Ross Clark has written a good piece for the Spectator’s Coffee House blog pointing out that 2023 has not been an unusually bad year for forest fires in Europe and, according to Nasa satellite date, the number of forest fires globally actually fell by about 25% between 2001 and 2015. Here’s how it begins:
Summer wouldn’t be complete without hordes of disgruntled British tourists being evacuated from their hotels, flown home early or spending their holidays sprawled on the floor of an international airport. But are the scenes of Rhodes really a symptom of a the world ‘being on fire’, as Greta Thunberg would put it?
Actually, in spite of scenes of burning forests on Rhodes and elsewhere being presented daily on our television screens, 2023 has not been a devastating year for forest fires in Europe. Data from the European Forest Fire Information System (EFFIS), which covers the EU, shows that it has been an average year to date – with an early burst of fires in the spring followed by less activity since then.
It is a similar story with wildfires globally. A 2016 study published in a Royal Society journal using Nasa satellite data surprised many people by revealing that the amount of land burned annually in wildfires globally had decreased by about a quarter between 2001 and 2015. The authors have since updated their study and confirmed that in spite of increasing agonising over fires in the US, Europe and Australia, the amount of land being burned is still falling. This data includes all wildfires, not just forests – and globally 70% of fires are on grassland rather than forests.
None of this is to say that climate change is not increasing the risk of fires in certain locations at certain times of year, but it does rather undermine lazy claims about the world being on fire. If anything, the world is being damped down.
We have been conditioned to think that climate change is the overwhelming problem facing human civilisation and all other life on Earth. But why is the extent of fires not actually increasing in the way that climate campaigners frequently claim? Partly because in some places shifting patterns of rainfall have reduced the risk of fire. But also because rising global temperatures are not the only influence on fires.
The incidence of wildfires also has a lot to do with land use. Where wildfires have increased in recent years, such as in some parts of Eastern Europe, it is down to farmland being abandoned and allowed to return to scrubland, which contains far more flammable material. Urban development close to forested areas also plays a big role, increasing the sources of ignition through barbecues, overhead electricity wires and so on.
Worth reading in full.
Stop Press: The more likely cause of the fires in Greece is arson. Firefighters in Rhodes have indicated arson may be to blame, while local officials in Corfu say the fires in Corfu were started by arsonists. Not surprisingly, the BBC is still trying to argue that global warming is to blame: “There are reports that some fires may have been started by arsonists, but southern Europe’s extended heatwave has helped create the dry conditions that make it easier for flames to take hold and spread,” writes Justin Rowlatt, the Beeb’s Climate Editor. Careful with that straw you’re clutching, Justin. It might catch fire.