Photo by Genna Martin/The Herald
Let’s dwell on a figure for a moment: 1,718. That’s the number of square miles burned by wildfires in Washington state this year.
It’s an area large enough to cover Rhode Island and leave 500 square miles to spare. Were you to draw a vertical rectangle on a map of western Washington containing 1,718 square miles, the top of it would stretch from Ballard to Kirkland and the bottom all the way down to Oregon.
As it was, the vast majority of the destruction was east of the Cascades, some of which had already been beleaguered by a devastating fire season in 2014. Another figure: In Okanogan County alone, 1,040 square miles have burned between last year and this, 20 percent of the entire county.
The human toll of the fires has been equally staggering. Hundreds of homes lost. Three firefighters killed. Countless livelihoods—of ranchers, farmers, restaurateurs, and lodge owners—devastated. The mayor of Chelan, a tourist town badly hit by fire this year, estimated that each tourist business there lost an average of $10,000 this year; this comes on the heels of summer 2014, which brought thick smoke into Chelan’s picturesque basin.
Those living amid the destruction see a bleak trend emerging. “The fact is that we’re in a very dangerous situation with our dry winters. That cheat grass was 3 feet tall this year. It ignites over nothing,” mayor Robert Goedde said by phone last week. “Can this happen again? Yes, this can happen again.”
The 2015 fire year was a disaster for which the human psyche demands reckoning, tragedy for which meaning must be found—beyond the clear and present meaning that hot, dry weather produces fierce fire.
Timber interests were quick to argue that more logging was necessary. “Unmanaged forests quickly become overcrowded and unhealthy. Fighting for water, less able to fend off pest infestations, those forests often become stockpiles of combustible material,” an outfit called the Working Forests Action Network noted in an e-mail to supporters and press. And land managers argued the huge fires exposed state and federal budgets that skimp on firefighting resources.
But this year the theme that everyone else—the press, politicians, and land managers alike—kept returning to was climate change.
Severe wildfires left many wondering if this is the "new normal" in our region. Photo by Genna Martin/The Herald
As Washington’s fires raged, national news organizations shipped out correspondents hungry for a story of global warming made manifest, concrete examples of the carnage wrought by the defining environmental crisis of our time.
Filing a story from Walla Walla, a New York Times reporter—while dubiously suggesting that eastern Washington summers are “known for soaking skies and cool summers”—made repeated but vague references to climate change’s role in the fire season (“Officials have warned about the potential for more catastrophe in months ahead, as drought and climate change push high temperatures higher, drying already-arid lands”).
The Los Angeles Times offered readers this somewhat confounding assessment when discussing Washington fires and climate in July: “Climate experts say the current conditions in the Pacific Northwest are part of a short-term climate phenomenon, but they warn that temperatures are rising everywhere.”
“Washington state’s terrifying new climate threat: ‘Urban Wildfires,’ ” read a headline on Salon.com in July, attached to a story that had as its only source an eastern Washington fire chief who prefaces his remarks by saying he’s not a climate scientist and is unqualified to say whether this year’s fire conditions were related to anthropogenic global warming.
It was all enough to drive Cliff Mass a little mad.
After reading story after story in July and August declaring this year’s fire season “the new normal” due to climate change, the prominent University of Washington atmospheric scientist took to his blog in late August and pounded out an exhaustive post that set out to prove that climate change had little to nothing to do with the forest fires in eastern Washington.
Yes, he wrote, this year was hot and dry. But it was an anomaly, not part of a wider trend of rising temperatures.
“There is no reason to expect that greenhouse gas-caused warming will produce more fires during the next few decades,” Mass wrote (in boldface). “This year does NOT represent the culmination of a trend toward heat waves and low snowpack, but a huge anomaly, one that is associated with natural variability.” (Emphasis his.)
Anyone who follows Mass’ blog, and many do, shouldn’t have been surprised by the post.
Mass atop the the Atmospheric Sciences and Geophysics Building at UW. Photo by Kyu Han
For years Mass has used his position as possibly Seattle’s best-known scientist to bat down what he sees as irresponsible claims by the media, politicians, and even other scientists when it comes to the current effects of climate change.
While it avoided his scorn in his wildfire post, The Seattle Times is easily Mass’ favorite whipping boy for climate-change coverage he finds spotty. A few weeks after the fire post, he laid into a story from the Times’ front page featuring a scientist whose research suggests that Pacific Northwest glaciers are melting at a “disastrous” rate.
“Glacial melting has been going on a long time and humans have not been the main cause of the glacier retreat most of the time,” Mass wrote, accompanied with graphs showing that Pacific Northwest glaciers have been retreating since the late 1800s.
“I can show you a dozen more of these kinds of figures from other scientists, but the bottom line is clear: the retreat of glaciers [has] been going on for more than a century. It started before mankind could have been the cause.”
He can seem fixated on the topic—“driven to distraction,” by his own telling. Blogging about the recent windstorm that ripped through Seattle, he scorned those who would tie the storm to climate change, though no one seemed to be doing anything of the sort.
The impetus behind this particular crusade, Mass says, is moral. He is convinced that the media, and the scientists who enable them, are purposely exaggerating the current effects of climate change as part of a well-intentioned but ill-conceived effort to scare people into taking action to address climate change.
“It really bothers me—a lot of the media is saying stuff that’s not even true,” he says in the New York accent Seattle has gotten to know well from his nearly 20 years as a contributor on local public radio. “They are using extreme weather as a tool to push their political and social view. Lying to people is not a good idea.”
Cliff Mass is not a “denier”—that is, someone who denies humans are contributing to climate change through the release of greenhouse gases like CO2. He’s defensive on that point, concluding one phone interview with Seattle Weekly by imploring, “I’m not a denier!”
But he is something of a not-yet-er, arguing that the effects of climate change will be felt decades in the future, not now.
Needless to say, this isn’t a universally accepted stance—even if it is one that gets heard globally: Such is Mass’ high public profile that some of climate research’s biggest players are well aware of him.
Upon hearing his name when contacted for this story, prominent climate scientist Kevin Trenberth, a lead author of two of the U.N.’s definitive reports on man’s effects on the climate, interrupted to say that Mass was a “weather scientist, not a climate scientist.?
Shortly after receiving an e-mail query, a climate activist who lives out of state called the Weekly from Bonn, Germany, where preliminary meetings to the United Nations’ Paris Conference on Climate Change were taking place. He declined to go on the record, but wanted to register his annoyance that Mass was using his bully pulpit to raise technical issues of causality between weather events and climate change, which only distracted from the broader point that man is irreversibly changing the atmosphere.
In August, local environmental blog Deep Green Resistance wrote in a post that received considerable attention online: “Cliff Mass is a Professor in the Atmosphere Sciences Department at the University of Washington . . . He is also a dangerous new breed of climate skeptic.”
That was similar to a comment left under his post about the Times glacier story: “Cliff Mass, your blog on this glacier article is a dangerous disservice.”
Welcome to the new climate debate, where the stakes are high and the weatherman is dangerous.
When he’s not lecturing, Mass works out of a small office on the sixth floor of the University of Washington’s Atmospheric Sciences-Geophysics Building. His walls are covered with drawings by his sons, all of which depict weather: rainbows, sunshine, puffy white clouds. His shelves are packed tight with thick binders of research.
It’s an early Wednesday afternoon in September; the campus is still enjoying the easy calm of summer break. Mass wears a short-sleeved shirt with a palm-tree motif, his curly hair an uncombed, handsome mess.
Asking me to stand by a moment, he clicks away on his mouse. Working on another blog post? “No, I’m just grabbing some photos for my new book,” he says.
Mass is a communicator. He possesses a special knack for talking hard science in a way that’s accessible to the layperson—a craft he learned from its master, Carl Sagan. Mass received his undergraduate degree from Cornell, where he worked with the renowned astronomer to create a model of the Martian atmosphere.
Cliff Mass and Carl Sagan back in the day.
His specialty is weather, and he’s literally written the book on the weather patterns of the Pacific Northwest: The Weather of the Pacific Northwest. During his 15 years appearing weekly on KUOW, for which he was never paid, he earned a reputation as someone who could forgo the bouncy routines of television weathercasts and deliver something far more insightful and satisfying to a community largely defined by its weather (what The New York Times might call soaking skies and cool summers). His program was popular enough that it played a small part in Where’d You Go, Bernadette, Maria Semple’s best-selling portrait of Seattle (the precocious protagonist always looks forward to listening to Mass’ show in the car, and a storm he warns listeners of proves to be a major plot point).
In 2008, Mass started to blog, a medium through which he, again, struck a nice balance in explaining science, conversational but not pandering (if a little cheesy in that special way only college science professors can be). In one recent post, he explained how the clash of El Nino with a mass of warm air sitting off the Pacific coast will affect Seattle’s weather this winter by casting it as a pitched battle between, respectively, Godzilla and a menacing blob. El Nino wins, but Mass says “Deep down we will be sad for the vanquished BLOB.” Mass’ blog, which bears a title as creative as his textbook—Cliff Mass Weather Blog—prominently features a traffic counter in the top right corner; in early September it exceeded 20 million pageviews, and has gained another 300,000 since.
But while weather has always been Mass’ bread and butter, he is a man with wide interests befitting his vast intellect—a fact that’s been no small source of controversy. KUOW dropped him as a weekly contributor in 2011 due to what station managers said was a too-common tendency to use his radio time to talk about other, touchier, topics—specifically the Seattle School District’s math curriculum, over which he and other parents were suing the district. After being let go, Mass started another blog, KUOWgate.blogspot.com, and argued that he’d address non-weather topics only when asked by host Steve Scher. He was quickly picked up by KPLU as a contributor, and has continued to blog occasionally about what he sees as the declining state of KUOW programming.
Clearly, climate change is not such a large leap from his expertise in weather, and Mass has published peer-reviewed papers in journals that contribute to what we know about man’s impact on the atmosphere. (One paper in The Journal of Climate is titled “A High-Resolution Climate Model for the U.S. Pacific Northwest: Mesoscale Feedbacks and Local Responses to Climate Change,” in case you’re in the mood for some deeper reading.) A firm understanding of natural weather variability is a prerequisite to understanding what sort of variability humans are, or will be, introducing. It’s arguably the most controversial scrum he’s entered yet, but in the style of his former professor Sagan, Mass is not one to withhold an opinion just because it might draw disagreement.
When it comes to those he feels are exaggerating climate change, Mass says, “I could stand back and let them. But that bothers me on a few levels. The role of people in my field is to tell [the public] the best science. We shouldn’t be lying to the public to get them to do the right thing—supposedly the right thing.”
Mass’ first public foray into the debate came in 2007 after then-Mayor Greg Nickels published an op-ed that claimed snowpack in the Cascades had decreased 50 percent since the 1950s.
While a colleague of Mass’ was the first to raise questions about that figure, Mass joined him in his effort to correct the figure, and was outspoken about why he thought doing so was important. While the alarming number was a great way to get attention for climate change, Mass told The Seattle Times at the time, it ultimately put climate science, and the politicians who wish to act on it, at risk. “To allow him [Nickels] to be out there with numbers that are unsupportable, it’s setting him up to walk the plank,” Mass told the paper.
Cliff Mass in his UW office. Photo by Kyu Han
Since then, questioning alarming claims about climate change has become almost a second vocation for Mass. Two years ago, the Times published a deeply reported four-part series on the increased acidity of the ocean due to the huge amounts of CO$ID/aalt32 it was absorbing from the atmosphere. It was an enviable piece. Beautifully produced online, with elegant photography and informative infographics, the story by reporter Craig Welch delivered a frightening and convincing account of the ways in which acidification was already manifesting in Puget Sound. “Ocean acidification—the lesser-known twin of climate change—is helping push the seas toward a great unraveling that threatens to scramble marine life on a scale almost too big to fathom, and far faster than first expected,” Welch wrote.
Mass’ rebuttal—delivered on his blog—was longer than usual, befitting the length of the piece he intended to discredit. His most salient critique stemmed from Welch’s profile of oyster farmers whose shellfish were dying as larvae because the waters’ pH balance had changed. It had gotten to the point that some oyster growers were moving to Hawaii, where the effects of ocean acidification have been less pronounced, and Welch called them the ”closest thing the world has seen to ocean-acidification refugees.” Mass pointed out that Puget Sound has always seen wider swings in acidity than other areas, and that clams and oysters native to this region—razor clams, for example—were actually producing bumper crops in recent years. Only non-native species—like the oysters that Welch reported on—were having trouble. “Could it be that our native species are far more accustomed to the naturally varying pH of our region and that the imports are not?” Mass asked.
The Times clearly worried that Mass’ rebuttal was undercutting its credibility. Welch took the unusual step of responding to Mass with a blog post of his own, asking his scientific sources about their responses to Mass’ critiques, and came away with the conclusion that he’d gotten the story right (yes, Craig’s sources said, acidification swings widely in Puget Sound, but climate change pushed it beyond what used to be habitable for the shellfish).
Mass, meanwhile, sticks by his story, and was emboldened when news broke earlier this year—again by the Times—that many of the region’s shellfish growers were spraying dangerous pesticides on their beds to kill a native shrimp that hurt their production (of, again, non-native shellfish). “I told them! You’re making these guys into victims but they’re doing bad stuff,” he told me.
Mass is not the only scientist who harbors such reservations about the current climate-change conversation. John Michael Wallace, a UW professor of atmospheric science, says he fears that some scientists and activists are threatening the credibility of climate science by being too quick to attribute events to manmade CO$ID/aalt32. “January 2014, when we had all that cold weather in the central and Eastern part of the country, was a good example,” he tells me. “There were a number of people in our field who were suggesting this was a bizarre response to global warming. . . . This is a genuine topic of conversation in the scientific community and I don’t blame the people who hypothesized it, but the press really picked it up and ran with it, and the beneficiary of it was Fox News and the right-wing press, who point out how silly it looks to blame cold weather on global warming.”
While Mass says, simply, that he isn’t a denier, Wallace is outright hostile to deniers, and was one of 20 scientists to call on the FBI to open a racketeering investigation against corporations and scientists who may have collaborated to obscure the public’s understanding of climate change. Despite his signing of the letter, he says he worries that scientists aren’t allowing enough open debate on climate change for political reasons. “I’m 100 percent behind [Mass] on his feeling that there’s a need to have an open debate and we can disagree with ourselves, and it’s very dangerous if we lose that natural scrappiness in our culture as scientists,” he says. “It supports our credibility, the fact that we argue amongst ourselves. We don’t have to be politically correct.”
Others aren’t so certain that Mass’ contribution to the debate is a positive one.
Reflecting the congenial face academia loves to maintain, scientists interviewed for this piece were loath to criticize Mass directly, apart from snippy asides. Trenberth says he doesn’t know very much about the man, his almost reflexive snipe about Mass being a weather scientist notwithstanding.
But they made one point clear: Climate change is affecting the Earth, now, in profound ways, and scientists have proven it.
“What goes on is still dominated by the weather, in day-to-day events. But the manifestation of that weather is systematically being influenced by climate change,” Trenberth says. “So in drought, what you might regard as normal variability in some sense, there’s an additional component of it related to climate change . . . It makes the drought more severe. It increases the risk of wildfire. There are systematically more and more of these kinds of events.”
Trenberth is perhaps best known for his research into how Hurricane Katrina, and later Hurricane Sandy, were influenced by climate change. “These storms have gone beyond the bounds of previous existence, and we can document, with considerable certainty, that some of the environmental changes that we know exist—warmer sea temperatures, warmer water below the surface, warmer air—those are worsening factors,” he says. “I’m not saying the storms came into existence or were more frequent. But once we’re given such a storm, then its consequences are somewhat graver.”
Of this summer’s wildfires, Trenberth says models show that warmer weather is going to evaporate water on the ground more quickly, making everything drier and more susceptible to severe fire. That’s not to say grass doesn’t always get dry in the summer, or that climate change is causing the grass to catch on fire. But it does contribute. “It doesn’t cause it, it increases the risk. Something comes along like lightning, that can ignite these things and trigger a wildfire,” he says.
Richard Gammon, a UW professor in oceanography and atmospheric science, says he thinks scientists, if anything, are being too conservative with their modeling on the present effects of climate change. “Young scientists don’t want to be extreme,” he says. “The IPCC [the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change] is more conservative than the personal opinions of most climate scientists. Most climate scientists are scared and depressed, and they wish the message would get out.”
Now in emeritus status, Gammon says he feels it incumbent to shed the cloak of disinterest and become an activist based on what he knows about climate change. “Do I lose my objectivity a little bit? Maybe. But I’m doing this for my kids,” he says.
The complicating factor of all this is that climate change, and the science around it, has clear political implications.
Everyone spoken to for this article, including Mass, agrees that action needs to be taken now by governments to curb the amount of carbon being emitted. Doing so will require some kind of centralized control over energy. Beyond its economic implications—higher gas prices, loss of jobs in the coal industry—increased government involvement is anathema to many Americans. Anyone who wonders why so many of us resist steps toward controlling carbon has a very poor grasp of our nation’s political landscape.
That said, there is hope among many climate activists that over time the scientific consensus will become so overwhelming to so many people that resisting climate legislation will become politically untenable.
“The main fear is that if conservatives accept the reality of climate change, they’ll need to accept the role of government,” Gammon says.
It’s here where frustrations with views held by people like Mass really boil over. In shifting the conversation away from the reality of climate change toward smaller questions of what specific phenomena, right now, are or aren’t due to climate change, many climate activists see a disservice to society.
“He is a good communicator and is widely read. I think he is probably the most-read scientist in Seattle, and has an outsized influence on what kind of information people get,” says KC Golden, senior policy advisor with Seattle-based Climate Solutions. He says that whether Mass means them to be or not, his posts are read in a particular context: “Are we responding to the climate challenge too urgently or not urgently enough?” “I feel very strongly that we’re not responding fast enough,” Golden says. “I fear the net effect of Cliff’s stuff is the impression that we’re responding too urgently . . . Cliff is playing to the demand for anyone who would tell us that this big scary thing isn’t that big a problem to begin with.”
Gammon makes much the same argument: “[Mass] encourages people who say it’s not happening here yet, so I’m not going to worry about it much.”
I ask Golden whether, as some have suggested, climate activists and scientists err on the other side, making the reality scarier than it actually is due to political considerations—playing to the demand of those who want to prove fossil fuels are an existential threat.
“I think that’s conceivable. . . . But the bigger danger, by far, is not that somehow there’s too much urgency and science being manipulated to support it. There’s not enough urgency.”
Added Trenberth: “[Mass] is right that there’s a potential to err on that side. . . . But that hasn’t been the main risk, because the issue is not that we’re overreacting to climate change. We’re underreacting. A number of Republicans and Tea Party members in Congress have been a complete failure to address climate change, despite the Obama administration’s efforts.
“We’re not erring on that side.”
Washingtonians don’t have to look beyond their own borders to see that Trenberth is correct.
Anchored by a city that prides itself on its environmental bona fides and run by a governor who has made climate change his personal crusade, even Washington has found it difficult to make meaningful strides on carbon emissions. Last legislative session, Gov. Jay Inslee’s ambitious cap-and-trade bill, which would have heavily taxed carbon emitters in the state, failed to pass even in the state House, controlled by his fellow Democrats.
But Mass argues the political malaise on climate change isn’t due to deniers, but the failure of a strategy that hypes the science. He touches on this point in our interview at UW, but expands on it, without prompting, in an e-mail the next morning. “I was thinking about our interesting conversation on my way home today (biking, of course!),” he writes. “I think I can put it all much more succinctly and explain what I am trying to do. The Environmental Movement is failing. Their current approach is simply not working. Greenhouse-gas concentrations are rising as quickly as ever. Fossil-fuel use is rising rapidly. For most people, greenhouse warming is way down on their priority/interest list. Politicians, even supposedly liberal, enlightened ones, talk a lot about the problem but do very little (like grandstanding about the Shell platform but doing little about traffic). The political scene is increasingly polarized and frozen. Our environmental governor is getting no traction and making no progress.
“Instead of rethinking their approach, environmental types are doubling down on a failed approach, getting more shrill and oppositional,” he concluded before taking on the voice of those environmental types: “Every major weather event is proof of the ‘new normal.’ ”
Mass’ criticism of Inslee is significant. In 2008, the then-U.S. Representative and Mass were viewed as two of the state’s strongest voices on the realities of climate change; Inslee even blurbed Mass’ book. That they are now intellectual adversaries may demonstrate how the climate-change debate has shifted in recent years. Inslee could not be reached for comment.
Mass says that by resisting the urge to hype climate change beyond what’s scientifically defensible, he’s been able to reach audiences that might otherwise be averse even to talking about the subject. This, he says, could help build a political coalition that might actually take action on carbon in the state, as well at take steps now to mitigate the impact of global warming in the future. He cites as an example a recent talk he gave to the Yakima Rotary Club. “These guys are apple-growers,” he says. “I think there’s a middle ground that’s accessible. You can’t come at this in a way that’s hyping things that are false.”
Mass has become an outspoken supporter of I-732, Carbon Washington, which would place a tax on carbon and reduce taxes elsewhere in the state. For Mass, that campaign—which has come under attack from the left because it does not raise revenue that could go toward helping poor people most impacted by climate change and carbon taxes—has become representative of the larger battle over climate change, in that it shows how the left’s approach has been radicalized to the point of political futility. He notes that, like himself, I-732 has been able to bring conservatives to the table on climate-change legislation, among them the Washington Policy Center, which typically takes conservative, pro-business stances on issues.
Todd Myers, director of the Center for Environment at the Washington Policy Center, has served as an adviser for I-732, and argues that attacks from the left show an ulterior agenda for many who cite the grave threats of global warming. “The left is actually opposing the Carbon Washington initiative,” he says. “The reason they cite is because it has to have tax increases. It’s holding hostage climate action to new taxes. They care more about taxes than climate action.”
However, there is no guarantee that moderation will work. It’s still far from certain that Mass, or Carbon Washington, is getting conservatives on board with strong climate action. When I air my impression that his advisory role on I-732 means that the Washington Policy Center is supporting the measure, Myers quickly corrects me. “Washington Policy Center does not endorse Carbon Washington,” he says.
Another potential downfall of moderation in messaging is that there isn’t a strong track record of the public responding to a measured approach. For all its shortcomings, the popular press is fairly good at knowing what will get eyeballs on stories. If a slightly alarming headline gets people to learn more about carbon in the atmosphere, isn’t that a good thing?
By and large, the news stories that Mass criticized in that August post on forest fires were fairly measured in making the connection between global warming and the wildfires. The Stranger, for example, took to calling this summer’s fires the “front lines of climate change,” but reporter Sydney Brownstone was careful to note that natural causes were playing a major role in the fires.
Sitting in his UW office, I ask Mass how he expects the media to get anyone to care about climate change if it’s presented in cool scientific terms?
His eyes growing wide, he points to his computer screen, where Godzilla El Nino and The Blob are fighting it out on his web page.
“You don’t need to hype it!” he says. “Look at me. I got 20 million pageviews.”
Daniel Person is News Editor for Seattle Weekly. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 206-467-4381. Follow him on Twitter at @danoperson.
This story has been edited to reflect that Cliff Mass continues to appear on public radio, on KPLU, in the Seattle area.