California’s Fires and the End of the Debate Over the Existence of Climate Change in the U.S.
On Saturday, August 15th, residents of the San Francisco Bay area went to sleep on a warm night under mostly clear skies. The forecast for the following week was a continuation of dry conditions, sun and the ongoing, record-breaking heat wave. For many, slumber was interrupted soon after 3 a.m. by howling strong winds from a ‘freak’ thunder storm. Spectacular lightning strikes lit up the night. Winds gusted to 70 mph from Marin County in the north to Santa Cruz in the south.
Any August storm along the Northern California is unusual. A major thunderstorm is almost unheard of in recent memory. In some places the tempest brought rain. In others, there were only lightning strikes — thousands of them. And with the lightning, came wildfire.
Hundreds of fires were sparked by the storm. So many blazes bloomed that CalFire didn’t even have the ability to name many of them in the normal convention after the local road where they were first reported. Instead the fires were grouped together as the LNU Lightning Complex, CZU August Lightning Complex Fire, etc. By August 20th, San Francisco’s skyline was smothered in a haze of smoke, heat and particulates in what has become an annual Autumnal occurrence.
There is one noticeable difference about California’s fire season in 2020 compared to those of recent years: As forest fires have increased in size and scope, savaging Australia, incinerating Swedish forests north of the Arctic Circle, and degrading the California economy, fewer and fewer Americans deny global warming is to blame for the rising annual level of devastation. We have reached a tipping point where the United States may move to act on what is an existential crisis for our civilization.
In January of 2020, the well-respected nonpartisan Pew Research Center reported that for the first time a majority of American surveyed said that dealing with climate change should be a top priority for the president and Congress. This percentage was less than 30% in 2014 and has been steadily marching higher with each passing year. Pew’s studies also revealed that more than 60% of Americans say climate change is having at least some effect on their local community and that the government is not doing enough to reduce the effects of global climate change.
A Washington Post/Kaiser Family Foundation 2019 poll found that about 8 in 10 surveyed agree that human activity is fueling climate change. A similar percentage agreed that climate change is either a major problem or a crisis and that mitigating its negative effects will require ordinary Americans to make sacrifices. Even 60% of Republicans polled stated that “Human activity is causing climate to change”
Certainly, the data is clear in the case of California fires. The state is suffering increasingly devastating conflagration events due to climate change. A recent Stanford University analysis concluded that since 1980 average daily temperatures in the state have increased by 1.8 degrees Fahrenheit and precipitation has declined 30%. This has resulted in a doubling of the number of days each fall when fire risk is extreme.
In 2018, after fire destroyed the California town of Paradise with severe loss of life, President Trump rushed to blame the state’s forest management practices rather than climate change for the tragedy. The President ruefully explained that if only California would manage its woods like the residents of Finland who he claims rake their forest floors, the disaster would have been avoided. Forbes and the Wall Street Journal editorial page rushed in to support the assertion that Trump was correct in that it couldn’t be climate change: it was California’s environmental practices which caused the fires. That the Federal government manages the vast majority of forest land in the state and that Finns do not actually rake their woods as a national pastime was not mentioned in these august publications.
Trump rarely backs down from repeating factually incorrect positions. He again asserted in late 2019 that the California fire season was caused by the state’s mismanagement. Governor Newsom replied, “You don’t believe in climate change. You are excused from this conversation”. Still, once again the Wall Street Journal and Forbes rushed to run opinion pieces supporting the president’s statements and blaming the governor for the blazes.
Then on August 20th of this year, Trump stated “I see again the forest fires are starting. They’re starting again in California. I said, you gotta clean your floors, you gotta clean your forests…Maybe we’re just going to have to make them pay for it because they don’t listen to us.” Newsom replied in a short cell phone video taken in a woods near a raging fire and beamed to the Democratic National Convention. “Climate change is real. If you are in denial about climate change, come to California.”
While there are still those proclaiming that climate change is a ‘hoax’, their complaints are increasingly falling on deaf ears. Surveys show that more and more Americans look at extended droughts, unusual severe weather events, and rampaging wildfires and conclude that climate change is real, it is a pressing issue, and that it must be addressed through urgent policy changes. It is as if our citizens have finally woken up to Chico Marx’s joke, “Who ya gonna believe me or your own lying eyes”
With Mr. Trump trailing by wide margins in the polls and running against a challenger promoting a Green New Deal platform, it appears that Americans may soon get their way on this issue. Such a change in policy would have a dramatic impact on economic sectors in the United States ranging from solar power manufacturers to utilities, infrastructure project managers, defense companies and more.
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