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California fire crew Fire crews battle wildfires through the night in Northern California. Photo: Andrea Booher, FEMA

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California's Burning:
Global Climate Action Summit in time?

Arson? Climate change? Or something more complicated? Alison Holmes writes from Arcata, a few miles west of the fires in Redding, CA
Published on August 1, 2018

At the time of writing, there are 17 active fires in the state of California. In September, they will not only reinforce the case for the "existential threat" of climate change, but serve as a dramatically visual backdrop for the Global Climate Action Summit planned in San Francisco. The summit, the first held by an American state in direct support of the United Nations Climate Change conference (Paris Agreement), was announced just over a year ago by America's de facto leader on climate change, Governor Jerry Brown, to a crowd in Hamburg Germany. Effectively photo-bombing President Trump's first meeting with the G20 via video conference, he proclaimed that the president "doesn't speak for the rest of America" and that California would stay the course. Internationally, Brown was fêted by the leaders of other nations and across the United States, state officials and city mayors clambered for a spot on his train. Meanwhile here in California, and assuming they feel a need to be polite, his opponents and erstwhile successors may find themselves cooling their heels almost on the eve of the race for the Governor's mansion as the eyes of the world focus on the state.

However, as symbolic as the fires may be of the overarching narrative of the summit, they also reflect the more complicated story of the interaction between nature, politics and human decision-making. If the parallel story of Brown's summit is a struggle for control of the narrative of all that he has done (or not done) for voters, the story of the fires can also provide both tinder and spark for a wider discussion about how we go about tackling the challenges we face.

As people continue to lose their lives and property we are rightly disgusted to learn that some of the current fires were the result of arson, clearly pointing to the causal hand of humans. Yet it is also common to hear the blame being attributed to a far more abstract actor, 'climate change' as evidenced, they say, by the length of fire season, the prolonged high temperatures and the super fires that burn hotter and faster than ever before. However, the deeper cause of some of at least some of these factors was not a person with a match and some gasoline, but policies at a variety of levels and over many decades.

Here in northern California the timber industry has been in decline for at least the last 20 if not 30 years. Many people, often newer to the area, quietly cheered its demise because, despite the impact of this slow death on the local economy and the consequent poverty in many rural areas, they believed that the disappearance of the timber barons would also mean the end of clear-cutting of forests and the return of young trees to every slope. What they did not anticipate was the long term environmental impact and exponential increase in fire danger left in its wake.

As the timber jobs disappeared, what is known as the combustible fuel load went up across vast acres of forest. This is because the timber industry not only felled trees, but they replanted areas, removed dead trees, thinned new growth and cleared brush. Adding to the problem is the fact that, at the same time as the harvesting cycle was slowing or stopping, the 60% of California forest that is actually owned by the federal government was not being maintained. Worse still, much of the money budgeted for maintenance was shifted to fire-fighting – draining the budget and making the problem worse in the long run. The result? Fires have become larger, hotter and more devastating. They have become so hot in fact that they effectively sterilize the soil, making regrowth increasingly difficult if not impossible and leaving the landscape even more combustible. But has it gotten worse? Yes and no. As the numbers from CAL FIRE show (the agency charged with the miserable task of fighting these monsters) the number of fires remains within a broad range, but the acreage burned as compared to the five year average has gone up significantly in the last two years.

January 1, 2018 through July 29, 2018: 3,770 fires; 292,455 acres
January 1, 2017 through July 29, 2017: 3,440 fires; 219,369 acres
5 year average (same interval): 3,405 fires; 118,811 acres
2018 combined Year To Date (CAL FIRE & US Forest Service): 4,457 fires; 378,429 acres

[Statistics include all wildfires responded to by CAL FIRE in the State Responsibility Area, as well as the Local Responsibility Area under contract with the department. Statistics may not include wildfires in State Responsibility Area protected by CAL FIRE's contract counties. cdfdata.fire.ca.gov/incidents/incidents_stats]

Thus, the story of California's fires may be symbolic, but it is also a cautionary tale for the summit. Symbolic as an indication of what happens if we do not pay attention to the many and complex causes of climate change, but cautionary in that we don't seem to be able to take action, even on the things we say we believe. Nowhere is this point more clearly illustrated than in the data released by the Yale Program on Climate Communication in 2016. According to a massive project conducted by Peter Howe, Matto Mildenberger, Jennifer R. Marlon, and Anthony Leiserowitz, Americans "overwhelmingly believe that global warming is happening, and that carbon emissions should be scaled back" (climatecommunication.yale.edu/about). In fact, they found that a majority of adults in every congressional district support the limiting of carbon dioxide emissions from existing coal-fired power plants and that only four counties in the entire United States showed fewer than 50% of people believing otherwise. However, and this is the real lesson for the summit, the map becomes almost a mirror image of itself when people were asked if they believe that climate change will harm them personally. They simply don't believe it – and more complicating for political leaders and policy makers is the fact these flip flops don't follow any party line.

The researchers suggest this about-face is primarily due to the fact that this is the type of risk that humans are the worst at dealing with: it is not immediate or direct and requires neither fight nor flight. The only (slight) exception to this pattern is found in areas that have, in fact, dealt with natural disaster on a more regular basis, e.g. parts of California, Texas and Florida. Even then, the tragic stories of people refusing evacuation orders seems to bear out their findings and suggest that even when flight looks like the only option, people will resist until the last possible moment.

The San Francisco Global Climate Action Summit website (globalclimateactionsummit.org) states that 2018 "must be the beginning of a new phase of action and ambition on climate change." It remains to be seen if California can inspire action on the world stage or if we will see these hopes go up in smoke.

Dr. Alison Holmes is Associate Professor of International Studies and Politics at Humboldt State University, CA. She lived in the UK for over 20 years and worked at the BBC, ran BritishAmerican Business in London and was speechwriter to the US Ambassador. A PhD in International Relations from the LSE, she has been an Associate Fellow at the Rothermere American Institute at Oxford, a Churchill Memorial Trust History Fellow and the Transatlantic Studies Fellow at Yale.

Alison will be at the Global Action Summit in San Francisco for The American. To read her reports, sign up to our free e-newsletter using the box above.


California fire satellite Active fires in Northern California at July 31, 2018. Courtesy NASA


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