Journalists, experts, and elected officials are today blaming heat wave deaths, forest fires, and electricity shortages in New York, California, and Texas on climate change, but the underlying cause of those events is lack of air conditioning, lack of electricity, and the failure to properly manage forests, not marginal changes to temperatures.
It’s true that there have been more heat waves in the United States since 1960, and that higher temperatures dry out the dead wood in forests, contributing to a greater area burned by forest fires. “Climate dries the [wood] fuels out and extends the fire season from 4-6 months to nearly year-round,” US Forest Service scientist Malcolm North explained to me last summer.
But what determines whether people die in heat waves is whether or not they have air conditioning, not whether temperatures rose to 111° instead of 109°. Proof of that comes from the fact that heat-related deaths declined in the US by 50% to 75% since 1960 thanks entirely to air conditioning, even as heat waves grew in frequency, intensity, and length.
What determines whether a fire in a forest is high-intensity or low-intensity is the amount of wood fuel. Climate change is “not the cause of the intensity of the [mountain forest] fires,” stressed North. “The cause of that is fire suppression and the existing debt of wood fuel.”
And what determines whether or not there is enough electricity is whether there are sufficient “baseload,” reliable power plants and fuels, not marginally higher use of air conditioners. The people who manage electricity grids knew perfectly well that it could be hot last summer, hot this summer, and that a cold snap like the one that occurred in Texas in February was likely, since worse cold snaps had occurred in the past.
The main reason there aren’t enough reliable power plants is because progressive activists, scientists, and journalists successfully persuaded policymakers to shut them down, not build them, or not operate them.
And the reason California has failed to properly manage its forests is because, for decades, its leaders underinvested in fire prevention, including by diverting money that the state’s electric utilities could and should have spent on clearing the area around electrical lines, to renewables.
The War on Cheap Energy, Air Conditioning, and Forest Management
In the fall of 2018, President Donald Trump was widely ridiculed for claiming that the high-intensity fires that were burning through California’s forests could be prevented by “raking” the forest floor. Many scientists, journalists, and politicians said Trump was engaged in science denial, consistent with his previously stated skepticism of climate change.
But Trump was right that better forest management would have prevented California’s high-intensity fires. Proof came last summer when a high-intensity fire arrived at a well-managed forest. Instead of continuing to burn the tree crowns, the fire dropped to the forest floor. The reason was because woody debris on the forest floor had been mechanically cleared (“raked”) or burned off, and so the fire didn’t burn as hot or high.
In 2019 and 2020, as California Governor Gavin Newsom was attacking Trump and Republicans as climate deniers, he was actually cutting the budget for forest fire prevention, according to an investigation by the Sacramento bureau of National Public Radio (NPR). The result was a halving of the area treated for fire by Cal-Fire.
It’s hard not to conclude that Newsom was stoking partisanship and climate alarmism to distract from his counterproductive actions. After all, it worked. Where journalists at even progressive publications, like Mother Jones, had previously acknowledged that poor forest management was the cause of the high-intensity fires, the news media last summer inaccurately blamed climate change.
A similar dynamic has been underway on air conditioning. Hundreds of people have died in North America over the last few days from lack of air conditioning. But for years activist analysts, scientists, and journalists have claimed we have too much of it. “The World Wants Air-Conditioning,” warned the New York Times in 2018, “That Could Warm the World.”
Earlier this year, the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) published a report arguing that “skyrocketing cooling demand in India may also worsen the country’s health risks from dangerous air pollution, extreme heat, and climate change.”
At no point in its report did NRDC mention the inconvenient fact that air conditioning had slashed heat-related deaths in the US and other nations, and that it would also do so in India.
The main way NRDC and other environmental groups seek to slow the spread and use of air conditioning is by making electricity more expensive, either directly, through energy taxes or carbon taxes, or indirectly, through regulations or subsidies for the use of renewables.
There is resistance. In 2015, an Indian economist generated headlines after calling for more air conditioning, a view which is considered radical in India, where environmentalists hold great sway. “AC is not a luxury in Kolkata,” said Dr. Joyashree Roy, who was lead author of a 2018 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report. “People suffer from heat stress. The only solution is to air condition workplaces.”
But environmentalists and journalists pushed back. “Installing air conditioning to combat climate change is bizarre,” said one activist in response to Roy. Others, funded by developed nation donors, insisted that India’s heat deaths meant India should rely more heavily upon weather-dependent renewables.
But New York, California, and Texas stand as warnings. Those states invested hundreds of billions of ratepayer, investor, and taxpayer money into weather dependent renewables, and under-invested, or closed outright, reliable sources of energy, like nuclear and natural gas plants.
The result, from California to Germany to Texas, was significant increases to consumer electricity prices. And higher electricity prices mean, especially in a poor nation like India, less air conditioning.
And weather-dependent energy sources proved uniquely ill-suited to power societies during extreme weather events, as New York City’s current electricity shortage, last summer’s blackouts in California, and this year’s cold snap in Texas, dramatically illustrated.
Last year, California’s renewables could not produce sufficient power during hours of peak demand, 5 p.m. to 10 p.m., because that’s when the sun sets. And the heat wave was in part a result of lack of wind. The California grid operator warned public regulators that solar panels and wind turbines wouldn’t be enough, but they ignored him, resulting in blackouts.
The New York grid operator similarly warned regulators that the “state would have to retain all of its nuclear plants, including Indian Point, to avoid blackouts,” noted Jonathan Lesser in the New York Post, in April of this year.
It was a similar story in Texas in February. Nuclear plants produced 73% while wind turbines produced 2% of their potential output during the worst hour of shortage. Batteries and so-called “peaker plants,” like diesel or gas generators, were not substitutes for large, reliable baseload plants.
Not only are batteries prohibitively expensive, they are only useful if already charged. Over a heat wave or cold snap, they are quickly drained and can’t be recharged if there are energy shortages.
While regulators, moderate Democrats, Republicans, electric utilities, and energy companies in each of those states went along with, and sometimes profited from, moving from reliable to unreliable energy sources, it was progressives who drove the agenda forward.
The result can be seen in New York City. Mayor Bill de Blasio yesterday said people needed to “immediately, immediately reduce the use of electricity in your home.” That’s dangerous because New Yorkers need air conditioning, as the last few days remind us, to survive.
The reason for the electricity shortage in New York wasn’t unanticipated demand but rather the planned shortage of supply. Powerful progressive NGOs like NRDC, along with progressive politicians, including Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, successfully opposed the construction and operation of new nuclear plants, and demanded the premature closure of an existing one, Indian Point.
In September, 2019, climate activist Greta Thunberg condemned “fairy tales of eternal economic growth,” but economic growth is necessary for reliable electricity, air conditioning, and healthy forests.
To a large extent, the apocalyptic claims made about climate change by people in developed nations reflect their ignorance of the infrastructure and practices that protect us, from flood control to baseload power plants to forest management. They take civilization for granted — at least, that is, until it fails, as it is increasingly starting to do.
But it is notable that many of the same journalists, scientists, and activists who blame climate change for natural disasters also oppose the systems, technologies, and practices required to adapt to them. Many even, like Thunberg, oppose economic growth.
Is it a coincidence that the same people who blame heat wave deaths on climate change oppose air conditioning? Is it a coincidence that the same people who blame forest fires on climate change cut the budget for forest management? Is it a coincidence that the people who deny the need for cheap and reliable energy sources, and better forest management, accuse those who disagree of denying climate change?
While we like to imagine that we, and others, are motivated by reason and scientific evidence, decades of psychological experiments show that our reasoning is motivated by preexisting and largely unconscious belief systems.
Today, the dominant belief system of educated elites in developed nations is apocalyptic environmentalism, which holds that modern human civilization is unsustainable and will come to a fiery end unless we harmonize with nature.
Apocalyptic environmentalists may be right that human civilization is unsustainable. But if they are, it won’t be because we can’t generate cheap and reliable electricity, manage our forests, or adapt to climate change. Rather, if human civilization turns out to be unsustainable, it will be because apocalyptic environmentalists didn’t want it to be.