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Home arrow Opinion arrow Editorials arrow Obama off base with fire comment

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Obama off base with fire comment


President Obama’s visit this week to Washington state, where a massive wildfire has destroyed 150 homes, was predictable in every respect.

We didn’t mind most parts of the president’s choreographed trip.

Mr. Obama declared a federal emergency in Washington, which authorizes multiple federal agencies to work with state and local officials to fight fires and help displaced residents.

The president telephoned the widow of a man who died of a heart attack while trying to protect the couple’s home from the flames.

Appropriately presidential actions, to be sure.

But Mr. Obama went astray when, during a fundraiser in Seattle, he blamed not only Washington’s 250,000-acre Carlton Complex but also other large wildfires in the West in part on climate change.

“A lot of it has to do with drought, a lot of it has to do with changing precipitation patterns, and a lot of that has to do with climate change,” the president said.

We understand that Mr. Obama believes both that the climate is changing — statistics prove this — and that society’s carbon contributions are largely responsible — a far less definitive claim but one that the vast majority of climate scientists agree with.

What we don’t understand is why the president used the occasion of a tragedy to make a political comment that he could have delivered at any other venue.

More so because the connection between climate change and any wildfire — or, indeed, any fire season — is far more coincidental than causal.

The current drought plaguing parts of Oregon and Washington is not unprecedented. The fire danger in the region has been higher at times during previous decades, and the acreage burned is not abnormally large.

The wild card, as any firefighter will attest, is lightning. It sparked the Carlton Complex and most of the other big fires this month. But there’s no demonstrable correlation between climate change and the frequency of lightning in the interior Northwest — in particular “dry” lightning, which comes without heavy rain and thus is more likely to ignite blazes that spread fast. The conditions prevailing across much of the West this summer — varying degrees of drought, and copious lightning — occurred in many summers before the climate had changed to its current condition. Conversely, if there’s little lightning there almost certainly will be far fewer fires, no matter how dry and hot the weather.

By blaming climate change for this year’s fires, to the extent he did this week in Washington, Mr. Obama has elevated politics above science. Given that climate change and its potential effects are vital issues, that’s a pity.

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