The White House posted a video linking the California wildfires to climate change. Here’s why.


Firefighter Keith McMillen at a controlled burn in Washington state. (David Ryder/Reuters)

Here's the tricky thing about President Obama's proposal to cut carbon dioxide emissions 30 percent by 2030: In order for people to support the move, they need to understand the link between carbon dioxide emissions and climate change. They need to accept that the proposal -- a mandate being developed by the Environmental Protection Agency -- will help curtail global warming. And they need to prioritize those cuts over concerns -- more loudly articulated by opponents -- that the cuts will hurt the economy.

So the White House is starting that fight on YouTube.

The administration released a video  Tuesday aimed at clarifying the link between climate change and one of the most tangible products of climate change: wildfires. Wildfires have been an an increasing topic of conversation on Capitol Hill, thanks both to the record wildfire years we've had this decade and to a strain on funding to fight them.

If you want to make the case that we need to act on climate change, linking warming to the destructive power of more wildfires makes a nice impetus. And so, John Holdren, Obama's science adviser, sat down in front of the camera.

The Obama administration released a video Tuesday aimed at clarifying the link between climate change and record number of wildfires in the past few years. (YouTube: The White House)

"Climate change," he says, "has been making the fire season in the United States longer and more intense." This isn't only because temperatures are higher and the soil contains less moisture, he says; it's also because the changing climate is "bringing us more dead trees -- kindling, in effect -- killed by a combination of heat stress, water stress, and attacks by pests and pathogens that multiply faster in a warmer world." And that trend, which is affecting the Southeast even more than the Western U.S., is expected to continue and grow.

The documentation for this is at the government's National Climate Assessment, a document released  this year that combines governmental and external research into the likely effects of the warming climate. These fires, the White House is saying explicitly, are what warming looks like. The ongoing California drought, which is likely worsened by a warming Atlantic Ocean and prompting strict water rationing across the state, is affecting more people right now. But a burning house and a soot-blackened firefighter are much more compelling visuals in what is a mostly political fight.

Last week, 12 states filed a lawsuit against the EPA, hoping to block the proposed carbon dioxide limits. Among them was Kentucky, adding another complexity to the debate over coal and climate in that state's Senate race. At the Wall Street Journal, Rep. Mike Kelly (R-Pa.) defended the lawsuit, making two points that are a crux of opposition to regulations on carbon dioxide emissions. First, he said, reducing America's use of still-relatively cheap coal as an energy source will increase costs to consumers and businesses. And second, the United States isn't the world's largest contributor to atmospheric carbon dioxide.

New York magazine's Jonathan Chait offered a response  Tuesday, pointing out that, to the first point, any cost increases to consumers will likely be small and, to the second, that the United States should act because the "Obama administration expects the American people to sacrifice in order to secure the agreement of people in other countries to sacrifice." Neither of which is the sort of easy political win for the EPA that the administration might hope.

The administration has stumbled upon another bit of bad luck in making the case on climate change. While 2014 has given the world its hottest May and June on record, and while California has had the hottest first half of the year in its known history, North America has actually been colder than normal. People are more likely to accept climate change after it has been warmer, according to a study. And 2014 has been less warm than, say, 2012 -- the warmest year in recorded U.S. history.

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Hence the burning forests. Tangible, understandable, and, as we've noted before, hard to argue against being linked to climate change. To win the fight over the EPA's proposed limits, the White House is starting at the forest floor.

Philip Bump writes about politics for The Fix. He previously wrote for The Wire, the news blog of The Atlantic magazine. He has contributed to The Daily Beast, The Atlantic, The Daily, and the Huffington Post. Philip is based in New York City.
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