claim that gigantic fires are caused by climate change stands even though the initial fire was ignited by lightning (or more often ignited by humans).

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  5. The evaluation of direct or indirect 'cause' may not matter.

    The real issue is "Harm Done by human activity".

    The research appears to support the understanding that "The rapid climate change due to human actions is Increasing Harmful Results in many ways".

    And the focus on "Harm Done" can be extended to all the other "Harm Done" by fossil fuel use, especially the harm done by pursuits of wealth from fossil fuel use because, like all other business activity, "It is cheaper to get away with harmful actions. And cheaper and more profitable is more likely to be popular, increasing popular support to resist ending the profitable and popular activity"

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  6. There is an important understanding related to my comment @5.

    Regional perceptions of benefits from the rapid human induced climate change should not be allowed to be used to regionally promote rapid human induced climate change as a Good Thing.

    The Utilitarian thinking of accounting for Overall Harm and Benefits is dangerous. It can lead to harmful justifications based on perceptions that "Personal benefits, or regional benefits, or benefits for a sub-set of humanity" out-weigh and justify the "Perceptions of harm done by the actions".

    People "wanting something" can be very biased in their evaluation of the acceptability of their actions in pursuit of what they want. Like most scientists, as a professional engineer I had to learn to be constantly aware of the danger of "wanting a result" or the harmful threat of ignoring or understating the potential harm of a design result. Very few people actually have that degree of 'training'. Many people are easily impressed to believe that Their Perception of Benefit out-weighs Their Perception of Harm Done when they like or want something.

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  7. John, MS Sweet

    I recall reading some years ago that there is evidence that climate change is already leading to more lightening strikes in some places, and so essentially more forest fires. I did a quick google and found these studies here and here. So I agree you could argue climate change is a direct cause of at least some forest fires.

    Of course it might be impossible to say that a specific forest fire was started by a lightening strike that happened because  of climate change, but you could say its was xyz probability more likely to have happened due to climate change. And that climate change is causing more forest fires to occur.

    That said, most forest fires would be stared by arson or "business as usual" lightning strikes, and climate change is basically making them worse in terms of areas burned. Although warmer conditions might mean dry timber is more likely to catch fire, so I guess you could say climate change is an "indirect cause" of those fires.

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  8. The "primary" vs. "secondary" or "direct" vs "indirect" cause thing is a bit of a red herring, but people in denial will use it as an excuse to pretend that climate change is not causing Bad Things (tm). "Show me how climate change is the direct cause of (X)."

    Forest fires require three things:

    1. A source of ignition (lightning, cigarette butts, electrical sparks, etc.)
    2. A source of small, easily-ignited material (dry twigs, vegetation, duff layer on soil surface, etc.)
    3. A large source of dry material to grow the fire - trees, etc.

    The initial spark might be the "direct" cause of the fire, but changing items 2 or 3 will change the forest's fire regime.

    Although analogies are always limited, an analogy is criminal trial for arson. Two people, one of whom spread gasoline around the building, and a second that lit the match - which one is the "direct" cause of the fire?

    • "I only lit a match. That's not enough to cause a fire."
    • "I only spilled some gasoline. That wasn't the direct cause of the fire."

    I'll bet both are convicted.

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  9. As Bob Loblaw points out the debate about "exact causes - Certainty" can be a Misleading Game.

    The comments I provided @5, and 6 are part of a more fundamental understanding - Understanding that every human interaction is a Game. Game Theory is an established field of improving understanding for a reason.

    Getting drawn into a debate about “direct or indirect human induced climate change causes of harmful results” can be a misleading distraction from the development of a Common Sense Understanding of what is going on and what needs to change.

    It is important to not let a potential Harmful Cheater Frame the Game. A selfish person will try to set “Rules or Terms” based on Beliefs that are “evidence-free” misleading appealing Nonsense. A harmful selfish cheater will not be able to base their position on all of the evidence regarding what is required for humanity to develop a lasting and improving future. That improving Common Sense Understanding of what is going on and what needs to happen is well presented in the UN Human Development Report 2020 “The next frontier: Human development and the Anthropocene” (the UNDP HDRs have been written annually since 1990). Any Game Play that involves misleading Nonsense interferes with the ability of humanity to achieve a Common Sense evidence-based understanding of how to reduce harm being done and improve helpfulness to Others (especially helping, not harming, the future generations).

    Keep the axiom “Cheaters Never Prosper” in mind at all times. It is a bit misleading, and exposes the risks of trying to be brief. Language is the basis for understanding. And some people try to claim that the potential diversity of interpretation of language makes everything ever communicated a misunderstanding. They claim everyone’s developed understanding is equally valid – essentially claiming there can be no such thing as Common Sense Understanding. That is Nonsense except for the Understanding that Harmful Selfish Believers of Nonsense will have a hard time acquiring a Common Sense Understanding of what is going on. They have to give up their developed (indoctrinated) passionately held Nonsense Beliefs in order to get to Common Sense Understanding of what is really going on.

    Back to “Cheaters Never Prosper”. It states a Certainty that does not accurately represent reality (and some people really like Certainty – even if it is Nonsense). Cheaters actually can and do Prosper to the detriment of Others. The declaration uses brevity and appeals to emotion in its incorrect claim making. It sounds Right – somehow Harmful Cheaters are always stopped (nothing for the average person to try to do anything about – an Invisible Hand will take care of it – or some helpful Others will try to clean up the mess). And an incorrect extension of that belief is that “Good Results will develop if People are Freer to compete for status doing as they please based on what they choose to believe, with less external interference (Less External Governing, less effort to “educate”). The HDR 2020 clarifies that Free Agency of all humans to pursue their interests in helpful harmless ways is the responsible freedom that is required. And it requires that “Harmful Cheaters do not Prosper”, which is an effort that everyone everywhere has a responsibility and ability to participate in at all times into the future.

    Back again to “Cheaters Never Prosper”. It is harmful because it is a potential distraction from the truer statement which is “Harmful Cheaters Should Not Be Allowed Proper”. That statement represents the reality that harmful cheaters can and do prosper, but should not be allowed to. The clarified longer statement also aligns with “improving the ability of humanity to achieve a Common Sense evidence-based understanding of how to end harm being done and improve helpfulness”.

    A lasting and improving future for humanity can be developed. But it requires that harmful selfish people not be allowed to Frame The Game of Discussing what is important. Language can be messy. Take the extra time to reflect on whether the discussion being entered into is Framed in a Helpful way. Discussions of the minutia of a global issue like the future of humanity need to always keep the over-all objective of reducing harm and increasing helpfulness in mind – to help achieve the ideal of “Cheaters Never Prosper”.

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