No Fire Without a Smokescreen

by | Apr 1, 2009

In far flung corners of the globe, where tedious matters of grim reality tend to be of greater concern than the theoretical possibility of the ravages of global warming, there seems to be a growing realisation that, to generate interest from the western media in stuff that is actually happening, it’s necessary to frame stories in terms of climatastrophe. The BBC, for example, did not report on the recent wildfires in Nepal while they were actually burning. But given the excuse to rummage through the embers for signs that climate change is real and is happening, they’re right onto it:

Climate change ‘fans Nepal fires’

The forest fires that flared unusually viciously in many of Nepal’s national parks and conserved areas this dry season have left conservationists worrying if climate change played a role.

At least four protected areas were on fire for an unusually long time until just a few days ago.

The BBC’s entire case hangs on comments from two interviewees. First, there’s Department of Hydrology and Meteorology chief Nirmal Rajbhandari, who lists a string of undesirable weather events in the region before lumping the wildfires into the mix and blaming it all on global warming:

“Seeing all these changes happening in recent years, we can contend that this dryness that led to so much fire is one of the effects of climate change,” said Mr Rajbhandari.

You can hardly blame Nepalese officials for jumping on the climate change wagon if it’s all that will make the western media prick up their ears. But it’s hard to forgive professional catastrophists WWF, who provide the BBC with its second line of evidence:

Anil Manandhar, head of WWF Nepal, had this to ask: Are we waiting for a bigger disaster to admit that it is climate change?

“The weather pattern has changed, and we know that there are certain impacts of climate change.”

He might have intended his question to be rhetorical, but if sanity is to be maintained, it demands an answer: No. How can the size of a disaster possibly indicative of the strength of its connection to climate change? What we are waiting for is evidence that climate change is causing more frequent and/or more serious disasters. While opportunist NGOs and business interests are happy to push their climate disaster-porn at any opportunity, they do so without a scientific basis. And that is true globally, let alone on the local scales being discussed in the BBC story, as the one scientific expert quoted is only too aware:

However, climate change expert Arun Bhakta Shrestha of the Kathmandu-based International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) was cautious about drawing conclusions.

“The prolonged dryness this year, like other extreme events in recent years, could be related to climate change but there is no proper basis to confirm that.

“The reason (why there is no confirmation) is lack of studies, observation and data that could have helped to reach into some conclusion regarding the changes.”

But two against one is plenty for a climate-change scare story.

If the rest of the report is to be believed, forest fires are not uncommon in Nepal at this time of year. But this year, they have been more serious than usual:

Most of the fires come about as a consequence of the “slash and burn” practice that farmers employ for better vegetation and agricultural yields.

But this time the fires remained out of control even in the national parks in the Himalayan region where the slash and burn practice is uncommon.

In some of the protected areas, the fires flared up even after locals and officials tried to put them out for several days.

And Nepal has experienced an unusually dry winter:

For nearly six months, no precipitation has fallen across most of the country – the longest dry spell in recent history, according to meteorologists.

“This winter was exceptionally dry,” says Department of Hydrology and Meteorology chief Nirmal Rajbhandari.

“We have seen winter becoming drier and drier in the last three or four years, but this year has set the record.”

Rivers are running at their lowest, and because most of Nepal’s electricity comes from hydropower, the country has been suffering power cuts up to 20 hours a day.

It can’t come as much of a surprise, even to the BBC, that drier conditions make a landscape more fire-prone. And nowhere a mention of the role of natural variation. But then natural variation comes in two varieties. There is the type that is ignored by ‘deniers’ asking awkward questions about recent temperature plateaus. And there’s the type that is to be disregarded for the sake of alarmist stories about single, aberrant weather events.

Had it not been for recent drizzles, conservationists say some of the national parks would still be on fire.

Drizzles caused by climate change, perhaps?


  1. geoff chambers

    Excellent. I once described what you do as radical media studies, and I mean it as a compliment. I believe (possibly naively?) that complex media organisations like the BBC and the Guardian must contain dissenters who resent their organisations being manipulated, whether to the left, right, or apolitically-straight-ahead according to the green agenda, and will take heart from this kind of analysis.
    Only slightly off-subject: the Guardian’s environment editor John Vidal has just published dire predictions of future temperatures worse than Monbiot’s worst wet dreams, issuing from an MIT Global Change (that’s what they call themselves) thinktank, which is financed by ExxonMobil, Shell, BP and Electricité de France, among others. I’m only telling you so that I can report back to Vidal that you know. I’m trying, in a small way, to stir it up.


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