What Do Wildfires and Hurricanes Say About Climate Change?

Heritage Explains

What Do Wildfires and Hurricanes Say About Climate Change?

Heritage’s Director of the Center for Energy, Climate, and the Environment, Diana Furchtgott-Roth, explains. 

Whenever there is a major weather event, such as the wildfires in Hawaii in August, leftists are quick to blame climate change and push “green” policy. But this approach is fraught with problems. Heritage’s Director of the Center for Energy, Climate, and the Environment, Diana Furchtgott-Roth, explains.

John Popp: From The Heritage Foundation, this is Heritage Explains.

Mark GuineyA little over a month ago, the world was moved by the tragedy that took place in the town of Lahaina on the island of Maui, in the state of Hawaii. High winds and aging electrical infrastructure contributed to wildfires that claimed the lives of at least 115 people. Many stories have emerged in the wake of that event, many of them centering around the question of why this happened. There are many pieces of that puzzle, from government incompetence to infrastructure management, to communication systems, to weather, to agriculture. But the one that seemed to get a disproportionate amount of play in the media - climate change.

It seems that that is the constant refrain that follows any extreme weather event—floods, hurricanes, and heat waves—but the climate change narrative is fraught with problems. And when it comes to public policy, those problems bring real consequences. Today, on Heritage Explains, we’re talking about extreme weather and climate. You may remember Furchtgott-Roth from our China series. She’s the director of the Center for Energy, Climate and the Environment here at The Heritage Foundation, and I started off with asking her about the tragedy on Maui.

We see a pattern in the media repeated over and over again whenever there’s an extreme weather event—floods, wildfires—most recently, the wildfires in Maui. Was this an example of climate change wreaking havoc or was there something else going on here?

Diana Furchtgott-Roth: Well, the fields in Maui used to be used for the production of sugarcane, and now, a lot of these fields are lying fallow. They have grasses that easily catch fire, and that’s what happened this time. There have been a lot of warnings, but perhaps climate change was responsible because the utility in Hawaii has been told to spend a lot of money on renewables, and this is money that could have been spent clearing these fields and making sure that they would not be a source of fire. So all these funds that utility companies all over the United States are being told to spend on renewables could be spent on mitigating causes of wildfires and making the land a lot safer, and it’s a real tragedy what happened in Hawaii and it shouldn’t be used for the purposes of promoting causes associated with climate change.

Guiney: We’ve been experiencing some hot weather. There has been some noise in the news that this hot weather is evidence of catastrophic climate change, but you don’t think so.

Furchtgott-Roth: Well, there’s weather and there’s climate change, and climate change is measured over very long periods of time, so a hot summer does not necessarily mean there’s climate change. And there are all kinds of other issues coming up with how we measure it, how the oceans affect global temperatures, how the clouds affect temperatures, how the sun affects temperatures, and climate change has been going on for millennia. I certainly don’t think that we’re headed towards a catastrophe, and if we are facing warming of 1.52 degrees Celsius by the end of the century, the question is what to do about it. If we think that levels of carbon in the atmosphere are contributing to that, how are we going to lower those? That’s the question before us. And taking manufacturing in the United States and Europe and moving it over to China, where it’s being made in a more dirty manner, is no way to lower carbon emissions.

What we need to do is be promoting cleaner fuels such as natural gas and nuclear power, but it’s puzzling that environmentalists do not seem to be promoting nuclear power, even though it is dense, energy rich. Electric vehicles are not emissions-free, even though they’re described as emissions-free, because in order to charge up the batteries, we need to produce the electricity. And unless we’re producing the electricity completely from renewable or from nuclear power sources, we are still generating emissions when we make that electricity to charge the batteries.

Furthermore, Mark, I’m not sure, have you ever seen an American made or European made EV battery?

Guiney: No.

Furchtgott-Roth: No. They just don’t exist. They’re made in China, so not only are we becoming more dependent on China for an important source of transportation by requiring electric vehicles. We’re also in the situation where China is making these electric vehicle batteries with coal-fired power plants, and also by using very invasive mining to get the minerals that are needed in these batteries. And Mark Mills from the Manhattan Institute has calculated that we need to move 500,000 pounds of earth to get the minerals in one EV battery, because it’s not just the minerals that you are getting from the ground. You also have to move earth to get at the minerals that are in the ground. So this is a very energy intensive process, as opposed to using our own supplies of oil and making those into gasoline here and using those to run our transportation system.

Guiney: There also seem to be a lot of initiatives being pushed by the administration and others that would ban the use of certain appliances, that would mandate the implementation of certain technologies, sometimes subsidized by the government, sometimes not. Do you feel like these are effective methods?

Furchtgott-Roth: So again, there’s the push towards electrification, so rather than a natural gas stove, it would be an electric stove, and these do not necessarily have lower emissions and they could have higher costs. Rather than, for example, a natural gas fired boiler, it would be an electric heat pump. And there’s a myth that electricity is emissions-free, and it’s not emissions-free because we power it with natural gas and coal and oil, and we’re not powering electricity right now. We’re not creating it with emissions-free sources of power. And there are a lot of people who are very upset about losing their natural gas stoves or losing their natural gas water heaters and boilers, and it’s a very invasive process when the government comes and says, “You can use this appliance and you can lose that appliance.” And the question is, what is it gaining if our goal is to reduce global temperatures?

Dr. Kevin Dayaratna, the chief statistician at The Heritage Foundation has calculated using government models that if we got rid of all the fossil fuels in the United States, it would only make a difference of two tenths of one degree centigrade by the year 2100. So we’re imposing vast costs on consumers with no reductions in global temperatures, and this is because Western Europe and the United States are an increasingly small share of emissions. We have Africa, we have Latin America, we have Asia. None of those are reducing emissions, and in fact, many of them have to increase emissions to achieve the standards of living that we have in the West. I mean, who are we in the West to say, “Well, we have running water, we have electricity,” but we want to stop people in Africa from having those very amenities that we prize? And we tell them that they have to use renewables, which is not going to get them to the same level as we have in the West.

They need electricity, they need running water. They also need power to have manufacturing jobs, to enable their citizens to achieve the same level of income that we have here. And there are a lot of people who talk about the dangers of migration and why do we have so much migration? And they say they’re concerned about climate migration, that people in Africa or Latin America are coming to the United States to escape the heat of climate change. Really, they’re coming to escape economic poverty, and this economic poverty can be reduced if they have jobs that will enable them to have, for example, air conditioners the way we have. We would be a lot more uncomfortable if we did not have the air conditioning systems that are so pervasive in the United States, and they don’t have those there. It’s much less expensive for them to have air conditioning than to come all the way to the United States to use our air conditioning here.

Guiney: So you’re skeptical that you go, you plug in your electric car and you say that that energy is going to be coming from a power plant that is burning coal or burning natural gas or some other so-called fossil fuel. But won’t that not always be the case? Won’t, in a few years when you plug your car in, won’t that energy be coming from a green or renewable energy source?

Furchtgott-Roth: Certainly not completely, because even wind farms have to have a backup natural gas pipeline because the wind doesn’t blow all the time. And the same with solar energy, and they have to have vast distributional grids. So they cannot work solely on renewables alone. And even the Environmental Protection Agency in its new pipeline rule that has required that 90% of carbon emissions be sequestered from power plants or else that power plant has to close down in 2040, even the Environmental Protection Agency has exempted those power plants that are needed to back up the wind farms. So even the EPA is admitting that wind farms are not fossil fuel free.

Plus, we need fossil fuels to make the wind turbines, to make the solar panels. The idea of net-zero 2050 is a myth, just like the Easter Bunny and Santa Claus. It’s not going to happen because we’re going to need fossil fuels for the foreseeable future, plus fossil fuels bring immense benefits. People talk about transportation as though it’s a bad thing, but transportation enables you, Mark, to come to work. I actually came to work today on my bicycle, but when it’s very rainy or snowy, I don’t take my bicycle to work.

Guiney: For those who may be familiar with the idea of net-zero, what is that?

Furchtgott-Roth: Net zero is the idea that by 2050, we’re not going to be producing any excess fossil fuels, or the fossil fuels that are produced are balanced out by increases in renewables, that we’re basically going to have zero emissions. And we’re never going to have zero fossil fuel emissions or even net-zero fossil fuel emissions.

Guiney: You mentioned earlier the opportunity afforded by nuclear power. Why do you think is nuclear power not a part of a so-called green energy solution?

Furchtgott-Roth: A lot of people are concerned that nuclear power is dangerous. They hear nuclear and they think nuclear war, they think nuclear weapons, but really, it’s a completely different technology. And France has produced 60% of its electricity with nuclear power for the past 50 to 70 years without any incidents. We have nuclear submarines that produce power using nuclear methodology. But the idea of nuclear power has been tarnished by, let’s take the worst case, Chernobyl. That’s old technology. Three Mile Island. No one was killed at Three Mile Island. Fukushima in Japan. That’s a nuclear power plant built in an earthquake area, but no one was killed at Fukushima. And there are also people killed through other kinds of accidents, in oil, coal mines. Even renewables, you have accidents. So nuclear power is emissions-free, it’s dense energy. It’s capable of powering electricity without any emissions, and it’s surprising to me that environmentalists who are concerned about carbon emissions are against nuclear power. Because people think it isn’t safe, it’s very difficult to get financing to build new nuclear power plants in the United States.

Guiney: A lot of young people now believe strongly that the greatest existential threat that we are facing on the Earth right now is climate change. They live in genuine fear. What would you say if you could say something to them?

Furchtgott-Roth: I would say that man has never been in a better position as today. That we have wonderful advances in medical care and that we don’t understand a lot of these climate cycles, and we’re not that good at measuring. We’ve had a lot more urbanization and temperatures in urban areas are higher because of the reflections of the asphalt and the concrete than in rural areas. There are climate scientists who are looking at measurements only in rural areas, which show that there have been fewer increases, or a smaller increase in temperatures. And we need to have a lot more thought about how much the temperatures are increasing, and also what other adaptation we can do. And we see television shows about the heat in Baltimore and how this is caused by climate change, where really, residents of Baltimore need better air conditioning. And there are societies that do very well in Dubai, Abu Dhabi, very, very hot climates, and these are desirable places to live for many people, and they are hot.

So we need to think about climate change in terms of adaptation as well as in terms of emissions, but if we’re concerned about emissions, we need to be moving to transform more of our energy production to nuclear. And there’s small modular reactors that could be used in small communities in Africa and Latin America, for example, that can be removed once they are spent. And we need to be focusing on the human element. There are people who don’t have electricity, there are people who don’t have running water. There are so many lives that could be saved if we had electricity and running water in some of these places that we don’t have, and these are lives that are equally important.

Guiney: Thank you to Diana Furchtgott-Roth for contributing to today’s show. You can find her on X, formerly Twitter, @dfr_economics, and you can find more of her written work at heritage.org. On the topic of the wildfires in Hawaii, our colleagues here at The Daily Signal, Tony Kinnett and Tim Kennedy, traveled there to talk to folks on the ground and get the real story. You can find their work at dailysignal.com, and there are further links in the show notes. And thanks as always to you for listening to Heritage Explains. If you have any thoughts, feedback, or suggestions for future episodes, send them our way at [email protected]. Thanks for listening. We’ll see you next week.

Heritage Explains is brought to you by more than half a million members of The Heritage Foundation. It’s written and produced by Mark Guiney, Lauren Evans, and John Popp.