Rome Didn't Fall in A Day.

Objective Truth Exists, and is Accessible to Everyone.

All Human Problems can be Solved with Enough Knowledge, Wealth, Social Cooperation and Time.

Photo: Rusty Peak, Anchorage, Alaska


Saturday, December 19, 2020

Doug's Laws

A few months ago, I posted a reply on social media with a comment that I called "Doug's Law #271".  "There’s a precursor event to every disaster, if anyone is paying sufficient attention."  A friend, taking me seriously (big mistake) asked to read the other 270, which didn't really exist.  

After a little thought, I decided it would be worthwhile to make a list of my life lessons and insights.  Some are original, but more are life lessons I learned from others, in person or through reading.  Some of these might seem cynical, obvious or trivial.  As another friend often says, your mileage may vary.  But for what it's worth, here is the list of Doug's Laws.

1)  All human problems can be solved with enough knowledge, money, social cooperation and time. 
        Social cooperation and time are usually the limiting factors.
                -  Modified from David Deutsch

2)  On a beach of white seashells, the dark shell is the prettiest.  On a beach of dark seashells, the white one is the prettiest. 
      The sunset is beautiful because it is brief and different than the other colors of the day. 

3)  Objective truth exists and is generally accessible to everyone.

4)  Progressive risk-taking always ends in trouble or disaster.
        Examples of progressive risk-taking include:
        > “We’ve taken chances before, and it’s always worked out all right.”
        > “We’ve launched the Space Shuttle successfully twenty-four times; what can go wrong?”
        > “You can always fit a car through a narrower space than you expect” - until you can’t.
        > “Well, you didn’t get pregnant the last time”.
        > “You can go farther than you think on a tank of gas” - until you can’t.  This is especially important in small airplanes. – Modified from FAA Accident Report, circa 2009

5)  You have to learn to cooperate when paddling a canoe.

6)   There is no rewind button on life.
Kasparov makes an analogy to the chessboard.  You have to play the position on the board, regardless of your own prior errors or unexpected moves by your opponent.  Omar Khayyam also had something to say about the moving finger that writes and moves on. 

7)  We should judge God according to standards of reason and justice.
           If we determine that God is not reasonable or just, why should anyone believe in God?
                      - Modified from David Deutsch.

8)  Thinking based on false premises cannot be expected to yield good conclusions or decisions. 
            This is why I reject religion and spirituality, despite some positive aspects of these beliefs.

9)  The existence of war causes me to question the existence of nations as an organizing principle for humankind.

10)  Borders are not for keeping people out; they are for keeping rules in. 
- Steve Robbins (son)

11)  Kindness is best and most needed when it is completely unexpected.

12)  Humans are a uniquely improbable, intelligent and capable species with no known analogs in time and space. 
There is no evidence of another sentient and capable species in the 4.5 billion year history of earth.  Cephalopods did not develop technical intelligence in nearly 500 million years of evolution.  Dinosaurs did not evolve technical intelligence in 170 million years of evolution.   There is no evidence of another sentient species in the galaxy. 

We should make the most of our abilities.  We are unique, and have the opportunity to become something better than we are today.

13)  I live in the Middle Ages, a time of war, disease, superstition and ignorance.
The Middle Ages will end when humankind is no longer organized into nations, when infectious disease is conquered, when most people no longer believe in spiritual beings and when education provides understanding, instead of belief and knowledge.

14)  It’s critically important to know when the rules have changed.
         People in 1930s Europe didn’t realize that the rules had changed.

15)  If you don’t have a better idea, it’s time to shut up.
When someone is objecting to the solution to a problem, ask them for their alternative.

16)  Three out of six people are completely honest. 
          Two out of six will bend the rules to their advantage.
          One out of six people will simply cheat.
      - From experience as an internal auditor, an unscientific sample.

17) The great ethical debate of the next century will be what rights to give to sentient machines. 
        The great ethical debate of the following century will be what rights to give to sentient humans.

18)  Justice delayed is injustice.

19)  You can’t mop the floor clean with dirty water.
        -Steak ‘n Shake manager, 1972.
        Ends and means are the same.  There are no good ends achieved though bad means.
         - Modified from Jacob Bronowski.

20)  Celebrate people who are different.  Accept people you don’t understand.  Tolerate people who are somewhat annoying.  Confront people who are evil.

21)  No one is solely responsible for their own success.  Everyone is helped by other people along the way, and by the schools and institutions that enable them to succeed.
No business is solely responsible for its own success.  Every business is only successful because society has created a landscape of fair opportunity, physical and commercial infrastructure and a legal framework that enable the business to succeed.
Successful individuals and businesses have a responsibility to pay forward the profits of their success, so that others can also succeed.

22)  Anything worth doing requires practice.

23) You improve what you measure.
        - Ralph Dartez 

24)  You can’t write unless you have something to say.
        Decide what to say before you write.

25)  Say the most important thing first.
                   - Ed Buchwald

26)  Everything you write will be improved by an editor.

                       - Renee Frazee, former secretary 

27)  Get rid of commas and extra words whenever you can.

28)  Explanations matter.
Science is a matter of finding explanations.  An explanation is the identification, observation, measurement and communication about some process that changes physical reality.  Explanations follow the structure of language, with subjects, objects, actions and descriptive modifiers.

        - Synthesis and expansion after David Deutsch, Jacob Bronowski and Ed Buchwald.

29)  Empiricism isn’t science; it only works within the range of previous experience. 
A good explanation has reach; it works outside the bounds of prior experience and extends to unexpected domains.

                        - Modified from David Deutsch and Jacob Bronowksi.

30)  Nassim Taleb’s Black Swans represent events outside of the previous range of experience.
“The Envelope” is the term used by test pilots to describe the range of previous testing parameters for an airplane  Unexpected behavior often occurs outside of the envelope.  Empiricism only works within the envelope of prior experience.  Good explanations are needed to anticipate outcomes outside of the envelope of prior experience.

31)  Doing something and doing enough are entirely different things.

32)  People think and identify in dualities.
Examples: Communism or Democracy, mountains or seashore, truth or falsehood, good or evil, Republican or Democrat.  Reality is more complicated.

33)  Scientists come in two types, experimentalists and theoreticians. 
Consider Aristotle vs. Plato, Galileo vs. Newton, Michelson vs. Einstein, Edison vs. Tesla.  Neither can progress without the other. This is another example of a simplified but useful duality.

34)  People think either in terms of what is seen and experienced, or in terms of underlying causes.  It is difficult for the two types to communicate.
This difference corresponds to the “sensing” or “intuitive” types in the Myers-Briggs personality system.  The sensing individual believes only what he’s seen and doesn’t look for underlying causes.  The intuitive individual seeks to understand what he hasn’t seen and expects underlying causes.  This distinction seems to represent the some of the biggest differences in human outlook, including political orientation.

35)  There is a hierarchy in the ways that people comprehend the world: experience, belief, knowledge and understanding.  Understanding is the highest level of comprehension, and fails less often than experience, belief, or knowledge.  Experience is necessarily limited.  Belief is without basis beyond historical precedent.  Knowledge implies learning from authoritative sources, and is generally limited to outcomes.  Understanding implies that you know how things work; you comprehend the physical processes producing a higher level result.

36)  People hate to let go of knowledge they learned as a child.

37)  Any number is meaningless without another number for context.

38)  Anyone or anything of sufficient intelligence should be able to independently derive the golden rule.  Some animals are sufficiently intelligent.  Some people are not.

39)  People who don’t give respect don’t deserve respect.

40)  Democracy and free enterprise are the best known systems for political and economic organization, but these institutions only work in societies with high integrity, fairness and regard for truth. This is concerning for the United States in 2020.

41)  Rome didn’t fall in a day.

42)  Anyone who won’t face the world without a gun is either a bully or a coward.

43)  Being a manager is largely about being a life counselor.

44)  At any given time, one out of ten people is in an existential crisis, and has told somebody about it.  Another one out of ten people is in crisis but hasn’t told anyone yet.

45)  Being a manager is like being a custodian.
        You stay at the office after everyone else has gone home and clean up the mess that people made during the day.

46)  Always learn the name of the custodian and thank them by name.

47)  Always greet people by name.

48)  People who think like dogs make great employees. 
        People who think like cats wind up in prison.

49)  Every small child is a genius in terms of learning, memory and creativity.

50)  Every small child instinctively understands that this moment will never come again.
Adults mistakenly believe that there’s time to do things later.

51)  Amateur music is good training for life. 
        You learn to appreciate the good notes and ignore the bad ones.

52)  It’s always darkest just before you stub your toe and fall down the stairs.

53)  People are at their greatest risk of a tragic accident when they are on vacation or having fun.

54)  The enjoyment of a bit of food is often inversely proportional to its size.

55)  When you’re hiking up a mountain, most of the way you can’t see the top.

56)  Always minimize the weight you are carrying when hiking. 
You will enjoy the hike much more.  But in dry country, always carry enough water.  You can make that a life metaphor if you like.

57)  It’s best to start hiking uphill and come down on the way home.
Also, start biking, canoeing or kayaking into the wind, and return with the wind at your back.

58)  Always check the gas when you start an engine.

59)  People consciously and unconsciously signal their status to other people.
One of our strongest signals is gender identity. 

60)  Women usually wear mittens.  Men usually wear gloves.
Nothing they say about it actually explains the dichotomy. 

61)  If it’s important, write it down now.

62)  The more hours I spend outdoors, the better I sleep.

63)  For every proverb, there’s an equal and opposite proverb.
Examples:     A) Look before you leap. B) He who hesitates is lost.
                      A) A penny saved is a penny earned.  B) You can’t take it with you.
        – Steve Robbins (son)

64)  A good question carries with it the key to its own solution.
        – source unknown

65)  When a reporter asks you for a comment, they’ve already decided what you are going to say.

66)  If you are a public figure, no reporter is ever really your friend.

67)  Propaganda works. 
Confirmation bias is a very powerful force.  Confirmation bias combined with propaganda forms a feedback loop leading to unreasonable denial of truth.

68)  Most people are not interested in seeing both sides of an issue.

69)  Most politicians only know how to get elected and have no idea how to govern.
- Peggy Robbins

70)  It is impossible for a politician to remain completely independent of the interests of his campaign donors.  This is the reason for campaign finance reform.

71)  When there’s only one way to say the truth, that’s how you have to say it.
- Modified from Ed Sneed.

72)  Truth is necessarily an approximation, operating over a given domain, and with a degree of uncertainty.  But uncertainty does not mean falsehood. Objective truth (not absolute truth) exists.

73)  Art is the deliberate creation of something that produces an emotional response in another person. Art is an intentional form of communication.  Art requires an artist and an audience. 

74)  People come in distinct, different personality types, easily recognizable according to various systems (Briggs/Myers INTJ, etc.; Thinker/Doer/Socializer/Empathizer; Authority Centered/Peer Centered/Ego Centered; Ravenclaw, Gryffindor, Hufflepuff, etc.).  Bu personalities are not fixed, but vary with time and context.  A leader in the office may be a follower in the family, and yet another type in a social club.

75)  The personality of a dog usually says something about the personality of its owner.

76)  Everyone working a full-time job deserves to earn a living wage.  A living wage is enough to comfortably raise a family.  

77)  Dog owners will never understand that the dog’s behavior toward a stranger is different than the dog’s behavior toward its family.

78)  All cats are alike, which is why tigers will sit in boxes. 
This is concerning because the biggest cats would like to eat you.

79)  Every database has errors.  The larger the database, the more errors there are.

80)  Every question from a vice-president begins with “what” or “how”.  Every question from the president begins with “who”.

81)  The potential return from cutting costs is one-fold.  The potential return from growth is unlimited.

82)  There is value in redundancy.  Redundancy provides resiliency, optionality, innovation and quality control.  These benefits usually outweigh the costs.

83)  There is value in diversity – of people, of systems, of approaches to problems.  Like redundancy, diversity provides resiliency, optionality, innovation and quality control.   

84)  People make work for other people.  Larger organizations have greater scope and flexibility, but less efficiency.

85)  Every system has friction and inefficiencies.  A rigorous program of eliminating inefficiencies may impair the primary function of the system.

86)  The benefit of a risk decision should first be weighed against the impact of the potential loss, without regard to probability.

87)  There’s a precursor event to every disaster, if anyone is paying sufficient attention.
Problems with the Titanic’s rivets were known before it hit an iceberg.  Problems with the Shuttle O-Rings were known before the Challenger disaster.  Problems with the Shuttle heat tiles were known before the Columbia disaster.

88)  The most common cause of failure for risk appraisal models is correlated risk. 
This was the cause of the financial crisis of 2008.  The second most common cause is neglected experience.

89)  The universe will keep teaching you the same lesson until you learn it.  
- Michelle Turner

90)  In your previous life experience, you have never found the limit of how good or how bad a situation can be. 
“You only think you’ve found the endpoint of the lowest quality oil in the Gulf of Mexico.”   
            – Vic Beghini, President of Marathon Oil. (Note: Beghini was right.).
In any distribution there’s always a possible realization beyond what you have sampled.
In any situation, it’s always possible for things to be worse.  

91)  Variables in one dimension have a normal distribution.  Variables in multiple dimensions (either physical dimensions or the product of one-dimensional variables) have a skewed, log-normal distribution.  The greater the skew, the more likely the variable is due to multiple-parameters.

92)  Most real-world distributions are log-normal in the middle, but distorted on the tails. 
Distribution tails may be truncated by physical limits or fattened by some parameter outside of basic model.

93)  No one can properly assess very low probability or very high probability events. 
This is partly due to sampling theory, party human nature, and partly due to uncertainty about    distribution tails.  Strategic planning for these events should focus on scenarios rather than probabilities    .

94)  Truly random events happen in streaks.

95)  There are more ways for things to go wrong than right. 
This accounts for the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics (entropy), Murphy’s Law, and Tolstoy’s aphorism about happy and unhappy families. 

96)  It is in the nature of the human brain to sometimes make mistakes. 
Thinking is a statistical process, involving thousands of synapses modulating thousands of others.  The process is generally correct, but not always.  –  after Jacob Bronowski and Daniel Kahneman

97)  Today’s geologists will spend the first half of our careers trying to get carbon out of the ground.   We will spend the second half of our careers trying to put it back.
                            - Me, circa 1990

98)  Regarding climate change, if we all do a little, we will only do a little. 
    Large scale solutions are needed.
        - modified from David MacKay

99)  Climate change solutions need to be efficient (affordable) scalable and timely.  As of today, no such solutions exist.  -  Dr. Charles Hall, SUNY, circa 2009
More than a decade later, we are only a little closer to efficient, scalable solutions, and we are running out of time.

100)  Risk factors are not all equal.
The risk on an oil prospect is calculated as the product of several component risks – source rock, reservoir rock, seal, trap, and timing.   However, the risks are not of equal scope.  The lack of a source rock condemns a basin; lack of reservoir, seal or poor timing condemns a play; lack of a trap condemns only a prospect.  Risk factors occur in a natural hierarchy and should not be regarded as equal in developing an exploration program.

101)  The main criterion for judging prospects should not be the chance of success on the exploration well, but the probability that if the exploration well is successful, the project will be successful.  Delineation risk should be managed during the prospect generation and selection process.

102)  A good prospect should have five elements.  These elements constrain delineation and development risk.  (AKA Robbins’ Rules.)
        >  A prospect should be simple.
        >  A prospect should be big (enough to be clearly economic if successful, and have a meaningful commercial impact to the company).
        >  A prospect should be seismically visible.
        >  A prospect should have a laterally continuous reservoir.
        >  A prospect should be developed according to a conceptual model.

103)  Every list in a business presentation starts with the author’s personal agenda, followed by several things that everybody knows and ends with the boss’s personal dogma.  (See list above.)

104)  The productivity and wealth of a nation depends on its energy usage and level of integrity.   
Per capita GDP correlates very well with an index weighting energy usage by 2/3 and integrity (from Transparency International) by 1/3.  See the “Wealth of Nations” post on my blog, Wonky Thoughts.

105)  Your reputation is your most important asset.
- Steve Robbins (father, b. 1923)

106)  No one can ever take your education away from you.
            - Steve Robbins (father, b. 1923)

107)  A contract is meaningless without mechanisms for enforcement of its terms.
           - Ralph Dartez

108)  Buying and holding a low-cost stock index is the most effective investing strategy.
This is due to several simple truths: 1) you can’t time the market, 2) a broad portfolio performs best, 3) gains on held stocks compound without tax, and 4) you will minimize management fees.

109)  If you have an investing idea but aren’t sure that you are right, do half of what you originally considered.  This prevents inaction.

110)  My grandfather dropped out of school at the age of 14 and started a real estate business with his older brother.  He retired at the age of 89.  He said that 75 years in real estate had taught him three things.
        1) Every house has cracks.
        2) Every house eventually sells.
        3) Something is only worth what someone else will pay you for it.
                When I became older, I wondered if he meant this to be an analogy to people.
        1) Every person has flaws.
        2) There’s a suitable partner for every person.
        3) Your value as a person is measured by what you provide to others.

111)  Human values inform the decisions and behavior of individuals and societies.  There are first-order core values, and second-order values which logically follow from core values or the intersection of core values.
The following is a list of my values.
        > Empathy – Kindness, Compassion, Human Understanding, Care, Generosity
        > Truth – Honesty, Integrity, Accountability
        > Equity – Fairness, Justice, Respect, Diversity, Human Dignity, Opportunity, Democracy, Shared Prosperity
        > Service – Work Ethic, Humility (do the little things), Productivity (produce more than you         consume).
        > Progress – Science, Exploration, Technology, Physical Understanding, Globalism, Economic Development, Social Development, Peace
        > Responsibility – Ethics, Family, Community, Care and Provision for Future Generations
        > Conservation—Care and preservation of Nature for its own sake
        > Liberty – Individual Freedom, Self-determination
        > Self-regard – Courage, Reputation, Self-reliance, Challenge, Legacy, Productivity, Creativity

112)  Here is a list of values I reject.
        > Faith
        > Patriotism
        > Nationalism

113)  The creative personality is one that looks on the world as fit for change, and on himself as an instrument for change – Jacob Bronowski.  

114)  Creativity is a deliberate process used by clever people to solve problems, or for the pure joy of creation.  There are many similarities between technical creativity and artistic creativity.

Here is a list of creative processes.
> Creativity begins with deep expertise in a field.
> The next step involves reframing the problem or the paradigm.  A good question carries with it the key to its own solution (Law #54).
> Creativity often involves inversion of some part of the problem – or asking what would happen if you try exactly the opposite of what you’ve been trying to do.
> Visualize the problem from different vantage points, or before and after a process.
> Abstract thought (visualization) should alternate with analytical thought (measurement and calculation) in an iterative cycle.
> Depending on the problem, multiple solutions may be generated and evaluated before selecting an optimal solution, by some criteria.
> The creative work may come as a single inspiration, or a set of incremental innovations.
> The final step of any creative process is the realization and validation, through publication, construction or performance of the creative enterprise. – Modified after Betty Edwards

115)  Here is a list of laws about photography.
> Avoid back-lighting.  Put the subject of the photo in the best light, and focus on the subject.
> Try to achieve a range of brightness in the subject.
> Underexpose the photo; never overexpose. For landscapes, set the light setting by focusing on the sky.
> Check the background for distracting elements.
> Check that the horizon is horizontal.
> Never put the subject in the middle; follow the rule of thirds.
> Direct movement, facing and gaze toward the center of the photo.
> In landscapes, put an object in the foreground to create depth in the photo.
> Find complimentary colors.
> Look for patterns diverging or radiating from a point; look for repeating shapes or patterns at different scales.

Wednesday, November 25, 2020

California Wildfires, Climate Change, and Lisa Murkowski Message #12


Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski and James Hubbard, USDA Undersecretary for Natural Resources and the Environment, recently produced a session of the Senator’s podcast, talking about the extraordinary wildfire season in the Western US.  These public servants failed to acknowledge man-made climate change as the ultimate cause of the fire intensity.  Increased fire size and intensity were clearly forecast in the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) Impacts report in 1990, thirty years ago.  The causes of increased fire intensity were clearly identified in that report: higher temperatures and drought, leading to low soil moisture, dry plants and deadwood, increased fuel loading and increased lightning strikes.  Every contributing factor identified in the 1990 report has been realized and today’s wildfires are larger and more intense as predicted.  To neglect the explanation for that intensification is irresponsible.  Murkowski and Hubbard failed to inform the public, not only about what happened in 2020, but to warn the public of future risks as CO2 emissions and climate change continue unchecked.

Murkowski’s Message #12

In September of 2020, California was wracked by some of the largest and most destructive wildfires in its history.  Senator Lisa Murkowski, in her role as chair of the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, met with James Hubbard, USDA Undersecretary for Natural Resources and the Environment, to discuss the crisis.  Senator Murkowski posted audio of the twenty-minute interview as #12 in her series of Murkowski’s Messages, available here: 

I listened to the entire discussion. There is practically no mention of climate change, although Murkowski and Hubbard danced around the topic, with Murkowski making a passing reference to “the changing climate”.  However, they quickly brushed that idea aside and focused instead on overstocked fuel conditions in the forests.

Undersecretary Hubbard noted the persistence of abnormal fire conditions in the western states, with Hubbard saying, “…it has been developing for a long time, and it’s certainly going to be with us for a long time….We can expect this kind of fire behavior for some time to come.”  Hubbard also noted the significance of high heat and low humidity in intensifying the fires, and stated “This is unusual, but I think we will see more of it.” 

For her part, Murkowski dismissed the idea of seeking causes for the intense fires.  The Senator said that others were asking, “Why are we seeing so much?  What can be done?  Who is responsible, and who is to blame?”, but these were not questions she wanted to pursue.  In my view, this is deeply flawed.  On the contrary, these are exactly the questions we must answer if we want to avoid even worse wildfires in the future.

Incredibly, this talk by the Senator and the Undersecretary avoided all mention of human-caused climate change, which is the most significant factor in causing the disastrous Western wildfires.  Let me be clear – the dry and hot weather conditions of recent years in the West are due to the accumulation of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, principally CO2 from human use of fossil fuels.  Hot and dry weather cause low soil moisture, dry plants, and more deadwood.  Low soil moisture causes excess fuel in the forest, and causes fires to burn hotter and faster.  As Undersecretary Hubbard acknowledged, these conditions are strikingly different from the past and will persist a long time.  In fact, these conditions will persist as long as elevated CO2 in the atmosphere persists.  Levels of atmospheric CO2 will inevitably increase in coming decades, worsening the wildfire problem in the West.  We are not likely to return to the CO2 levels and climate conditions of the 20th century for another century or more. 

Forecast of Increased Wildfires, 1990 IPPC Impacts Assessment

For thirty years, we’ve been warned repeatedly that human-caused climate change will result in more destructive wildfires.  Beginning in 1990, each report of the ICPP (Intergovernmental Committee on Climate Change, a UN agency) has warned about the increasing danger of wildfires.  The series of National Climate Assessments produced by the United States have also highlighted the danger. 

The 1990 IPCC Impacts Assessment lays out in explicit detail how and why wildfires are becoming worse, depending on geography.  Temperatures are higher, and some areas are subject to drought; these cause a number of second-order changes that intensify wildfires.  Later IPCC reports provide even more area-specific forecasts.  Here are a few quotes from IPCC 1990 Impact Assessment:

  • "Losses from wild-fire will be increasingly extensive" (Policy-Makers Summary, p. 2)
  • “Fire damage is expected to increase with the susceptibility of forests.  Even if precipitation remains roughly the same, increased temperatures will lead to increased evapotranspiration and thus drier sites.  Warmer drier sites could have a higher incidence of severe fires, especially where stands are in a state of decline because of climatic changes” (p. 2-25).
  • “…blocking high pressure patterns, more lightning strikes and increased fuel loadings are a dangerous combination causing more and larger fires" (p. 2-25).
  • “Wildfire frequency and severity is expected to increase throughout most of the unmanaged lands because of the projected increases in available fuel as primary productivity increases and because of the increased amount of dead fuel accumulating as a result of increased mortality” (p. 3-19).
  • “In those forested areas where there is a decrease in soil moisture, drying of forest fuels will be enhanced, thereby increasing the amount of available fuel”  (p. 3-20).
  • Increased fuel loading resulting from climate change was forecast to cause a three-fold increase in the number of fires greater than 1000 hectares in the Sierra Nevada (p. 3-20). 

Temperature, Precipitation and Fires in California, 2000 – 2020

Dr. Robert Rohde of Berkeley Earth compiled temperature and precipitation data for the California fire season from 1895 to 2020.  The animation of the data can be found on Dr. Rohde’s Twitter page, and is quite striking.  The trend of increasing temperatures and decreasing precipitation across the decades is quite evident in his chart, with 19 of the years from 2000 to 2020 occurring above the midpoint in temperature, and 12 of those 20 years occurring in the hot and dry quadrant of the chart.  The last two decades have also seen the largest deviations from normal conditions of the preceding century. 

Dr. Rohde also posted the ten largest fires and ten most damaging fires in California’s history on the chart, by year.  The year with the farthest excursion from normal temperature and precipitation, 2020, also had the worst fire record.  Other years with bad fire records, 2017 & 2018, were among the years with the farthest excursion from normal.  It’s worth noting that all of the large and destructive fires occurred in the hot and dry quadrant of the chart.

Figure 1.  California temperature and precipitation, 1895 – 2020, with the ten largest fires and ten most damaging fires.  Chart created by Robert Rohde, Berkeley Earth, and used by permission.

Low soil moisture is a consequence of high temperature and low precipitation.  Most of the years since 2000 have been marked by persistent drought conditions in the west.  The USDA published nationwide maps of drought conditions, which have been seasonally persistent in the American West since the year 2000.   National Centers for Environmental Prediction (NCEP), a department of NOAA, publishes maps of soil moisture over the lower 48 states.  Relative soil moisture is shown as a percentile map with respect to historical conditions.  Maps of drought conditions and soil moisture show persistent conditions that predispose the West to high fire activity since the year 2000. 

Figure 2.  Drought conditions, week of September 15, 2020, USDA map.

Figure 3.  Soil Moisture Percentile (relative to history) September, 2020, map from NCEP, NOAA.

Of course, California was not the only place on earth to experience severe fires in recent years.  Dr. Rohde also prepared a similar chart of temperature and precipitation for New South Wales, Australia.  Although Dr. Rohde did not include fire statistics on this chart, the decadal shift in temperature and precipitation is clearly apparent on this chart. 

Figure 4.  New South Wales temperature and precipitation, January – October, 1900 – 2019.   Chart created by Robert Rohde, Berkeley Earth, and used by permission.

In Alaska, Senator Murkowski’s home state, wildfires have also been larger and more damaging.  Lightning initiates most of the wildfires in the state.  It follows that increased thunderstorm activity results in more fires.  The location of the state’s largest recent fires, generally north and east of Fairbanks, corresponds with the highest summer temperatures and increased thunderstorm activity.  This information is documented in communications by Rick Thoman, climatologist with the International Arctic Research Center (IARC), Fairbanks. 

Figure 5.  Alaska Wildfire Acreage, Season Total, 1950 – 2019.  Chart by Rick Thoman, IARC.

Figure 6.  Fairbanks Alaska, Annual Days with Thunder, 1952 – 2020.  Chart by Rick Thoman, IARC.


It’s clear that the scientific forecasts of wildfire intensity in 1990 were correct.  The processes causing more intense wildfires are higher temperatures and lower precipitation, which lead to low soil moisture, dry plants and more deadwood.  Higher temperatures and low precipitation in California and Australia are predictable consequences of human emissions of greenhouse gases, which continue to accumulate in the atmosphere.  The conditions which lead to large, fast-moving and destructive wildfires didn’t “just happen”, and will worsen in coming decades. 

Senator Murkowski and Undersecretary Hubbard failed the public by not discussing the actual causes of the wildfires in their public communications.  Explanations matter, and causes matter.  Senator Murkowski’s questions -- “What can be done?  Who is responsible, and who is to blame?” – are pertinent questions.  Human emissions of CO2 are responsible; consumers of energy are to blame.  And the best thing to do is to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases, significantly and quickly.   

The physical processes of climate change are well-established, proven science.  We’ve known how it works for over 120 years.  We’ve had pretty good estimates for how much temperatures would change, depending on how much CO2 was in the air, for almost as long.  The forecasts of more intense wildfires, made 30 years ago, have been entirely accurate.  At this point, in 2020, it is important for our public leaders to acknowledge man-made climate change as the ultimate cause of intense wildfires, and to give a credible warning that the situation will only get worse as temperatures continue to rise.  Senator Murkowkski and Undersecretary Hubbard have done the public a disservice by neglecting to address the cause of 2020’s extraordinary fire season, and to give a warning for the future.  It’s time for them to address the public truthfully.


Murkowski's Message #12

Arrhenius, 1896, On the Influence of Carbonic Acid in the Air upon the Temperature on the Ground

Arrhenius, 1906, The Probable Cause of Climate Fluctuations,%20final.pdf

Climate Change, The IPCC Impacts Assessment, 1990

Forest Fuels   

California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection

University of California Cooperative Extension

California chapter of the Society of American Foresters

Soil Moisture maps

Drought Maps

Australia's Climate in 2019

Australia’s climate in 2019

  • Australia's warmest year on record, with the annual national mean temperature 1.52 °C above average
  • Both mean annual maximum and minimum temperatures above average for all States and the Northern Territory
  • Annual national mean maximum temperature warmest on record (2.09 °C above average)
  • Widespread warmth throughout the year; January, February, March, April, July, October, and December all amongst the ten warmest on record for Australian mean temperature for their respective months
  • Significant heatwaves in January and in December
  • Australia's driest year on record
  • Nationally-averaged rainfall 40% below average for the year at 277.6 mm
  • Rainfall below average for most of Australia
  • Rainfall above average for parts of Queensland's northwest and northern tropics
  • Much of Australia affected by drought, which was especially severe in New South Wales and southern Queensland
  • Widespread severe fire weather throughout the year; national annual accumulated Forest Fire Danger Index highest since 1950, when national records began