To Believe the Climate Change Hype, You Must Ignore History

A 19th-century artist’s interpretation of New England’s “Dark Day,” which occurred on May 19, 1780.

There are many politicians and media figures (as well as a few scientists) who are desperately trying to convince us that global warming (aka “climate change”) is a dire problem that requires radical action right now. One of their most effective tools is to discuss a current event as if nothing like it has ever happened before. That way, they can blame it on climate change. This works, in part, because history education is so poor that most people don’t know what happened in the past.

Consider, for example, the terrible air quality in the New York City area recently. Vox reported on it with the headline, “Why some of the US has the most polluted air in the world right now.” It correctly blames the situation on wildfires in Canada, but then it says:

…this extreme fire event and its long-ranging smoke trail indicate a much larger and concerning trend: wildfires are getting worse, lasting longer, and occurring more frequently, primarily due to climate change.

Of course, none of that statement is even remotely true. According to satellite imagery, here is the area of land burned globally by forest fires each year since 1980:

Notice that there is no trend in the data. From a global perspective, wildfires haven’t changed in 40 years! This is backed up by the most comprehensive study on global wildfires, which states:

…many consider wildfire as an accelerating problem, with widely held perceptions both in the media and scientific papers of increasing fire occurrence, severity and resulting losses. However, important exceptions aside, the quantitative evidence available does not support these perceived overall trends. Instead, global area burned appears to have overall declined over past decades, and there is increasing evidence that there is less fire in the global landscape today than centuries ago.

But what about the air quality in New York? We’ve never seen anything like it before in the U.S., right? Wrong! Historically, the worst air quality recorded in the U.S. occurred on May 19, 1780 in the New England area. It’s referred to as New England’s Dark Day because the sky was so filled with smoke and fog that candles were required starting at about noon. What was the cause? It is impossible to know for sure, but the major contributor seems to be forest fires in the Algonquin Highlands of Ontario, Canada. As discussed in the link above, studies of tree rings in that area (as well as historical records) confirm that a major wildfire occurred there that year.

So while these things don’t happen often, they have happened in the past. Indeed, while one of these new fires might break it, the current record for the single worst forest fire in North America was the Chinchaga fire of 1950. In addition, the available data say that such events aren’t increasing in frequency or severity. Unfortunately, history and science education is incredibly poor these days, so most people just don’t know that. As a result, ignorant (or malicious) politicians and journalists (as well as some scientists) can prey on that lack of knowledge.

9 thoughts on “To Believe the Climate Change Hype, You Must Ignore History”

  1. Saying “wildfires haven’t changed in 40 years” based solely on satellite burn area statistics is probably to much of an oversimplification. To cite the Royal Society Publishing article you linked,
    “The notion that fire intensity and severity have increased in recent years pervades media reports and some of the literature. Whether or not this is the case is not easy to ascertain given that these parameters and associated trends are much more difficult to determine compared with area burned.”
    As an example of possible complications to you conclusion this article ( seems to show increasing fire emissions although burned area has decreased.

  2. Very interesting. I shouldn’t base conclusions on personal experience alone. However it has been difficult for me to ignore the fact that out of 38 yrs living in the Pacific Northwest, I never, ever experienced wildfire smoke until 8 years ago. My parents never mentioned experiencing it previous to my existence. And we’ve had it every single year for 8 years now. If the overall global amount hasn’t changed, the affected area sure seems to have changed.

    1. You are correct. Your experience (even combined with your parents’ and grandparents’) is not a reliable source of information for things like this, since our memories are affected by many factors.

      According to “Forest Fires: Their Causes, Extent and Effects, With a Summary of Recorded Destruction and Loss” (Fred G. Plumer, 1912), Oregon and Washington experienced black days from smoke in the months of September and October of 1858, and Western Washington had one on September 12, 1902. In addition, “Forest Fires in Western Oregon and Western Washington” (W.G. Morris, 1934 – excerpt here):

      “September 11 [1934] was a black day in the spread of forest fires in the region surrounding Portland for a distance of 50 miles. The smoke was so dense in Portland that it made the eyes smart, and ashes were thick on the streets.”

      I am sure that if I did a serious search, I would find other examples.

      1. I’m sure you are right that there are more examples. I expected there would be if someone looked far enough back in history and I simply had not yet taken the time to look myself. I should. Some of us tend to be far too short-sighted when looking either direction in time. Two or 3 generations worth of time is certainly not long enough to consider the history of natural events at a geographic location. Knowing that these events occurred in the past and also knowing how long it was since they last occurred brings hope. Perhaps after a few years this cycle will repeat, the fires will subside again and there will be some years without them again.

  3. I remember one summer in Fairbanks AK, probably around 20 years ago, when the forest fires were so bad, and the sky was filled with so much smoke, I could look directly at the sun.

  4. Also I know that here in Canada funding was cut to our forestry services several years ago. As a result they stopped doing controlled burns to clean up the dead fall & revitalize the forests. This has led to forests full of dead fuel so when it’s struck by lighting or ignited by other means it results in huge fires that are hard to contain. People don’t realize this & so blame climate change 🙄

    1. Yes, forestry management practices have changed down here in the US too. I did not know they had changed in Canada also.

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