The details matter

For climate change, trade, or any other significant phenomenon, we've always got to examine those details in order to be able to evaluate the argument being made

Things happen, that's just an obvious enough observation about the world around us. 

But what matters is how those events are interpreted. For that slant that's put on events then becomes the evidence base for what public policy should be. 

For example, this newspaper reports briefly upon wildfires in Portugal. They are happening, I've seen a couple from my window this past few weeks (I live in Portugal). 

The how and the why of the fires is important though.

There's the general story being pushed by most of the European media, which is that this is evidence of climate change and we must therefore pull down capitalism to soothe Gaia. Or some such formulation at least. 

This is not being wholly accurate about the causes. As with European reporting of the heatwave in Bangladesh and India two months ago. 

The European tale was that this was again evidence of climate change because look, high temperatures! The reporting in this newspaper was more, well, yes, it is a bit hotter than normal but then just before the monsoon, what do we expect? 

None of that European coverage I saw even mentioned that high temperatures are normal even if this year's are worse than that normal; I couldn't even find the word monsoon mentioned. 

So too with these wildfires. The ecology of much of Southern Europe (the same is true of much of California as well, for much the same reasons) is built to burn occasionally. That's just how the rainfall and plant patterns work. Rain arrives in winter and very early spring is when plant growth occurs. By May or so, everything is drying out. By mid-July it's all tinder dry, and fires start. This would be true with or without humans here, with or without climate change. 

Now of course, humans can make it worse -- having a barbecue in a tinder dry forest might not aid in preventing fires and yes, some people have been known to do that. Equally, climate change might make such fires worse -- possibly at least. 

But the actual determinant of how bad the fire season is is not, in fact, how hot the summer is. Fields are not notably more flammable at 42 degrees than they are at 39. What actually matters is how much rain there is in that winter. For that determines how much plant growth there is, how much then dies back, how much there is to burn in the fire season. 

Wetter winters mean a worse fire season. If there is a climate change effect, that's where it will be -- not in whatever is the summer heat.

There are also direct human effects. In both Portugal and Greece, it used to be that if a forest burnt down, then you could gain planning permission to build on the now empty area. The law in both places was changed about a decade back -- both places now have fewer fires in forests.

The point here is not to give a detailed explanation of forest fires. Rather, how such events get used. 

Once we say that we're going to start planning the world, then those with an axe to grind, and ideas to promote, are going to use their interpretation of events to insist that we plan things their way. This means that we've got to be very careful in examining the arguments being put forward.

Climate change is happening, it is something we want to do something about too. But high temperatures just before the monsoon, or forest fires in ecologies built to burn, are not arguments in favour of such action. 

They are, instead, events being co-opted to support the arguments of those who would like much more to be done about climate change. We should be fair here and point out that most of those using these arguments don't understand their mistakes. But that just means that we've got to insist ever more on the accuracy of the arguments being used.

This applies right across all political arguments too. For example, I was recently assailed by people who insist that tariffs don't have much effect upon trade. But their evidence was of the tariffs that apply to the trade which actually happens (so called “trade weighted” measurement of tariffs levels) which has an obvious error to it, as it doesn't measure the trade that doesn't happen because of high tariffs. 

The details matter, that is, the details of the evidence presented to us. Which means that we've always got to examine those details in order to be able to evaluate the argument being made.  


Tim Worstall is a senior fellow at the Adam Smith Institute in London.