Just when it seemed that the Trump administration had rolled out every nonsensical thing that could be said and done in response to the extreme wildfires raging in California, Thursday happened.
It was a dizzying display of misinformation and climate change denialism ― of what happens when ideology trumps science.
Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke was up early for a chat with his good friends at Fox Business. Most of the 6-minute interview was what one might have come to expect after the last week: Zinke blasted “radical” environmental groups and called for better forest management. But halfway through the segment, host Neil Cavuto posed a question.
“Do you believe climate change is real and that man is the cause?” he asked.
“There’s no dispute that the climate is changing, although it has always changed,” Zinke said. “Whether man is the direct result, how much that result is, that’s still being disputed.” In the case of fires, Zinke added, “it’s clear” that “temperatures are higher, the season’s longer.”
To be clear, the vast majority of climate scientists — roughly 97 percent — agree that climate change is real and that human activity is the primary cause. Scientific research has also shown that climate change is contributing to the extreme fires raging across the West.
Whether or not climate change is helping drive extreme wildfire, Zinke told Cavuto, is “irrelevant to what’s occurred.” To emphasize his point, Zinke noted the more than 120 million dead trees in California. What he didn’t mention, of course, is that the trees died because of a years-long drought that scientists have concluded was made worse by anthropogenic climate change.
A few hours after his interview with Fox, CBS News correspondent Weijia Jiang asked Zinke outside the White House if climate change is a factor in the California fires. “Of course,” he said, a response that stood in stark contrast to comments he made during his weekend trip to fire-scorched California.
“I’ve heard the climate change argument back and forth. This has nothing to do with climate change,” he told KCRA-TV in Sacramento over the weekend. “This has to do with active forest management.”
A Thursday headline from Bloomberg read “Zinke Blames Climate Change, Lax Forest Management for Wildfires.” But acknowledging that climate change might be playing a role in devastating wildfires is not the same as accepting that human activity ― the burning of fossil fuels ― is driving global climate change. And Zinke’s newfound belief that climate change is part of the wildfire problem came only after several days of intense criticism.
Also on Thursday, the U.S. Forest Service unveiled a new policy to partner with states in an effort to combat catastrophic wildfires ― a move that was celebrated by both Republican and Democratic lawmakers. At a press conference announcing the new strategy, Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue dodged questions about his personal beliefs about climate change and wildfire.
“A lot of people, when you talk about climate change, they want to talk about what the causes are,” Purdue said. “What we’re trying to talk about is the impact.”
Perdue said the United States has gone through several “cycles of climate change” and is “in a warmer cycle now.”
“So the fact is, what are we doing about that?” he asked. “And the solutions are the same. If you want to debate the cause, you can do that. We’re about focusing on what we can do today in order to mitigate the impact of longer fire seasons, hotter fires, drier conditions in that way. And that’s what this is really all about.”
In other words, Purdue’s apparent stance ― like Zinke’s ― is that the cause of climate change is up for debate and irrelevant to the discussion.
By Thursday afternoon, President Donald Trump chimed in. At a Cabinet meeting, the president “complimented Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke for saying the California fires are ‘not a global warming thing,’” reported Daniel Dale, a correspondent for the Toronto Star, reported.
The administration appears to be using the disaster in California as an opportunity to push partisan policy, as HuffPost previously reported. Trump and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross have attempted to connect devastating California wildfires to a longstanding fight between farmers and environmentalists over water resources.
California fire officials dismissed Trump’s claim last week that the fires have been exacerbated by a water shortage resulting from “bad environmental laws.” As Scott McLean, deputy chief of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, told HuffPost: “It is our changing climate that is leading to more severe and destructive fires.”
Nevertheless, Ross issued a directive that prioritizes water for fighting wildland fires over protecting endangered species, without offering a shred of evidence to show that firefighters actually need that additional water.
As if trying to prove that the water order has nothing to do with wildfire, Trump repeated his false claim at Thursday’s Cabinet meeting.
“We’re spending a fortune in California because of poor maintenance and because, frankly, they’re sending a lot of water out to the Pacific to protect the smelt,” he said, referring to the Delta smelt, an imperiled species of fish.
“And, by the way, it’s not working.”
Trump has offered no condolences to the victims and no thanks to the firefighters for their efforts this summer.