California wildfires have been in the news in recent weeks. As I noted Thursday, the Golden State is experiencing one of the worst fire seasons in recent memory.
Newly updated figures from the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection show there have been nearly 8,000 wildfires that have burned more than 3.4 million acres in California. Since August 15, when the state’s fire activity elevated sharply, there have been 25 fatalities and some 5,400 structures destroyed.
Despite widespread news coverage, some have argued many do not appreciate the historic severity of the blazes.
“There are two dozen fires burning right now that singularly would have been the top story on the national news 10 or 20 years ago,” Daniel Swain, a climate scientist at UCLA and the National Center for Atmospheric Research, told Robinson Meyer.
Meyer, a staff writer at The Atlantic who covers climate change and technology, says California has already experienced its worst fire season in state history.
In the past few months, one in every 33 acres of California has burned. This year is already the most destructive wildfire season, in terms of acreage affected, in state history. In 2018, during California’s last annus horribilis, I noted that six of the 10 largest wildfires in state history had happened since 2008. That list has since been completely rewritten. Today, six of California’s 10 largest wildfires have happened since 2018—and five of them have happened this year.
Writing at The Week, Damon Linker proclaimed that the fires represent the dawn of an apocalypse. Linker cites Meyers and an unnamed friend in Oregon who said he’s never seen anything like the recent blazes.
“We’ve always had fires in the West, but never like this. We’re choking on smoke and ash. It’s happening this year, it happened two years ago, and it happened two years before that. It never once happened before during my lifetime,” Linker’s middle-aged friend says. “This is definitely a new pattern. And I never heard the phrase ‘fire season’ until a couple of years ago. It certainly wasn’t a thing when I was a kid. I never even saw smoke from a wildfire until I was in my 30s.”
Annie Lowrey, in an article titled “The U.S. Is on the Path to Destruction,” was even more vivid.
“Fires in California and Oregon are incinerating homes, businesses, schools, power lines, and roads,” Lowrey wrote in The Atlantic’s top story on Friday. “Climate hell is here. We cannot stand it. And we cannot afford it either.”
With all due respect to the Cassandras preaching apocalypse and hell on earth, there are two points worth mentioning.
First, as I explained recently, there is widespread agreement that California’s megafires stem largely from decades-long mismanagement of its forests. As The New York Times explainedearlier this month, for more than a century, many firefighting agencies have aggressively focused on extinguishing blazes whenever they occur, a strategy that has often proved counterproductive.
Other parts of the US have shown, the paper said, that less aggressive extinguishing of natural fires and targeted prescribed burning are effective at periodically clearing excess vegetation in forests and grasslands, which essentially serve as the fuel of California’s wildfires.
“The first step is to acknowledge that fire is inevitable, and we have to learn to live with it,” David McWethy, a fire scientist at Montana State University, told the paper.
California has spent decades aggressively preventing fire from doing its natural work, which has made it a virtual tinderbox.
To his credit, Linker at least mentions that “Yes, poor forest management is playing a role” in California’s hot season. But there is a troubling tendency to simply blame the apocalyptic blazes on climate change.
As I pointed out, it’s not unreasonable to assume that both poor land management and California’s high temperatures and arid climate have played a role in the fires. But California is not the only place in America that experiences high temps and dry weather.
Texas actually has more forest and higher temperatures than California, but the Lone Star state rarely struggles with fires, perhaps because 95 percent of its land mass is privately owned and these owners act as responsible stewards of the land.
If climate change was truly the primary culprit of the wildfires, wouldn’t it stand to reason other parts of the US would be suffering similar results? Are there reasons climate change impacts California more than Texas and the Southeast US?This brings me to my second point. There’s a perception that today’s fires are historically unprecedented.
“Even though the U.S. is only halfway through wildfire season, this year is one of the worst in history,” CNBC reported Friday. “Human-caused climate change has made blazes more frequent and intense, especially during extreme heat waves and drought conditions.”
But, the claim that 2020 is one of the worst in US history is simply not true.
A news story making such a claim might start by telling readers how many acres of land have burned in the record-setting year. CNBC doesn’t. One also sees a second problem: most of its charts don’t include information prior to 1990.
Fortunately, data from the National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC) offer some answers. So far in 2020, the US has experienced 42,809 total fires that burned a total of 7,015,956. These numbers are indeed above the ten-year average—45,711 fires and 5,963,782 acres. However, 2020 is unlikely to exceed the number of fires or acreage burned just three years ago in 2017.
Many will argue that 2017 was one of the worst fire seasons in US history, a claim that was reported numerous times during the fires season. But Bjorn Lomborg pointed out these claims were also not true.
The New York Times, without announcement or explanation, has abandoned the central claim of the 1619 Project: that 1619, the year the first slaves were brought to Colonial Virginia—and not 1776—was the “true founding” of the United States.
The initial introduction to the Project, when it was rolled out in August 2019, stated that
The 1619 Project is a major initiative from the New York Times observing the 400th anniversary of the beginning of American slavery. It aims to reframe the country’s history, understanding 1619 as our true founding, and placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of black Americans at the very center of the story we tell ourselves about who we are.
The revised text now reads:
The 1619 Project is an ongoing initiative from The New York Times Magazine that began in August 2019, the 400th anniversary of the beginning of American slavery. It aims to reframe the country’s history by placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of black Americans at the very center of our national narrative.
A similar change was made from the print version of the 1619 Project, which has been sent out to millions of school children in all 50 states. The original version read:
In August of 1619, a ship appeared on this horizon, near Point Comfort, a coastal port in the British colony of Virginia. It carried more than 20 enslaved Africans, who were sold to the colonists. America was not yet America, but this was the moment it began. No aspect of the country that would be formed here has been untouched by the 250 years of slavery that followed.
The website version has deleted the key claim. It now reads:
In August of 1619, a ship appeared on this horizon, near Point Comfort, a coastal port in the English colony of Virginia. It carried more than 20 enslaved Africans, who were sold to the colonists. No aspect of the country that would be formed here has been untouched by the years of slavery that followed.
It is not entirely clear when the Times deleted its “true founding” claim, but an examination of old cached versions of the 1619 Project text indicates that it probably took place on December 18, 2019.
These deletions are not mere wording changes. The “true founding” claim was the core element of the Project’s assertion that all of American history is rooted in and defined by white racial hatred of blacks. According to this narrative, trumpeted by Project creator Nikole Hannah-Jones, the American Revolution was a preemptive racial counterrevolution waged by white people in North America to defend slavery against British plans to abolish it. The fact that there is no historical evidence to support this claim did not deter the Times and Hannah-Jones from declaring that the historical identification of 1776 with the creation of a new nation is a myth, as is the claim that the Civil War was a progressive struggle aimed at the destruction of slavery. According to the New York Times and Hannah-Jones, the fight against slavery and all forms of oppression were struggles that black Americans always waged alone.
The Times’ “disappearing,” with a few secret keystrokes, of its central argument, without any explanation or announcement, is a stunning act of intellectual dishonesty and outright fraud. When it launched the 1619 Project in August 2019, the Times proclaimed that its aim was to radically change what and how students were taught about American history. With the aim of creating a new syllabus based on the 1619 Project, hundreds of thousands of copies of the original version of the narrative, as published in the New York Times Magazine, were printed and distributed to schools, museums and libraries all across the United States. A very large number of schools declared that they would align their curricula in accordance with the narrative supplied by the Times.
“Things do not happen. Things are made to happen.”John F. Kennedy
The statement is wrong on a number of levels. There is no question the Constitution did not end our deeply shameful history of slavery. However, even with the Declaration of Independence figures like John Adams and Thomas Jefferson sought to address slavery. The decision was made to accommodate slave states to secure the Declaration. The same political calculus was behind the infamous the Three-Fifths Compromise found in Article 1, Section 2, Clause 3 of the United States Constitution.
Thus, the Constitution did indeed perpetuate and protect the institution of slavery with its inherent white supremacy values. However, that was not the “design” of the Constitution. The Three-Fifths Compromise was a fight over representation and taxation. The decision to leave slavery unaddressed was based on the same political expediency. It was wrong. It is no excuse to secure the independence of most citizens at the cost of leaving enslaved others. It was and remains the original sin of our nation. The design of our Constitution should have guaranteed freedom from all men and women.
Yet, the actual design of the Constitution was the Madisonian vision of shared and limited government. It was founded on the philosophical work of figures ranging from John Locke to Montesquieu. The assertion that the design was to perpetuate slavery is revisionist and wrong.