Near the end of last night’s catastrophic “presidential” debate, moderator Chris Wallace lobbed a surprising question at Donald Trump: “What do you believe about the science of climate change? And what will you do in the next four years to confront it?”
It was surprising because, for one thing, it wasn’t on the list of questions Wallace told the campaigns he’d be asking. For another, climate change typically rests out of view at the very bottom of the dumpster fire that is modern American politics. And more significantly, after an hour and a half of near-constant interruptions and insults, mostly from Trump, what followed was a discussion that inched toward civility.
“It was kind of interesting that that was the most watchable part of the entire debate, I think,” says University of California, Los Angeles climate scientist Daniel Swain. “And that seems to be something that other people have noticed, too. It was the part of the debate with fewest interruptions. I don’t know—maybe that’s because Trump just hadn’t prepared for it at all and didn’t really know what to say.”
What Trump did say was that he wants “crystal clean water and air,” which might be a tall order given that he’s gutted the Environmental Protection Agency. Also, the Paris Agreement, which the US abandoned during his presidency, was a disaster, he added. As for the wildfires currently ravaging the western states? “The forest floors are loaded up with trees, dead trees that are years old and they’re like tinder,” Trump said. “And leaves and everything else. You drop a cigarette in there, the whole forest burns down. You’ve got to have forest management.”
When Wallace pressed him on whether he believes human-made greenhouse gas emissions cause climate change, Trump said: “I think a lot of things do. But I think to an extent, yes. I think to an extent, yes. But I also think we have to do better management of our forests.”
It’s a common refrain from Trump, who tends to boil down the extremely complex problem of wildfires into a singular issue: Western states aren’t doing enough to fix their forests. (Never mind that the feds manage 60 percent of California’s forests, a quarter of Oregon’s, and 44 percent of Washington’s.) Fire season after fire season, Trump calls out the mismanagement of forests. Why, exactly? “I don’t know what he has in mind—he probably doesn’t know either,” says fire historian Stephen Pyne. “He’s just looking for attention, he’s just shouting. But the people behind him, I think, want to open up the public domain—national forests and so on—to more logging. Logging does not help fire protection. It does the opposite.”
That’s because logging companies aren’t interested in removing all the brush that grows between large trees. “Logging takes the big stuff and leaves the little,” Pyne says. “Fire burns the little stuff and leaves the big. So the next time you see a forest moonscape that’s been blasted by fire, what is standing? What is standing are the tree trunks that logging would have taken out. They’re not contributing to the fire.”
Indigenous people in the Western states have a long history of land management practices that involve deliberately setting fires to, in a sense, reset ecosystems. It clears the way for new growth, which attracts large herbivores, which make for good food. Then, without so much fuel to burn, wildfires sparked naturally by lightning don’t burn so intensely. But as more and more people have crowded into the American West, the modern approach has moved away from prevention and toward reaction—defending cities and homes. Firefighting agencies have been under increasing pressure to quickly squelch wildfires to protect human populations. By not letting fires eat through a landscape’s brush, we’ve in turn let the little stuff build up in western forests. A lot of folks call this policy “fire suppression,” a different tactic than outright prevention, since there’s no way to keep all fires from starting. But, says Pyne, the more appropriate term would be fire exclusion. “It’s not just that we’re putting out fires—we’re not lighting them anymore,” he says.