“This is the new normal,” a friend in the San Francisco Bay Area texted to me this week after I asked about her air quality (“not terrible, but still unhealthy”). It’s wildfire season in Northern California, when news reports are filled with images of choked highways surrounded by towering flames, underneath skies darkened by smoke and ash.
The “new normal” phrase has been repeated by residents, journalists and frustrated climate scientists for the past month. California suffered its most destructive wildfire ever in 2017, which was followed by a bigger one in 2018. Ever since, the state has been trapped in a cycle of fires, attempts to rebuild and further infernos.
The fires over the past few years have had multiple causes. The utility Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E), which neglected to clear dry vegetation from around its transmission lines, can be blamed for a few. Human carelessness is often a factor. And climate change is absolutely a factor – according to scientist Michael Mann, excessive dry brush is just one way that longer, hotter summers have contributed to this year’s situation.
As 2019 draws to a close, California is a clear example that, having failed to prevent climate change, humanity is now officially in the coping stage. The state’s situation holds lessons we’d all be smart to absorb.
To start: It isn’t just small, poor island countries that are becoming uninhabitable. Too many Californians live too close to fire-prone areas, and some with the means to move have begun to do so. The state’s declining population is mostly because of housing costs, but this week, a number of people told The New York Times that the fires are what’s uprooting them after 50 years there.
Others were clearly on the verge, such as wine country resident Erika Rivas, who was evacuating for the second time after a blaze two years ago. “We all agreed as a family that if that rebuilt house burns down again, we might just move out of the area,” she told the Times.
But the coast’s spiralling homelessness problem shows that hundreds of thousands of people don’t have that option. Another fact no longer to be ignored is that stronger, more frequent natural disasters are highlighting the gulf between classes.
On Monday, the Los Angeles Times told the heartbreaking stories of Latino housekeepers and landscapers who went to work in “one of the city’s most affluent neighbourhoods,” only to find that it had been evacuated. Many said that their employers hadn’t let them know.
“I need the money, I need to work,” a 72-year-old gardener told the reporter when asked if he was scared of nearby fires.
Firefighting is a clear example of the disparities. At one end, some wealthy homeowners are paying private firefighting teams up to US$3,000 a day. At the other, some of the public firefighters are inmates from state prisons, paid an average of US$2 a day, with an extra US$1 an hour during active fires.
Another frustrating, fascinating aspect of California’s situation is the absolute mess unfolding around PG&E. Faced with US$11-billion in settlements over fires in 2017 and 2018, the state’s private utility service filed for bankruptcy in January.
In an attempt to prevent new blazes this year, PG&E imposed last-minute blackouts on millions of people. The strategy caused chaos: Unreliable refrigeration alone has damaged scientific experiments, spoiled lots of food and put users of some medications at risk.
It also didn’t even work – PG&E said this week it was likely responsible for several October fires anyway.
Politicians have had it with the long-troubled company. Governor Gavin Newsom is trying to organize a corporate takeover, while one mayor is discussing taking it public. And yet PG&E initially declined when Mr. Newsom suggested it give small rebates – US$250 at most – to blacked-out customers.
Because what these fires are also making clear is how resistant corporations are to change. Although General Motors, Toyota and Fiat have all made pledges around climate mitigation and green energy, they all also announced this very week that they were siding with the Trump administration in its battle with California over fuel-emissions standards.
The state’s refusal to co-operate with weakened targets is likely to be decided at the Supreme Court – as I wrote last week, far too many climate decisions are being punted to judges in lieu of forward-thinking governments. This, then, is the new normal.