Andy Kubis contributed to this report.
Wildfires are part of the natural ecology in many places, but they’re getting worse. In places like Australia and California, death tolls have risen. Scientists link wildfires with climate change and predict significant increases in the coming decades.
But conservatives often insist that the wildfires are happening because of environmental laws which they say overzealously encourage forest conservation.
Former Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke went as far as blaming “environmental radicals” for the California wildfires, saying they stop forest management practices that could have prevented the fires.
In a new twist to the narrative, the Trump administration is claiming that forests themselves are causing climate change.
In a story published last month, reporters Emily Holden and Jimmy Tobias reveal how Trump and his appointees “blatantly manipulated” wildfire science, as one source puts it, in order to promote logging.
On this episode of our Trump on Earth podcast, Jimmy Tobias talks about the story and the new emails that show how the Trump administration manipulated wildfire science to promote logging.
Julie Grant: So what do these emails say?
Jimmy Tobias: The emails basically showed political appointees at the Interior Department asking career scientists to gin-up and generate numbers about carbon emissions from the 2018 California wildfires. They used the data to put out a press release that promoted a very specific narrative, basically saying, ‘look, the fires in California put out as much carbon dioxide into the atmosphere as electricity generation in the entire state. And because of this huge carbon footprint, we need to cut more trees so that the fires aren’t as bad next time around; we need to remove trees and other debris so there’s not as much fuel for the fires.’
And this argument both downplayed the impact of fossil fuel emissions by making it seem like fires were as big of a contributor. And it created an argument that the administration used to call for more tree cutting on public lands and across the country.
“President Trump issued an executive order that used wildfires as a pretext to cut billions of more board feet of timber on public lands around the country.”
JG: Can you help us understand why the Trump administration has an interest in crafting a narrative like this that forest protection efforts are responsible for wildfires?
JT: The administration is very close to the timber industry. The timber industry has long made this argument that forest protections are responsible for wildfires – ‘If we want to tackle the wildfires that occasionally ravage portions of the West, we need to cut a lot more timber.’ And the administration has bought that argument completely. In fact, not long after this press release and emails came out, President Trump issued an executive order that used wildfires as a pretext to cut billions of more board feet of timber on public lands around the country. So that’s really at the heart of this — that this administration wants to promote more timber on behalf of the timber industry, and they’re using wildfires as a pretext to do so.
JG: The emails that we’re talking about were written by one political appointee in particular. How clear were they in their request to play up the CO2 numbers and call for logging as a solution?
JT: Yeah, the emails are from a period in 2018, from about August to the late fall of 2018. And mostly what we see is the head of the U.S. Geological Survey, a person named James Reilly, who’s a political appointee. He basically reached down and asked his career scientists to come up with emissions figures for these wildfires. And ultimately, he passed these figures on to higher political appointees in the Interior Department’s press office who then use these figures to create this press release.
But James Reilly, like many of the political appointees at the agency, is a former petroleum geologist and a former astronaut, actually. These political appointees at the Interior Department have a long track record of promoting industry interests, pushing policies that are favored by the industry. The political appointees at the Interior Department as a whole have a very close relationship with the timber industry.
JG: Who was James Reilly writing these emails to and what kind of response was he getting from the people he was asking to gather this information?
JT: He was asking career scientists at the agency, people who have worked there for a long time, who are nonpartisan, who are scientists. They had little choice but to provide him the data he wanted. And in asking for the data itself, you know, that is not so much what was unusual. It was the way he asked, and the purpose that the political appointees later put this data to.
“It comes off pretty clearly that they’re using these things to promote a narrative, to promote very particular policies, by using USGS scientists as their foot soldiers.
JG: Because they had a predetermined narrative for the science? Is that what you’re saying?
JT: Yeah. In reading the emails as a whole, it’s pretty apparent that they wanted to paint a very particular picture — that they could use to promote logging and to downplay the carbon impacts of fossil fuel generation. So, over the course of these emails, Mr. Reilly keeps asking the political appointees for these numbers. He uses a bunch of unfortunate phrases when he does. He’s asking the scientists to “gin-up emissions figures” for him; he said the numbers would make a “decent soundbite” and a “good story.” So the way he’s talking about these numbers, it comes off pretty clearly that they’re using these things to promote a narrative, to promote very particular policies, by using USGS scientists as their foot soldiers. The data they generate as a sort of way to do so.
JG: Is what they reported inaccurate?
JT: Independent scientists we talked to had varying opinions about it. One person we talked to thought the numbers were overstated and didn’t align with field studies in post-burn forests in California. This one scientist said [the data] were an overestimate and that he felt that they were a blatant political manipulation of science. Other scientists didn’t have so much trouble with the data itself but felt that it was pretty clear that the government was cherry-picking data to promote its narrative.
One scientist, a professor from Oregon State University, made the point that the way they framed the carbon emissions from the California wildfires made it pretty clear they were trying to cherry-pick the data. He said, for instance, that the comparison of fire to electrical emissions in California was not explained or justified. Picking other sectors would have left an entirely different image in the reader’s mind. For example, the press release they put out compared the carbon emissions from California fires to electricity generation in California, saying that the fires contributed as much CO2 to the atmosphere as electricity generation in California. But on a national level, that’s totally untrue. At a national level, wildfire carbon emissions make up just 1.7% of carbon emissions that are related to fossil fuels. So wildfires are a tiny drop in the bucket when it comes to carbon emissions.
Yet this press release made it seem like they were on par with electricity generation. So it’s just a very misleading way to present the data. That’s the overall takeaway — that they used this data, which may or may not have been an overestimate, to paint a very misleading picture to the public.
JG: Is it customary for the Interior Department to try to quantify emissions from fires?
JT: Yeah. I mean, the USGS is a very revered, legitimate scientific agency. They do all sorts of research and they generate all sorts of data. So I think it’s completely legitimate for them to want to know the carbon emissions from wildfires. So the scientists here were just doing their jobs. It’s just the way that this data was deployed that raised a lot of questions.
“Secretary Bernhardt gets a lot less media coverage than Zinke but he has pursued very similar policy goals from rolling back the Endangered Species Act to promoting fossil fuel drilling on federal lands.”
JG: What does science say about the connection between fires and climate change?
JT: The science certainly shows a link between climate change and both the severity and frequency of fires. But I’ll also say that wildfire is an essential feature of the American landscape. Many plants and animals rely on it to reproduce or for habitat and other things. A big part of the problem is that the government has spent the last century suppressing fires. So there’s a huge buildup of fuel in the forest that leads to the conditions that caused these huge fires.
At the same time, local governments allow a lot of people to build at the edge of forests, which puts them in danger. So it’s certainly a mix of things that are contributing to these big fires. Tere are a lot of powerful interests who are taking advantage of that to promote their own economic gain.
JG: This e-mail exchange happened while Ryan Zinke was still secretary of the Department of the Interior. He has since left office and David Bernhardt has taken over that position. Would you expect anything different under this new leadership?
JT: No. Secretary Bernhardt gets a lot less media coverage than Zinke but he has pursued very similar policy goals from rolling back the Endangered Species Act to promoting fossil fuel drilling on federal lands. The policies are generally the same.
Andy Kubis contributed to