That could have been the end of it for Brown and his seven co-authors.
But, about a week after the study was published, Brown penned an opinion article for the online outlet The Free Press, where he argued that articles in high profile journals — including his own — were distorting the scientific process by focusing too narrowly on climate change.
The subsequent uproar shows how, at a time of escalating extreme weather disasters, identifying the extent to which climate is driving them has become contested scientific territory.
Climate scientists used to say that no individual weather event could be linked to climate change. But in the past decade or so, research that connects individual heat waves, hurricanes or wildfires to global warming has become more common. Scientists thread the needle by analyzing how the risk of a given wildfire or flood has increased as temperatures warm.
But even as such studies become commonplace, a few researchers worry that focusing too much on climate change might distract the public from local government failures that can make things like extreme weather more deadly and destructive. For example, a study on how warming temperatures boosted recent Maui wildfires might distract from how the electrical grid may have contributed.
In his opinion piece, Brown wrote that his paper purposefully “focuses exclusively on how climate change has affected extreme wildfire behavior,” rather than any other factors. “I knew not to try to quantify key aspects other than climate change in my research because it would dilute the story that prestigious journals like Nature and its rival, Science, want to tell,” he wrote.
The opinion piece quickly provoked backlash from scientists and the editor of Nature herself.
“When it comes to science, Nature does not have a preferred narrative,” Magdalena Skipper, the editor of Nature, said in a statement. Referring to Brown, she said, “We are now carefully considering the implications of his stated actions.”
We have entered a new era of wildfires: The Pyrocene
Daniel Swain, a climate and wildfire scientist at the University of California, Los Angeles, questioned the course that Brown took on X, the platform formerly known as Twitter.
“If I had conducted a scientific analysis, submitted a manuscript for consideration in a peer reviewed journal, and then subsequently felt pressured from the journal itself to substantively alter the framing or conclusions to ‘fit a narrative,’” Swain wrote, “I would … not … have done so.”
Some conservatives, meanwhile, rejoiced at Brown’s admission, framing him as a whistleblower for climate science. “Liberals are cherry-picking data to fit an agenda,” California state Assemblyman James Gallagher (R), wrote on X.
Brown himself does not seem to be claiming any malfeasance on the part of the journal. He did not claim that the peer reviewers reading his work pushed him to focus more on climate — or that the journal’s editors pressured him to frame the study that way. Rather, he says that the problem is an overall culture of climate science: One that encourages focusing on climate variables (warming temperatures, drying vegetation) over other factors, like fuel loads (the amount of vegetation available to burn) and humans sparking wildfires.
“I don’t see a ton of Nature papers that are all about the fuel load buildup and how that contributes to wildfires in the West,” Brown said in an interview with The Washington Post. “But they don’t exist, not because of its legitimacy but because of the emphasis on climate change.”
In her statement, Skipper pointed to several recent Nature publications that contradicted a “clean narrative” around climate change — including a piece on how the design of human cities affects the damage left by wildfires.
Nor is Brown saying that any of the content in his paper was wrong. Contrary to some headlines, Brown never claimed that he had distorted the actual data for his study — just that he framed his research question and his findings around climate change as opposed to other major factors. Some scientists viewed this as an ethical lapse in and of itself, arguing that Brown should have focused on whatever factors he believed to be most significant.
A larger faux pas may have been the fact that Brown’s co-authors were not warned that he would be writing an opinion piece about their shared research. “I do feel bad for any embarrassment that it’s caused,” Brown said.
But the controversy highlights the extent to which climate science remains deeply politicized. There is little doubt in the scientific community that both warming temperatures and forest management have an impact on the strength and reach of wildfires. And yet, discussing the significance of one factor can be seen as ignoring the existence of the other.
Conservatives like former president Donald Trump have often argued that devastating fires stem from poor forest management and denied any connection to climate change. At the same time, scientists like Brown and some of his colleagues at the Breakthrough Institute worry that focusing narrowly on climate might ignore opportunities to adapt to changing temperatures. “I do think there is a taboo against studying increases in resilience to climate,” Brown wrote in an email. “That is thought to undermine the motivation for greenhouse gas emissions reductions.”
Many experts argue that there should be room to do two things at once: To both acknowledge the great dangers of climate change and also recognize the multifaceted nature of any disaster. But for now, coming down too hard on one side means getting caught in the crossfire.