In an extraordinary conversation in the White House East Room, President Trump abruptly made a point of pointing out that he had told the world to “stop burning fossil fuels.” No matter what might have been attributed to the president in that moment — lying to the American people, strangling efforts to defend the nation’s interests, ceding the moral high ground to China, insulting America’s allies and even putting the lives of some American soldiers at risk — the bigger truth is that climate change contributed to a problem already threatening the country in many ways.
This is especially true for the Golden State, where the wind-fueled wildfires that ravaged the state this spring were the deadliest firestorms in California history. Thanks to stronger and deadlier firestorms, the state risks becoming like “a new wildland-urban interface,” or a future refugee. The escalating threat of wildfire in California means the state will have to pay more for firefighter services, more insurance for homes and more budgetary concerns for the next administration.
The current disaster is different from other recent fires for two reasons. First, this year the wildfires were fueled by the combination of the most powerful El Niño in about 30 years and record heat. The result: a historic increase in the threat of wildfires from starting. Even one big wildfire on a public highway alone adds $47 million to the annual insurance bills on private homes, compared with 20 years ago. Second, and almost unimaginable to most Californians, the state’s remaining forests are at risk of increasing climate change-induced fires. An unusually wet winter and an equally unusually dry spring created the ideal conditions for big, fast-moving wildfires, setting up the risk of an even worse year next year.
“A lot of people don’t want to believe this, but the science is incontrovertible,” said Brad Kieserman, a former National Weather Service director for the Northern California region and the Obama administration’s first climate-change adviser. “Our future in the fires that we will experience in California in the future will be worse than they are today,” he said.
The prospect of an even greater threat to California was recognized at the highest levels of state and federal government this spring. California took the lead on drafting the California Wildfire Preparedness and Response Act, which put California in line for $4 billion in federal money to strengthen its firefighting and prevention efforts. The bill passed overwhelmingly in the state Assembly and Senate this spring. The bill is pending in the U.S. House of Representatives.
Many other bills advanced at the state and federal level this year and last to increase preparation for wildfires. While the growth of the state’s community of wildfire experts may be difficult to realize in the public square — such as actor George Clooney’s efforts to alert more people to the risks — the state’s leaders are making a meaningful start.
California’s wildfire disaster is part of a growing movement from within the federal government to take a more realistic view of the risks from climate change and how those risks might affect U.S. interests. Last year, for instance, the Trump administration eliminated all references to climate change in new policy guidance about combating domestic wildfires.
There was a moment last spring when environmental advocates were considering burning their candles to see the beginning of the end of this disaster. Now, those same advocates are more likely to turn to Plan B.
Read the full story at Refinery29.
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