Democratic California Gov. Gavin Newsom and his political allies claim climate change is driving California’s increasingly intense and deadly wildfires.
That’s nearly true. Climate change assumptions drive the state’s energy and environmental policies. This has resulted in people being killed in terrible wildfires, electrical blackouts to millions of people causing $5 billion so far in lost economic activity, all while diverting limited resources to a fool’s errand.
For instance, California’s large and heavily regulated public utilities—PG&E, SDG&E, and SCE—prioritize wind and solar power, leaving little for powerline maintenance and upgrades. Simply put, the utilities are doing exactly what the regulators tell them to do. They make money for their investors on wind and solar; they don’t on powerline maintenance.
Examining California’s determined push to decarbonize its economy shows a policy unsupported by logic, and shaky on fact.
Regulations Strangle Power Sources
First is the matter of leakage. California already has among the highest electrical prices in the nation, its gasoline prices are often the highest, and its regulatory burden, most of which is connected to environmental concerns and related lawsuits, have all acted to push energy-intensive manufacturing out of state.
Some of this activity has moved to Texas and other states. Some has moved to China and other Asian nations. As a result, goods that used to be made in California are made elsewhere, often generating more harmful pollution. The majority of the increase in ozone levels on the Pacific Coast traces its origins to Asia, mostly China, where coal-fired powerplants emit nitrous oxides that, when combined with volatile organic compounds and sunlight, create ground-level ozone that irritates lungs and increases rates of asthma.
As for the state’s main concern—greenhouse gas emissions—California’s policies aren’t helping much in that department, either. California features one of the most efficient economies in the world, with stringent air quality standards. But as energy-intensive manufacturing moves out of the state and California imports back those same goods, the net effect may be greater emissions due to the shipping increases.
This can be seen in California’s oil production. The modern fracking revolution has passed California by as politicians yearn to wean the state from oil and gas. In 1986, California produced 59.5 percent of its oil needs, with only 5.7 percent of oil coming from foreign suppliers, the remainder being shipped down the Pacific Coast from Alaska.
Last year, California’s oil production dropped to half of what it had been 32 years earlier. As a result, the state was forced to import 57.5 percent of its oil from foreign countries, mostly from Saudi Arabia. Oil tanker traffic off of California’s coast has skyrocketed. Meanwhile, Texas oil production has quadrupled in the last dozen years.
Then there’s the issue of relative scale. The People’s Republic of China, where a well-placed bribe to a Communist Party apparatchik can allow a factory to belch pollution, is the world’s biggest emitter of carbon dioxide. If you can believe China’s economic growth numbers, seven months’ worth of emission increases from China would wipe out all the gains made by eliminating California’s carbon emissions. All of them.
Poor Forest Management to Blame for Wildfires
I was in Los Angeles last Friday for a panel discussion of the area’s Green New Deal plans. Smoke from a wildfire greeted me on the flight into Burbank. At the panel, a professor of sustainability from a California university made a claim I’d heard before: California’s wildfires have doubled due to climate change, per the National Climate Assessment (NCA).
The NCA made the wildfire claim based on a study that concluded, “We demonstrate that human-caused climate change caused over half of the documented increases in fuel aridity since the 1970s and doubled the cumulative forest fire area since 1984.”
But they added a caveat: “Additionally, we treat the impact of (man-caused climate change) on fire as independent from the effects of fire management (e.g., suppression and wildland fire use policies), ignitions, land cover (e.g., exurban development), and vegetation… These factors have likely added to the area burned… Such confounding influences… contribute uncertainty to our empirical attribution of regional burned area to (climate change).”
The main evidence the study’s authors offer is the relationship between fuel aridity and total area burned, comparing the period 1984 to 1999 to 2000 to 2015.
The same data are presented differently here.
Something else happened in the early 1990s: environmentalists concerned for the spotted owl prevailed upon the Clinton administration to dramatically curtail the timber harvest in much of the western United States. Logging activity plummeted, and employment in the forest industry in California fell by half.
While correlation does not necessarily prove causation, it can be a strong clue. Let’s look at that last chart again, but add the amount of timber harvested in the West per the U.S. Forest Service.
We see that as the timber harvest plummeted, with a concurrent drop in active forest management practices, the area burned by wildfire grew as the fuel load increased.
Too Little Forest Attention, Too Late
With the retreat of the timber industry came an inevitable buildup of uncleared brush as well as runaway tree density, with it becoming common to have four times the number of trees per acre as is considered healthy. During California’s frequent droughts—historical evidence suggests they have been common since way before the industrial revolution—the higher tree density leads to stressed trees that became vulnerable to bark beetle infestations.
Between the drought and the bugs, millions of trees died—trees that had to be left in place because regulators, environmentalists, and politicians couldn’t muster the will to permit harvesting or clearing before they became worthless and deadly matchsticks. In 2012, the Forest Service estimated that 77 million acres, mostly in the West, was at risk due to insects and disease.
California’s politicians, including Newsom, are waking up to the connection between forest management and wildfires, although it is too little, too late. Newsom signed 22 wildfire-related bills in the closing days of this year’s legislative session, admitting during his campaign for office that California had “Hundreds of millions of dead trees” while noting that it cost his father $35,000 to clear “a small little patch of dead trees” on his property.
The year before, outgoing four-term Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown flipped on his longtime opposition to active forest management when he signed two bills into law.
Data Linking Wildfires, Climate Is Heavily Compromised
On an even more fundamental level, what if the temperature data the climate change-wildfire connection study used was inaccurate? A study of the U.S. surface temperature record presented at the 2015 Fall Meeting of the American Geophysical Union indicated that the 30-year temperature trend was about two-thirds as strong as the official National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration record, due to massive urban encroachment on weather station sites. Only 410 of 1,218 weather stations in the continental U.S. were unperturbed by, for example, an asphalt parking lot built next to what was once a weather station out in a grass field.
Largely because of the urban heat island effect, weather stations in California and Nevada were particularly affected. In California and Nevada, the temperature increase per decade from 1979 to 2008 was 0.04 degrees centigrade when using unperturbed sites, versus the official record increase of 0.24 degrees, a six-fold difference.
Back to the blackouts. To deflect blame from his administration, Newsom continues to point to climate change—along with capitalism, saying last Friday, “It’s more than just climate change. It’s about the failure of capitalism to address climate change.” Vox’s Ezra Klein picked up on this theme, tweeting in a pre-apocalyptic funk about the smoke and blackouts:
This is what it will be like every year, from now on. I keep thinking of something @dwallacewells wrote in the Uninhabitable Earth: ‘Especially those who have imbibed several centuries of Western triumphalism tend to see the story of human civilization as an inevitable conquest of the earth, rather than the saga of an insecure culture, like mold, growing haphazardly and unsurely upon it.’ ‘That fragility, which pervades now everything humans might do on this planet, is the great existential insight of global warming.’
Meanwhile, PG&E is struggling to find the qualified crews to do the dangerous work of clearing trees from almost 2,500 miles of powerlines across the vast northern reaches of the state. That isn’t surprising, given that California and federal regulators armed with anti-logging policies put most of those people in the unemployment line, and they’ve moved on to other jobs or even states.
Klein is right that “This is what it will be like every year, from now on.” But it’s not because “Western triumphalism” led to an effort to conquer the earth. Even California’s Native Americans constantly burned its forests to foster their food supplies. No, it’s because California’s leaders, comfortable in the civilization bequeathed to them by their forebears, forgot that untamed nature is deadly.