On Wednesday, as much of the northeastern U.S. was blanketed for a second day by thick, highly hazardous smoke from wildfires raging in Canada, HuffPost asked Sen. Tommy Tuberville (R-Ala.) whether he sees a link between the hazy air and the overwhelming body of science that shows global climate change is helping give rise to extreme fire.
“We’ve had fires for all of our life, come on,” Tuberville scoffed. “We’re all for environment, but this is just another situation where you’ve gotta do your work in forests. I mean, you just can’t let it grow up. It’s unfortunate that this is happening. It too shall pass.”
It is true that many U.S. forests are overgrown and susceptible to devastating blazes, in large part due to decades of fire suppression and Smokey Bear’s anti-fire messaging. But it’s absurd to suggest that solving the current wildfire problem is as simple as preventing trees from growing old. In fact, mature and old-growth forests are more resilient to fire, and they sequester massive amounts of planet-warming carbon.
Tuberville wasn’t the only Republican to use the historic smoke event — a rare phenomenon in cities like New York — to peddle pro-logging talking points while doing somersaults to ignore or downplay the climate change link.
At a Senate GOP press conference Wednesday in Washington, D.C., Sen. Steve Daines (R-Mont.) said East Coasters are getting a taste of the smoky summers that have become the norm out West.
“This is what happens when you have more lawyers in your forests crawling around versus loggers, and when your forests aren’t managed properly,” he said, referring to environmental groups that have sued to block timber projects. “Washington bureaucrats and the court system in this country continue to give us policies that can result in air quality like this.”
U.S. forest policy has no bearing on the current smoke crisis, which is the result of hundreds of early-season fires in neighboring Canada. Those blazes, which Canadian officials have called “unprecedented,” follow a prolonged heat wave in May that shattered multiple temperature records.
In a post to Twitter, London-based meteorologist Scott Duncan noted that Canada was “at the epicenter of the most significant heat anomaly on the planet” last month.
Daines, of course, made no mention of climate change in his comments.
“The bottom line is this: We either better manage our forests, or our forests manage us,” he said.
The same can be said of runaway greenhouse gas emissions, which are driving up global temperatures and compounding the kind of extreme heat waves and drought events that set the stage for more wildfire activity. Wildfires are forecast to become increasingly severe as climate change worsens.
Another Montana Republican, Rep. Ryan Zinke, who led the federal Interior Department during the Trump administration, also took the opportunity to pound the pro-logging drum, prompted by a tweet in which Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) scolded Republicans.
“Imagine being a Republican climate change denier in Congress ― you show up to work at the Capitol today, see the skies filled with smoke… and you still don’t get that we need bold and immediate action to save our planet?” she wrote Wednesday. “Ridiculous.”
Zinke, who has a long history of downplaying climate science and dismissing the link between climate change and wildfires, denounced Jayapal as a “radical extremist” — one of his favorite labels for environmentalists and anyone who opposes increased logging and thinning of forests.
“Imagine being a radical extremist with a baseless agenda who blocks common sense forest management practices and makes the West live in a shadow of smoke for months out of the year because of it,” Zinke tweeted. “Ridiculous.”
Zinke doubled down on his stance Thursday, tweeting: “I have zero sympathy for D.C. politicians dealing with smoke. If liberals won’t allow us to manage forests, they should deal with the consequences just like we have to in the West.”
Wildfire is complex, and warrants a nuanced discussion. Numerous factors are contributing to increased fire activity in North America and abroad, from climate change-heightened heat waves and drought to forest mismanagement and fire exclusion policies that have left woodlands choked with dangerous amounts of vegetation.
But if this week’s debilitating smoke plumes have highlighted one thing other than the growing risk of fire in a warming world, it’s that Republicans view logging and thinning as the only solution to the problem — and the only thing worth discussing.
“There’s little question that Canada needs to obviously focus on forest management,” Rep. Marc Molinaro (R-N.Y.) told “Fox & Friends” on Thursday morning. “But this isn’t the moment to start lecturing people about the science of climate change.”
No matter how many times Republicans may say it, the truth is that wildfire will never be fixed with chainsaws and logging equipment.
“We’ll never thin our way out of this mess,” Matthew Hurteau, a forest ecologist at the University of New Mexico, tweeted late last year. “We need to make an investment in restoring fire to our forests and part of that investment includes fixing a broken system that rewards suppression and penalizes science-informed management.”
Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii), a leading climate hawk in Congress, sighed loudly when asked about his GOP colleagues refusing to acknowledge the role climate change plays in exacerbating wildfires.
“These are the people who — as wildfires increase as storms and flooding increase as severe weather costs everybody money and makes it difficult to breathe — will stand on an ash heap thirty years from now and still pretend it was something other than climate change,” Schatz told HuffPost.
“So the question is not whether we can cut a deal with these people to do more climate action,” he added, “the question is how do we improve the composition of the Congress so we can ignore these maniacs and meet this planetary emergency with the urgency it requires.”