Climate Scientist Claims He Overstated Impact of Global Warming on Wildfires

    Climate Scientist Claims He Overstated Impact of Global Warming on Wildfires
    Last updated Sep 07, 2023
    Image credit: Unsplash


    • Dr. Patrick T. Brown, co-director of the climate and energy team at The Breakthrough Institute, has claimed that he overstated the impacts of climate change on wildfires in an influential paper to secure publication in the scientific journal Nature.
    • The paper Brown co-authored, titled "Climate warming increases extreme daily wildfire growth risk in California," was often cited by media outlets this summer. Brown says he chose to ignore important non-climate change-related factors, so as not to "dilute the story" he claims scientific journals hold to.
    • Brown claimed in an opinion piece that climate science "misinforms the public" by focusing on inducing alarm, adding that journals encourage authors to include misleading yet "eye-popping numbers" and scenarios to increase their stature and create "good headlines."
    • Poor forest management, human error, and arson are factors that, together with climate change, influence forest fires, with 80% of forest fires being ignited by humans, says Brown. These factors are ignored to promote reducing greenhouse gas emissions at the expense of more realistic policy goals.
    • Nature editor-in-chief Dr. Magdalena Skipper has accused Brown of "poor research practices" and denied that there is any editorial bias. Skipper says that peer reviewers noted the absence of non-climate change related factors in Brown's paper and that the authors argued against including them.
    • Brown has encouraged the media to "stop accepting these papers at face value" and for editors to focus on solutions beyond what is offered by "preapproved narratives." He calls on researchers to focus more on "research that actually helps society" instead of their career or media influence.


    Pro-establishment narrative

    If what the editor-in-chief of Nature says is true, Brown intentionally published a misleading paper that he could later walk back from in order to promote an anti-scientific climate skeptic narrative. Whatever his reasons for this are, the consensus is that climate change is being accelerated by human activity and is leading to more inclement weather. It's Brown, not the establishment, that has resorted to trickery in order to push a narrative.

    Establishment-critical narrative

    Brown has given credence to what many of us have long suspected: climate science is being misused to promote alarmist narratives and political agendas. The claim that climate change is to blame for wildfires does not square with the reality of the fires being mostly started by humans, and that the percentage of land ignited by these blazes has shrunk year after year. Academia and the media work together to promote an activist agenda at the expense of real climate solutions.

    Cynical narrative

    A fair attempt at correlating wildfire risk to human-induced global warming can be seen in services for journalists like the World Weather Attribution Initiative. For wildfires, the Initiative states that there's likely an underlying climate signal, but wildfires are much more challenging to correlate due to issues like forest management and ignition sources. The Initiative also attempts to call reasonable balls and strikes for what specific wildfire events may, or may not, potentially be tied to global warming. In general, media outlets need to do a better job of sticking to long-standing, nuanced guidance from well-meaning scientists rather than getting swept up in either alarmist or denialist hype.

    Nerd narrative

    There is a 50% chance that wildfires will destroy a total exceeding 10Mha of global tree cover in any year, by the end of 2030, according to the Metaculus prediction community.

    Establishment split



    More neutral establishment stance articles

    Sign up to our newsletter!