Talking climate change after California wildfires
By Alex Amonette
Around the world, people are experiencing increasingly severe extreme weather events: floods, droughts, heat waves, hurricanes, and wildfires, like the one that destroyed the town of Paradise, California in November 2018. There were 85 civilian fatalities, with 3 persons still missing in the Camp Fire, and eight people, including three firefighters, died in the Carr Fire. Tens of thousands of people have been displaced, their homes destroyed.
Even beyond the direct threat to life and property, these fires touch many other aspects of people’s day-to-day lives. There was a point during the Camp Fire when areas of California had the worst air quality in the world; it was too unhealthy to do anything outside. Insurance rates are going up dramatically, and even the electricity rates are rising to offset litigation exposure, making it hard on business and for the state to compete.
The links are clear: data show that wildfires are getting bigger, spreading faster, and lasting longer as the planet warms due to the burning of fossil fuels. Firefighters see it first hand. Ken Pimlott, director of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, said in an interview, “We are looking at a year-round fire season, not just one that’s several months of the year.” He added, “We’re seeing fires go to 100,000, 200,000 acres. It’s almost becoming common every fire season now. That didn’t happen decades ago.”
It’s more necessary than ever to talk about why these tragedies are happening, and what we can do to stop them. Two California CCLers are doing so—Jerry Hinkle and Dana Nuccitelli. These men have embarked on on a 10-city presentation tour of communities ravaged by the wildfires, connecting the dots between these dire impacts and the solutions that exist to address the root cause.
Desperate for answers
The tour began with Jerry and Dana connecting with CCL group leaders in areas that were impacted by wildfires—specifically the Carr and the Camp Fires. Jerry and Dana asked them “to sponsor community presentations on the link between climate change and wildfire risk and our solutions.”
The appetite was there. “The response has been overwhelming,” Jerry says. “The 2018 wildfires have fundamentally altered people’s perspectives on the risk of climate change. It has become so real and so horrific. As a result, communities are far more open to talking about it.”
The tour has included a variety of meetings and well-attended presentations. So far, Jerry explains, “We spoke with two boards of supervisors, had five radio interviews, and spoke with two local paper about our presentations and the link between climate change and these horrific fires. City councilmen attended our presentations. There were 200 people who attended in Redding and 100 in Chico and Paradise, filling the rooms.”
Perhaps most notably, Jerry points out, “These are conservative communities.” He and Dana have been able to connect even on this potentially polarizing issue because, he says, “Our message is strong, we tell the truth, and people want to hear us. We promise they will not hear a Republican or Democratic view of climate change; they will hear the best information that we know, from the peer-reviewed science and peer-reviewed economics. If you have been running from a fire because your life depends on it, you want to know what the heck is going on.”
Presenting science and solutions
Dana and Jerry split their presentation. Dana, an environmental scientist who writes about climate change and is a contributing author to Skeptical Science and Yale Climate Connections, discusses the scientific links between our changing climate and wildfires and the 2012-2016 drought, California’s worst in over 1,000 years. Jerry discusses the solutions—the Energy Innovation and Carbon Dividend Act and actions people can take. Watch the presentation they gave in Truckee last week:
Dana says, “The contributing factors, low precipitation and record high temperatures, linked to climate change, are causing more wildfires. The record droughts create conditions for worse wildfires, and the higher temperatures create more fuel for fires, getting worse over time, because the land, shrubs, and trees are drier. We also have a shrinking Sierra snowpack, our natural storage system that provide sources of water during the summer months. The snowpack is shrinking because more precipitation is falling as rain instead of snow, and the higher temperatures cause the snowpack to melt and shrink. In California, we have a hard time meeting our water needs for agriculture and residences. As the snowpack shrinks, as temperatures get hotter, the droughts get worse, there is less water, and these factors are interconnected with our changing climate. Although there would be times of drought normally, climate change takes these weather events and puts them on steroids.”
Dana recently wrote, “How much more global warming can occur before its net physical impacts become unacceptably negative? The science community’s answer is that we’ve already passed that point; that it’s time to act now.”
He adds that hearing from people who lost their homes and fled for their lives from the wildfires burning all around them has had a big impact on him. “Friends of mine heard stories about people barely getting out alive. After our presentation in Chico, a filmmaker showed interactions with people who lost their homes who had gone to Congress to convey the importance of the wildfires and try to get something to happen to address the impacts of these wildfires on people’s lives. They were directly lobbying, as they should.”
Dana has a background in risk management. He says, “We have one climate and one planet. We rely on a fairly consistent climate. We need it to support us. We need to mitigate that risk that we totally rely on. It’s a no-brainer.”
After Dana explains the science, Jerry pivots to the solutions in his part of the presentation. First he explains the Energy Innovation and Carbon Dividend Act, a bipartisan carbon pricing bill, and its impacts on carbon emissions. Jerry explains, “Unless we significantly reduce emissions in the near term, this horrendous risk will actually grow by multiples. The peer-reviewed economics show we can do better while being good for the economy and people, as would be accomplished if we instituted the Energy Innovation Act.”
Jerry also points out there is broad agreement for this general solution. An impressive list of 3300+ economists, 27 Nobel laureates, all 4 former Fed Chairs, and 15 former Chairs of the Council of Economic Advisers have endorsed the idea of a carbon dividend plan, calling it the “most cost-effective, equitable, and politically viable climate solution.” He notes that these people span the political spectrum. In addition to those names, hundreds of people and organizations across the country have expressed support for this specific bill.
Then, Jerry urges his audience to exercise their right to have their voices be heard. He says to people, “We have a bill now. Tell Congress you want this bill made into law.”
The time has come for carbon pricing
Jerry has been at this a long time—he first learned to give public presentations about climate change in 2001. He sees the fear and concern about these issues even in his own home—his daughter, who is 11, says her worst fear is wildfire.
But today, he’s incredibly encouraged. “I feel elation. There has been a shift in people’s interest in this conversation and their desire to do something about it. We are not asking people to be guinea pigs. The pricing of carbon has been tried in British Columbia, their GDP has been growing, and it was so popular that it is going nationwide. The price is going from $30-50. Now, we have a bill! This has gone from what appeared to be a good idea to an idea whose time has come. There is a bill to act on, we have the support of the brightest economists in the land, from across the aisle. We just need to get the word out. We need people to join us.”
Though this change is happening against the backdrop of tragedy, public opinion and engagement are moving in the right direction. The sooner that translates into a robust nationwide price on carbon pollution, the better.