Homes leveled by the Glass Fire line a street in the Skyhawk neighborhood of Santa Rosa, Calif. on Sept. 28, 2020. | AP Photo/Noah Berger
SAN FRANCISCO — California tried harder than any state to fight climate change. Two governors imposed a groundbreaking emissions cap-and-trade system while state regulators forced American automakers to build more efficient cars.
None of those policies kept California from becoming the poster child for what climate change really looks like.
Ravaged by deadly fires, drought, dry lightning and heat waves that make the ground sizzle and lamps dim, the nation’s most populous state now seems incapable of protecting itself from a global catastrophe. The urgency has forced California to consider diverting more time and resources away from reducing its carbon footprint to thwarting the immediate impacts of climate change.
A combined area larger than Connecticut has already burned this year in California, and new fires broke out last month in wine country and the Sierra Nevada foothills — right near two areas that have suffered the state’s most devastating conflagrations in the past four years.
California officials knew they were losing the race against climate change when the fire hazard maps they tried to draw were outdated before they could finish them.
“Oh my god, this is what we’ve been talking about. This is the climate change we’ve been trying to prevent. And we’re behind the curve,” said Michael Picker, who was president of the state Public Utilities Commission, which regulates the companies whose power lines have sparked past wildfires. “That was a shattering experience for me because then all of a sudden, rather than preventing climate change, we were starting to focus a lot of resources and attention on how to deal with it.”
California has been a relative success story on reducing greenhouse gas emissions. It spent the last 14 years implementing policies that have forced emissions down to 1990 levels, largely on the back of renewable energy — particularly solar.
It was a Republican governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, who started that charge. His Democratic successor, Jerry Brown, made it his signature focus. Brown traveled the world to recruit governments to reduce emissions levels below 2 tons per person and held out his coalition as an alternative to President Donald Trump’s approach after the 2016 election.
But for current Gov. Gavin Newsom, another Democrat, his predecessors’ work didn’t take hold soon enough to stave off climate change-related disaster. Before this summer’s wildfires, deadly blazes in preceding years and the related bankruptcy of Pacific Gas & Electric dominated his attention.
“We’re seeing impacts today that we thought would materialize by mid-century,” said Wade Crowfoot, Newsom’s natural resources secretary, surveying damage in September.
Widespread smoke has become an annual fall occurrence, leading to such poor air quality that Californians must stay inside for days on end. One preliminary estimate suggested that smoke over the past several weeks could cause an additional 3,000 deaths due to unhealthy air alone.
Roughly 650,000 California homes are in areas at high or extreme risk of wildfire, according to consulting firm CoreLogic. The ways to protect them are commonly agreed upon: better forest management, buffer zones between towns and forests and home improvements that withstand fire.
Some of California’s most idyllic settings, along wooded hillsides or near the California coast, are also the most vulnerable to climate change. Residents flock there for relief from ever-crowded cities.
But they are fast realizing that conditions are more unpredictable than ever before. They can lose power during high winds in fall, when utilities shut off electricity to hundreds of thousands of residents for fear that flying wires will spark a conflagration. They need to figure out evacuation routes and have their “go bag” ready. And they have to pay increasing costs for insurance — if they’re lucky enough to find a company still willing to take that risk.
Besides wildfire, the state is particularly prone to sea level rise. California’s 840 miles of vaunted coastline could see increased erosion and flooding from an expected 6 inches of rise by 2030; a report by the state legislative analyst last year warned that most regions aren’t doing enough to prepare.
The record-breaking fires of the past few years have been exacerbated by historic droughts, which have hurt farmers in particular. They’ve been turning to groundwater to help get through the dry spells, causing land and infrastructure to buckle and sink and putting longer-term stress on water supplies. Record heat waves are also prompting residents to crank up the air conditioning, which is straining the grid — the state last month had its first rolling blackouts since 2001.
It’s wildfire, though, that’s causing the most immediate heartburn. Californians are finding ways to adapt by upgrading roofs with fire-proof materials, putting screens on vents to protect against flying embers and clearing vegetation around their homes.
In the clearest sign that climate change is already hammering the state, some insurers have responded by pulling out of fire-prone areas of California, finding it impossible to price the ever-increasing risk. They say individual homeowners who do all of the right things may still see their house burn down unless everyone fireproofs their home.
“You can have three homes that are perfectly mitigated and four doors down is a pile of kindling,” said Roy Wright, president of the Insurance Institute for Business and Home Safety, a nonprofit funded by insurance companies to advise on risk reduction. “It is the textbook version of tragedy of the commons.”
The wealthy coastal community of Montecito weathered the 2017 Thomas Fire incredibly well, losing only seven structures thanks to a combination of building codes, strict enforcement of defensible space requirements, communitywide fuel reduction projects and maps to help residents and firefighters navigate during fire events, according to a study last year by fire scientist Crystal Kolden, then a professor at the University of Idaho.
The community spent about $2 million on risk reduction over a 20-year period beforehand, she calculated.
“If you want to do that for places that aren’t rich, the state has to help,” said Michael Wara, director of Stanford University’s climate and energy program, who said California needs a new state agency exclusively focused on reducing wildfire risk.
But public funds are difficult to come by.
Before the pandemic, Newsom backed a roughly $5 billion bond aimed at combating climate change’s effects with improvements to drinking water supplies, forest management, flood and stormwater improvements and emergency shelters for fire evacuees. But the governor dropped that proposal once the coronavirus sent state finances spiraling. Lawmakers made a late-session run at $500 million that fizzled out.
Californians remain divided over whether to spend more energy and resources battling climate change or its immediate effects.
Democrats and environmentalists have emphasized emissions reduction until now — which comes with associated air pollution benefits, especially in some of California’s lowest-income communities. Republicans have called for diverting cap-and-trade revenues toward solving immediate problems like forest management.
Newsom acknowledges that better forest management is necessary. The state in August entered a new agreement with the Forest Service to treat 1 million acres of forest per year, though that effort needs funding.
Still, the governor has made a point to emphasize climate change repeatedly since the fires began, including during a visit with President Donald Trump in Sacramento. Environmental groups want Newsom to accelerate the state’s 100 percent “zero-carbon” electricity goal from 2045 to 2030, stop permitting new oil and gas drilling and phase out natural gas in new buildings by 2022. And Newsom himself made a splash last month when he ordered air regulators to ban sales of new gas-powered cars in California by 2035.
“California needs to be a leader in making a stance against the use of fossil fuels, which are fueling these intensified weather events, if we are going to have any chance at tempering the storm and protecting thousands of lives,” said Sierra Club California director Kathryn Phillips.
But current emergencies have forced state leaders to veer from their uniformly green path.
Over the protests of environmentalists, Newsom signed a bill last year that exempts homes damaged in natural disasters from an upcoming state requirement to install rooftop solar on new buildings. During California’s first rolling blackouts since the 2001 energy crisis, Newsom last month allowed more gas-fired plants to supply electricity. His administration subsequently exempted four gas power plants from a deadline to stop using a water-intensive cooling method that kills marine life.
“It was absolutely not a mistake; it was the right thing to do,” he said, calling it a “small step back” for carbon emissions. “We’re going to make giant leaps forward to make that negligible in the overall context.”
The Santa Rosa neighborhood of Coffey Park, which burned down in the 2017 Tubbs Fire, didn’t have to rebuild to the strictest home-hardening standards despite catching fire twice in 50 years. That’s because the urban area is exempt from state building rules for high-risk rural homes — and local leaders wanted to help residents rebuild at a lower cost.
“The last thing that local government is going to do is to add expense by saying you’ve got to use a different siding,” said Rex Frazier, president of the Personal Insurance Federation of California. “It’s all understandable, but then the role of the insurance industry is to signal the risk of all those decisions.”
Still, many experts argue that California can cut emissions and prepare for climate change effects at the same time, that it’s not an either/or situation.
Getting more electricity from zero-carbon sources can bring additional power online to help residents who need air conditioning during extreme heat events. But that also will help the state phase out reliance on fossil fuel sources that contribute to climate change.
The power sector is “where adaptation and mitigation come to shake hands,” said University of California, Berkeley climate economist Max Auffhammer. By shifting to renewables, “we get to continue to cool without pumping a lot of carbon in the atmosphere.”
Microgrids, such as community solar installations, can also help incorporate renewables and shield neighborhoods from blackouts when power lines get turned off.
The state also has new rules that require developers to compensate for any resulting increases in driving. Encouraging more homebuilding in cities rather than exurbs near wildland areas would reduce both emissions and wildfire risks, Wara pointed out.
While California has been working on adaptation for years, such efforts have received less attention than its pioneering policies to limit greenhouse gases and its legal battles with the Trump administration to preserve authority over the pollutants.
That’s partly out of concern that embracing adaptation is seen as accepting defeat, said Aimee Barnes, a former senior gubernatorial adviser to Brown who now works as a consultant and senior adviser at Brown’s climate think tank.
“I think there’s a fear generally — not unique to California — that by talking too much about adaptation, people will say, ‘Well, we’ve already lost the battle, let’s just focus on adapting,” Barnes said.
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