By Linnea Lueken
A Google search for ‘climate change’ brought up a variety of articles from mainstream news sources, including The Hill and The Conversation, reporting on research that claims climate change has caused an increase in severe wildfires which are causing severe psychological trauma. This is not only false; it is a cynical attempt to politicize real psychological trauma by linking it to climate change.
This undercuts efforts to alleviate the psychological suffering some people have experienced as an effect of wildfires, by misidentifying the root causes of the wildfires themselves. There has been no substantial increase in forest fires due to climate change, nor have natural disasters at large become more common or damaging.
The Conversation article, “Climate change trauma has real impacts on cognition and the brain, wildfire survivors study shows,” is written by Jyoti Mishra, an associate professor of psychiatry at the University of California, San Diego, who is one of the co-authors of the study cited in her article. In the article, Mishra describes her and her colleagues’ research, examining mental trauma in individuals who survived or witnessed deadly wildfires in recent years.
Climate change is increasingly affecting people around the world, including through extreme heat, storm damage and life-threatening events like wildfires. In previous research, colleagues and I showed that in the aftermath of the 2018 fire that destroyed the town of Paradise, California, chronic symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), anxiety and depression were highly prevalent in the affected communities more than six months after the disaster.
The problem with Mishra and her team’s analysis is that hard data refutes claims climate change is causing more, or more intense, extreme weather events, and if it isn’t causing more extreme weather events, it also can’t be causing PTSD or other psychological problems stemming from extreme weather.
Climate change has not caused an increase in wildfires. As Climate Realism has shown previously, here, here, and here, for example, amid increasing amounts of CO2 in the atmosphere, there is no visible influence on global wildfire area burned over the same time period, seen in Figure 1 below. Scientists reported in a study published in the peer-reviewed Journal of Geophysical Research, analyzing global wildfires back to the year 1901, “a notable declining rate of burned area globally.” In addition, NASA satellites have documented a global long-term decline in wildfires. NASA reports satellites have measured a 25-percent decrease in global lands burned since 2003.
Figure 1: Graphically combined figures for CO2 and Wildfire burned area, with numerical values of yearly CO2 concentrations for 1982 and 2018 added at those years. Combination and scale matching by Anthony Watts, source for CO2 data is here: https://gml.noaa.gov/webdata/ccgg/trends/co2/co2_annmean_mlo.txt
These are an objective scientific facts. Additionally, the worst wildfire instances in the United States, at least, were in the 1930s. Recent upticks in uncontrolled fires in Western states like California, Washington, and Oregon, are most likely due to decades of poor forest management. State and federal governments have refused to take an active role in removing dry underbrush and dead trees for almost 40 years now, as explained in a Climate Realism articles, here and here. leading to a dangerously high fuel load which can easily light in the right conditions.
Mishra asserts that climate change is “fueling more disasters,” and harming more people worldwide, necessitating additional mental health research. The data on the impacts of natural disasters, however, shows no such trend.
In the Climate Realism post, “New York Federal Reserve Bank Confirms Weather Disasters Aren’t Necessarily Disastrous for Banks,” H. Sterling Burnett, Director of the Arthur B. Robinson Center on Climate and Environmental Policy, shows that weather and climate disasters have no substantial trend, or possibly a declining trend of relative cost, over time.
Burnett points out:
However, increasing numbers of people are moving into harm’s way each year. More people are choosing to follow their dreams and live near coasts, which are prone to hurricanes, rising seas, and land subsidence; rivers, which are prone to flooding; and forests and mountains, which are prone to wildfires. And these growing populations are developing more expensive properties accompanied by extensive infrastructure. When people move to locations already prone to extreme weather events and construct expensive property there, when natural disasters strike, even if they are not more intense than before, they result in higher nominal costs.
So, it may be that more people are in the wrong place at the wrong time, due to population growth and technology permitting populations to spread into regions that are otherwise inhospitable. This fact in itself does not indicate that the weather is getting worse.
Survivors of a natural disaster are probably likely to experience prolonged mental distress, and those suffering certainly need help and sympathy, this is not controversial. However, attributing their PTSD or other psychological impacts to climate change itself, as Mishra and the mainstream media articles covering the research suggest, is not only refuted by the available weather data, but appears to be more about funding-driven framing than legitimate science. At the end of the Conversation post, Mishra’s project funding is disclosed as coming from the Tang Prize Foundation. The Tang Prize is a Taiwan-based fund, that gives out awards for research related to “sustainable development” and addressing climate change, among other categories. Real world data shows that weather disasters, including wildfires, are not getting more extreme or damaging, so there is no direct causal link that can be established between the modest warming of the past century, and PTSD in disaster survivors.
Linnea Lueken is a Research Fellow with the Arthur B. Robinson Center on Climate and Environmental Policy.
While she was an intern with The Heartland Institute in 2018, she co-authored a Heartland Institute Policy Brief “Debunking Four Persistent Myths About Hydraulic Fracturing.”