In some ways, the California wildfires, fueled in large part by a warming planet, seem too obvious a topic for this newsletter. In the past two issues, I covered subjects that, at first glance, were unrelated to climate change: the impeachment inquiry into President Trump, and the U.S. president’s moves in Syria. Wildfires and the havoc they’ve unleashed are so obviously linked to climate change that unpacking them here could feel redundant.
But despite this obvious connection, somepolitical leaders —even advocates of urgent climate action—have been reluctant to accept the “everything-is-climate” frame. By their own admission, it’s not that they don’t understand the science but rather that they think it’s at times better politics to ignore the climate link. California Gov. Gavin Newsom told me as much on a panel I moderated in September when discussing how he approaches conservative fire-prone communities in California. “We don’t talk in terms of climate change there, we talk in terms of the hots getting a hell of a lot hotter, the wets getting a lot wetter, the dries getting a lot drier,” he said.
This political tip-toeing is understandable, but finding ways to talk around climate change rather than addressing it head on distracts from public awareness of the problem and undermines the chances of meaningfully addressing it. Looking at climate change as central isn’t looking at it through an “ideological lens,” as Newsom phrased it to me, it’s simply facing the reality that our entire civilization was built in a particular climate that no longer exists.
The lagging leader
There’s no question that California is one of the country’s most aggressive states when it comes to reducing greenhouse gas emissions. The state has a goal of bringing its carbon footprint to zero by 2045 through a slew of measures, from a rooftop-solar mandate to a cap-and-trade system. But when it comes to to climate adaptation—that is, preparing for the inevitable effects of climate change—the state fares far worse than it does on emissions reductions.
Marcus Yam/Los Angeles Times—Getty Images
The Maria Fire in Ventura County, Calif., on Oct. 31.
The recent wildfires forced hundreds of thousands of Californians from their homes, and threatened to destroy entire communities. The primary electric utility company in northern California, PG&E, said high winds left the company with no choice but to cut power to millions in hopes of preventing high-voltage power lines from coming into contact with tree branches and sparking new fires. And millions of people were exposed to hazardous smoke.
Recognizing the role climate plays in those issues is key to addressing them. In a world where wildfires are solely the result of a utility company’s mismanagement or bad zoning policy, proposed solutions will be anodyne, aimed at tackling the issues in a very limited scope. To be clear, both mismanagement and zoning policy are real issues but addressing them without thinking more comprehensively about only be a band aid for a much bigger problem.
A majority of Californians want piecemeal policies to prevent wildfires like prescriptive burns and preventing new development in risky areas, according to a Stanford University survey published Oct. 30. But most state residents don’t seem to be able to see the bigger picture: large majorities, according to the survey, would reject policies that would keep people from rebuilding in places likely to be hit again—policies that might actually cut to the heart of the issue.“We tend to pick the solution that keeps things the same,” says A.R. Siders, a professor at the University of Delaware’s Disaster Research Center. “Because generally speaking, we don’t like change.”
Local officials—the ones most responsible for implementing climate-adaptation policies—have followed the lead of voters. An August study in the journal Climatic Change shows that adaptation is “generally not considered” by the 160 municipalities in California with so-called “Climate Action Plans” even as many pursue aggressive emissions reductions.
It’s hard to blame people for thinking that way when even outspoken proponents of climate action don’t explain the climate link. For example, Newsom—a supporter of aggressive climate policy—said in October that the wildfires are more a “story about greed and mismanagement” than one about a changing climate. In his telling, PG&E could have avoided cutting power if only the company had spent more money on maintenance and upgrades. That may be so, but it fails to reckon with the scale of the problem.
Not for long
Looking outside California provides a hint about how vulnerable places will be forced to reckon with the link between climate and other issues in the years ahead.
Earlier this year, I spent a week in Fiji talking to government and civil society leaders from the region about climate change, and was struck by how they described climate change reshaping every part of daily life. Hilda Heine, President of the Marshall Islands, explained how flooding disrupted school schedules. Frank Bainimarama, Prime Minister of Fiji, talked about a single hurricane that wiped out a third of his country’s GDP. “Everyday I think about climate,” he told me, “24/7.”
It’s not impossible that the world will come together to slow emissions enough to prevent everyone from feeling the brunt of warming that residents of Fiji and the Marshall Islands are currently suffering. But, the way things are going now, I wouldn’t bet on it. The sooner we wake up to the reality that “everything is climate” the better chance we’ll have of both slowing it down and adapting to it.
In California, that could mean a wholesale reassessment of where and how we live, thinking not about the problems as they exist today but about how they’re likely to exist in 50 years.
IMAGE OF THE WEEK
Claudio Reyes—AFP via Getty Images
The 2019 United Nations Climate Change Conference, also known as COP25, was originally planned to be held in Brazil, but President Jair Bolsonaro withdrew his country’s offer to host. Chile then stepped in. But last week, as civil protests and riots in Santiago grew bigger and louder, Chile and the UN decided to move COP25 yet again, this time to Spain. The meetings are now planned for Dec. 2-13 in Madrid.
Wherever it’s held, one big topic of discussion at this year’s conference will be the U.S.’s role in global climate-change efforts moving forward, especially as earlier this week President Trump formally notified the UN that the country will withdraw from the Paris Agreement. That’s despite growing domestic support for the U.S. to take measures to reduce emissions—and to stick to the plan the rest of the world agreed to in Paris.
THE ONE STORY YOU SHOULD READ THIS WEEK ON…
…TECH & INNOVATION
Finding new and improved ways to store renewable energy will play a crucial role in the transition away from fossil fuels. Adam Popescu reports in Bloomberg on a new energy-storage system that can capture solar energy using a coating that can be used on surfaces like windows. The system can then hold the energy for as long as decades before releasing it on demand as heat. The technology still needs to be commercialized, but the researchers say it could come to market within a matter of years.
…BUSINESS & ECONOMY
At Vox, Tara Golshan and Ella Nilsen report that Bernie Sanders is doubling down on climate change in the Iowa caucuses with rallies, a television ad buy and a tour of the state all focused on the issue. It’s yet another sign that climate is resonating in the early nominating contests. Activists hope that keeping climate near the top of the discussion for presidential candidates will naturally turn it into a legislative priority if and when a new president takes office in 2021.
…POLITICS & GOVERNMENT
The U.S. coal industry is going bankrupt as competition from natural gas and renewables squeeze the high-polluting fossil fuel. The decline of coal is an unquestionable win for the climate, but the development has also left communities ailing. The new series Captured by Coal from Grist and the Texas Tribune shows how coal mining companies in Texas have successfully avoided paying to restore the land they mined even though it is legally required. In a particularly jarring third segment, Kiah Collier and Naveena Sadasivam visit a town considering building a park on contaminated land that the coal company should have restored.
CHART OF THE WEEK
It’s abundantly clear that sea levels will continue to rise, putting millions around the world who live in coastal regions at risk. But new elevation data, built using advanced machine learning, suggest that the problem is even worse than we thought. Previous estimates suggested that there are 79 million people currently living in areas below the elevation of annual floods by 2050; the new estimates say it is closer to 300 million. That’s a staggering difference. The chart below shows six countries where the new elevation data most dramatically changes our understanding of how many people will be at risk for flooding by mid century.