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As world leaders—without President Donald Trump—gathered Monday for a United Nations summit on global warming, former Gov. Jerry Brown and China’s top climate official formally launched a California-China Climate Institute to research ways to combat climate change.

Brown, who was to speak by phone from California, announced the initiative with China’s Special Representative for Climate Change Affairs Xie Zhenhua in New York, where officials from some 60 countries were convened for a United Nations Climate Action Summit in advance of the U.N. General Assembly.

Brown, who made the fight against climate change a signature issue of his second stint as governor, will partner with Xie in overseeing the institute, which will be housed at UC Berkeley, his alma mater. The goal, he said, will be to encourage climate action through research, training and collaboration—a contrast to Trump, whose administration is engaged in a trade war with China and who last week referred to its government as “a threat to the world.”

In an interview with CalMatters, Brown said the research initiative was less about politics than about addressing a crisis he has repeatedly referred to as “existential.” However, he did note the president’s decision to pull out of the Paris Climate Agreement, which was negotiated by President Barack Obama, and the increasingly fraught relations between the Trump administration and China.

“As storm clouds continue to darken relations between China and the United States, climate change is a way to keep the doors open,” Brown said. “We are going to do something important during this rather dismal state in our mutual relationship.”

Trump’s stand on climate change, Brown said, is “bordering not only malfeasance but is almost criminal behavior.” His decision to pull out of the Paris Accord is “worthy of condemnation by decent people everywhere.”

“I say that by way of emphasis on the seriousness of the issue,” Brown said.

Brown committed to establishing this institute after meeting with China’s President Xi Jinping in Beijing and hosting a dialogue with Xie at Tsinghua University in 2017. 

The arrangement with China expands on Brown’s work as governor in signing up 188 subnational governments to agree to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and in hosting a climate summit in San Francisco last year that drew thousands of participants from around the world.

As China rises as an economic power, the former governor noted, there will be increased competition with the U.S. But without cooperation in confronting the shared danger of climate change, both nations and the whole world will suffer.

“I am not here to fan the flames of political controversy, but to tackle jointly a problem that confronts everyone in the world,” Brown said.

UC Berkeley’s School of Law will house the institute. The College of Natural Resources will help advance the research.

UC Berkeley Chancellor Carol Christ said in a statement: “Our faculty and researchers each day take on the peril of our changing climate and seek to develop new technologies and policies that will reduce greenhouse gasses across continents. This institute will play a key role in spreading that work around the world.”

Research topics will include:

  • Low-carbon transportation and zero emission vehicles.
  • Carbon pricing.
  • Climate adaptation and resilience.
  • Sustainable land use and climate-smart agriculture.
  • Carbon capture and storage.
  • Long-term climate goal-setting and policy enforcement.

In a statement, Erwin Chemerinsky, dean of the UC Berkeley School of Law, said: “I am excited about this collaboration to tackle the world’s most urgent problem, climate change. … My hope is that this unique endeavor will make a real difference.” 

Brown envisions assistance from other UC campuses and various state entities, including the California Air Resources Board, the Energy Commission and the California Public Utilities Commission, among others. Air Resources Board chairwoman Mary Nichols will serve on the board of directors.

Former Secretary of State John Kerry, writing in The Washington Post on Sunday, raised the central issue: Trump’s decision to pull out of the Paris Accord, and his view that climate change is a hoax perpetrated by China to hinder U.S. economic gains. 

“In the temporary absence of U.S. leadership,” Kerry wrote, “we need other major emitters to step up—not only to deliver the climate action we need, but also to build trust that international institutions are prepared to take on this global challenge until the United States is ready to rejoin the fight.”

He pointed to China and India, and argued that there is great economic opportunity in confronting climate change.

“The United States will be back at the table after 2020, but in this aberrational period of shortsightedness, now is the time for China, India and other countries to prove just what we are missing,” Kerry wrote.

CalMatters.org is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California policies and politics.

Published in Environment

Massive worldwide demonstrations took place yesterday, Sept. 20, to demand meaningful governmental responses to the climate crisis—including a rally in Palm Desert.

According to media reports, some 2,500 events were scheduled in more than 150 countries on all seven continents. In New York City alone, an estimated crowd of 250,000 gathered in protest.

Here in the Coachella Valley, the Climate Reality Project of Riverside County sponsored a rally and demonstration that began around 3:30 p.m. in the offices of U.S. Rep. Dr. Raul Ruiz, near the intersection of Washington Street and Fred Waring Drive in Palm Desert. After a few short speeches, the crowd of around 150 people—many carrying signs—moved onto the sidewalks surrounding the intersection. The mood was one of determination—to bring real solutions to this existential threat, and celebration—of the diverse community of young students, adults and seniors that joined together to send this message.

Richard Noble, chair of the Climate Reality Project of Riverside County, welcomed the crowd.

“What an amazing day,” he said. “Globally, the kids are standing up, and the adults are meeting them halfway—and we are coming together to face the climate crisis.

“About six months ago, I spoke before the Sustainability Commission of the Palm Springs City Council after having been trained by Al Gore. What Vice President Al Gore had said was that we have the solutions (right here) in windmills, solar and hydropower. These are all renewable energies that are carbon-free. (As a result), the City Council of Palm Springs unanimously called for Palm Springs to go 100 percent carbon-free by 2020. That’s a huge deal. But, unfortunately, Palm Desert and Cathedral City backed out of the agreement. Now, some of (their reticence) might have to do with money. But we have to ask ourselves: Do we want our planet? Or, do we mind paying a few extra dollars on a renewable-energy utility bill? If it’s going to save our lives and our planet, I don’t mind paying a few extra dollars.”

“This is not a drill. We are in a climate emergency. I invited every member of the City Council of Palm Springs to come out and join us today. Are you here?”

A silence in the crowd turned to groans. “Get them out here!” Noble said.

Renaissance Alexandre, a student leader at the University of California, Riverside, spoke next.

“It is also important to hold the systems accountable for the damage that they’re doing, which makes up the majority of climate change,” Alexandre said. “Those are the military industrial complex, the corporations and the travel industry. … I’m a feminist. I’m here for my native sisters, my two-spirited siblings and everyone in between, because we are all on this planet together. The Amazon happens to be in Brazil, but it is all our air and all our responsibility to help each other.”

A more local view was expressed by Priscilla, mother to 4-month old Melanie.

“We came out today for my daughter’s future, and living out here in the Coachella Valley and feeling the temperature rising, and seeing all the devastation that’s going on around the world, it’s really scary,” Priscilla said. “We want her to have a good future, so I’ve got to do something about it. She obviously doesn’t have a voice, so I’ve got to be the one to do it.”

Scroll down to see some photos from the rally.

Published in Snapshot

The maxim that we’re not to speak ill of the dead is generally good advice, though it’s complicated by the death of men like David Koch, the oilman and right-wing financier who died on Aug. 23 at the age of 79.

There’s a ghoulish quality to gloating about the demise of one’s ideological adversaries before the bodies are in the ground—as HBO’s Bill Maher did on his show Friday night—especially at a time when politics has become a factionalized blood sport. And any polemic about David Koch’s decades of funding the far right is likely to draw a two-dimensional caricature of the man, eliding his truly remarkable philanthropy, as well as his forward thinking on immigration and criminal-justice reform—which, truth be told, was well ahead of many modern progressives. (In 1980, for instance, as a vice presidential candidate on the libertarian ticket, Koch supported open borders.)

But any fair analysis of the world David Koch leaves behind can’t help but speak ill of his legacy: Few Americans in the postwar era have been more destructive than David and his older brother, Charles Koch, who survives him. Through the untold millions they lavished on conservative political networks and organizations—founding the Cato Institute; bankrolling the Heritage Foundation; establishing the anti-regulation Mercatus Center at George Mason University and similar centers at Florida State University and Utah State University; creating the Americans for Prosperity Foundation; and funding all manner of anti-union efforts—the Kochs fundamentally reformed American conservatism and, in the process, American democracy.

The end result is the party we see now—beholden to the wealthy, with a theology that believes tax cuts are the panacea to whatever ails us, that is stalwart in its opposition to any and all environmental and labor regulations, and embarrassingly resistant to the climate science that the rest of the world long accepted.

In particular, Americans for Prosperity—David Koch’s baby—mobilized the tea party, an astroturf movement aroused in reaction to Barack Obama’s presidency.

As Sarah Jones wrote in New York this weekend: “The id they unleashed—the naked white nationalism, the anti–big government hysteria, all those conspiracy theories—helped seed the ground for Donald Trump.”

There’s some irony in that, considering that the Koch brothers were never enthusiastic about Trump, especially his trade wars and harsh immigration tactics. They never donated to him, and earlier this year, AFP indicated that it was open to supporting Democrats, so long as those Democrats were the kind that would keep the party from going in the direction of Elizabeth Warren and the Green New Deal. But in the pursuit of their own interests—in serving their own greed—they’d created a Frankenstein’s monster they couldn’t control.

They’d grown Koch Industries, a company they’d inherited from their father—an original member of the John Birch Society who admired Benito Mussolini and thought the civil rights movement was a communist plot—into the second-largest privately owned business in the country, with oil refineries in Alaska, Texas and Minnesota, more than 4,000 miles of pipeline, and ownership of products ranging from Brawny paper towels to Stainmaster carpet, as The New Yorker’s Jane Meyer reported in her definitive 2010 profile. And they wanted the government out of their way. They’ve fought health-care reform, labor regulations, and anything else that got between them and a buck.

“The Kochs,” Meyer wrote, “are longtime libertarians who believe in drastically lower personal and corporate taxes, minimal social services for the needy, and much less oversight of industry—especially environmental regulation. These views dovetail with the brothers’ corporate interests.”

The Kochs were one of the top air polluters in the country, according to a 2010 University of Massachusetts at Amherst study. More important, perhaps, they were the biggest funder of climate-change denial, surpassing even ExxonMobil.

For decades, Koch-funded groups like the Cato Institute and the Heritage Foundation have tried to pour cold water on the consensus that the world is dangerously warming, and humans are to blame. With the Kochs’ millions behind them, these organizations fostered skepticism about scientists involved in climate research, claimed that the science is inconclusive, and—as David Koch told Meyer in 2010—argued that even if the planet is getting hotter, it will ultimately be beneficial.

This was simple avarice dressed up as ideology, of course—regardless of whether David Koch ever admitted that to himself. Accepting the reality of anthropomorphic climate change and its destructive consequences would mean weaning ourselves off fossil fuels, which would make the Kochs’ oil empire less profitable.  

The last full month David Koch lived to see, July 2019, was the hottest ever recorded on Earth. The day he died, the Amazon rainforest was burning at an unprecedented rate, as the right-wing Brazilian government allowed loggers, farmers and cattle interests to slash and burn a region that produces 20 percent of the planet’s oxygen and is vital to combating climate change. Three days after he died, the president he inadvertently helped install skipped a meeting of world leaders on climate change at the G7 summit in Paris. Three decades after he died, experts have warned, 55 percent of the global population could live in areas that experience more than 20 days of lethal heat a year; 1 billion people will have been displaced from their homes; 2 billion people will lack access to water; and droughts and severe flooding will have become the norm.

David Koch was worth $42.4 billion.

Contact Jeffrey C. Billman at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Published in National/International

On this week's bedbug-free weekly Independent comics page: Jen Sorensen looks at the motivations of various activists; The K Chronicles goes to Germany and wants to become a vice mayor; This Modern World talks to three supporters of different Democratic presidential candidates; Apoca Clips watches Li'l Trumpy turn into the "Chosen One"; and Red Meat goes bald to be sexy.

Published in Comics

Anyone who spent the weekend at the California Democratic Party’s convention—watching 14 White House contenders try to impress what one congresswoman called “the wokest Democrats in the country”—observed the following: Saturday’s most rapturous cheers went to Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who declared “the time for small ideas is over," advocated “big, structural change” and said “I am here to fight.” Sunday’s thunderous applause went to Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, when he demanded there can be “no middle ground” on climate change, healthcare or gun violence.

Those who strayed from progressive orthodoxy did so at their peril.

Ex-Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper dismissed the push for single-payer health care by insisting “socialism is not the answer” Saturday, drawing a sustained barrage of boos—not just from those who embraced the label, but from those who resented it. The following day, Maryland Rep. John Delany dismissed Medicare-for-All as “not good policy,” and faced heckles and jeers.

The San Francisco confab was the state Dems’ first get-together since last year’s blowout election returned the party to its national majority in the House and devastated the ranks of elected Republicans in California. The delegates left no doubt that as they prepare for the 2020 election against President Donald Trump, they are in no mood for compromise or equivocation.

At least not when it comes to ideas that energize them.

But state party conventions—dominated in decibels by faithful partisans and zealous activists—often offer an exaggerated, funhouse-mirror reflection of what the party’s voters statewide actually think. And even the delegates can be more temperate than the room might suggest.

In one of the few choices that the 3,200-plus delegates actually made, a majority eschewed more progressive candidates and easily elected as the party’s next chairman Los Angeles labor leader Rusty Hicks. He’s a soft-spoken white guy from Los Angeles who represented what many called the “safe choice.”

Still, they gave an effusive reception to speakers who jettisoned safe choices. Here was Warren: “Too many powerful people in our party say, ‘Settle down, back up … wait for change until the privileged and powerful are comfortable with those changes,'” she said. “Here’s the thing—when a candidate tells you all the things that aren’t possible … they are telling you they will not fight for you, and I am here to fight.”

Few of the presidential candidates addressed California issues specifically, in the way they become conversant about, say, ethanol in Iowa. Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, who’s made climate policy a thrust of his campaign, talked about visiting the wildfire devastation in the California community of Paradise, and some candidates called for greater regulation of tech firms. But their speeches mostly sidestepped California-specific concerns and aimed wide in appealing to what Oakland Rep. Barbara Lee called the “most progressive and the most democratic and the wokest Democrats in the country.”

“This is obviously a group of activists, and there are obviously some candidates who appeal more to the activists,” Dave Min told CALmatters at a meeting of the Chicano and Latino Caucus. He lost a bid for Congress in 2018 to Rep. Katie Porter, who was backed by Sen. Warren and supported Medicare-for-All. Now he’s seeking a state senate seat.

As if to illustrate his point, minutes later, Sanders—who has done more than virtually any other politician to turn support for universal Medicare into a litmus test for progressive Democratic candidates—entered the room and was nearly trampled by selfie-seeking delegates.

Next, Beto O’Rourke, the former Texas Congressman who nearly beat GOP Sen. Ted Cruz in Texas, entered the room, unleashing fresh pandemonium. Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, a relative moderate, was treated to a much more restrained, if polite, reception.

That courtesy was not extended to Hickenlooper.

“If we want to beat Donald Trump and achieve big progressive goals, socialism is not the answer,” he told the convened Democrats. He was booed for roughly 30 seconds by delegates who either objected to his characterization of single-payer healthcare as “socialism,” or, in fact, believe socialism is the answer.

Regardless, the scene was unadulterated Fox News fodder.

The next day, Delaney, of Maryland, took the same approach. On the heels of Sanders’ raucously well-received speech, Delaney told the audience that universal access to Medicare “is actually not good policy.” The audience disagreed, vocally and persistently. Even New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez got in the act, tweeting that Delaney should just “sashay away.”

If this is the first time you’ve heard of Delaney or Hickenlooper, that may have been the point. Hickenlooper later told the San Francisco Chronicle that he was not seeking the crowd’s vitriol. But the fact that his campaign blasted out a press release the day of the event with the title, “Hickenlooper to California Dems: “Socialism Is Not the Answer” suggested he might have been aiming his appeal far outside Moscone Center. The following day, his campaign issued a press release citing coverage from The Washington Post and exulting: “Hickenlooper lost the room but gained a national audience.”

Besides, the Democratic Party has a history of candidates strategically saying something sure to elicit boos from a leftist crowd in order to establish their independent cred with moderates: Consider President Bill Clinton’s Sister Souljah speech, and California Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s defense of capital punishment at her state’s convention—which her campaign gleefully turned into a TV commercial.

For Julian Castro, who served as Housing and Urban Development secretary in the Obama administration and who has struggled to gain much popular support, the interpretation was clear.

“You heard the reaction,” he said, when asked by a reporter whether Democrats can compete without supporting a single-payer health-care policy. “Probably not in this state. Who knows?”

Joe Biden might disagree. The former vice president supports a policy that would allow those under the qualifying age to purchase a Medicare policy, which constitutes a moderate position among the current Democratic candidates. But at least for now, he leads in the polls—even among California Democrats.

The Biden campaign explained the candidate’s conspicuous absence at the San Francisco convention as an unavoidable scheduling conflict, though attendees of the 2018 Democratic convention may recall the chilly reception that Sen. Feinstein, another moderate, received.

The Democrats in attendance largely shrugged off Biden’s decision not to show up. Alex Gallardo-Rooker, who has served at the party’s chair since the resignation of Eric Baumann earlier this year, said that Biden was “being pulled all over the place.” Gov. Newsom also gave the former vice president a pass: “It’s a big country.” When asked about it, Sen. Kamala Harris literally shrugged—and said nothing.

The one exception was Sanders, who, during his speech in the convention hall on Sunday morning, referred to “presidential candidates who have spoken to you here in this room and those who have chosen, for whatever reason, not to be in this room.” The crowd happily booed.

Sanders was cheered as he argued that there is no “middle ground” on climate change, making a not-so-subtle dig at Biden who used the term to describe his environmental policy plan.

But to some, both supporters and detractors, the party’s choice of Hicks for chair represented its own kind of middle ground. Kimberly Ellis, Hicks’ strongest opponent who narrowly lost the race for party chair in 2017, had argued that the party needs to take a more assertive role in political messaging and agenda setting.

But with 57 percent of the vote, Hicks’ victory was decisive, and the party avoided an oft-predicted runoff election. Ellis got 36 percent.

For close observers of California politics, this might feel like deja vu. Earlier this year, the California Republican Party held its own election for chair in which Jessica Patterson, the pick of most of the party establishment, beat out an ideological upstart, Travis Allen.

At a Friday evening forum hosted by the Democratic Party’s progressive caucus, candidates for chair were asked, rapid-fire, about single-payer health insurance, a statewide ban on fracking, the Green New Deal and a moratorium on new charter schools. All six candidates were unanimous in their support.

Where disagreement arose, it was less about policy and more about the role of the party itself—whether the priority should be on building up the party as a political institution or promoting the most progressive agenda.

Asked whether the party should abandon the practice of automatically endorsing incumbent Democratic lawmakers or substantially reduce the power of elected office holders within the party, Hicks was the only candidate to say no.

Karen Araujo, a delegate from Salinas who supported Ellis, called Hicks “a safe choice.” Still, she added, “It was a clear decision. I’ll honor that and I’ll work hard for my party.”

Said Josh Newman, a former Orange County state senator who was recalled and is running for his old seat again: “It’s good to have a decisive moment where we decide, ‘OK, fair election, fair result; now let’s work on the next thing. And the next thing has to be 2020.”

Elizabeth Castillo contributed to this story. CALmatters.org is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California policies and politics.

Published in Politics

On this week's college-rejected weekly Independent comics page: Apoca Clips watches as Li'l Trumpy signs Bibles; Red Meat tries to maintain the telepathic link with the fish; This Modern World ponders the "extreme" nature of the Green New Deal; Jen Sorenson offers a field guide to bad-faith social-justice activists; and (Th)ink tackles the #fakemelania phenomenon.

Published in Comics

What better way to decompress from a stressful federal government job than by trekking 2,600 miles on foot from Mexico to Canada?

That’s what Jared Blumenfeld, the new head of the California Environmental Protection Agency, did three years ago, setting out on the arduous and beloved Pacific Crest Trail that traces California’s searing deserts, rugged mountains and sparkling coastline. Turns out the dust on his boots gave him just the perspective he needed to take on the job Gov. Gavin Newsom gave him in January.

“I had a healthy reset,” Blumenfeld said recently about his four months on the trail. “What you realize is the complexity of the environmental issues. We have so many people talking about environmental issues, but we say it in a way that most people don’t understand.”

People want to be part of the solution to environmental problems, he said. “What I got from a distance was (the importance of) bringing these messages home in a way that’s digestible and actionable.”

Blumenfeld’s work perspective also shifted, as he moved from his job as the regional administrator for the federal EPA during the Obama administration to its mirror agency in Sacramento.

Blumenfeld, who has law degrees from the University of London and UC Berkeley, left his federal job in May 2016, a few months before his appointment was set to expire.

The agency he now manages oversees a half-dozen departments that regulate matters including air and water quality, which are among the state’s most contentious issues. Those issues have put California on a collision course with the Trump administration, which is undoing dozens of federal environmental protections, including some that originated in the Golden State.

Perhaps the most consequential battle is over Obama-era rules tightening future car emissions and gas-mileage standards to reduce greenhouse gases and other pollutants; the regulations were crafted by California but adopted nationwide. Under president Trump, the federal government announced it would roll back those rules and revoke California’s right, first granted by Washington decades ago, to set its own air-pollution standards. Such a move would significantly affect the state’s ambitious climate policies.

Blumenfeld, 49, said the state needs the federal government as a partner on these issues—but when it came to hammering out a compromise on the auto standards, it was a one-way conversation. The feds announced last week that they had broken off negotiations with the state.

“They did not negotiate,” he said. “It was a little spurious to say they ended negotiations. They never began. The rule that was passed by the Obama administration has been rewritten based on very spurious and kind of junky science by the Trump administration.” (Federal officials produced research that they said showed the regulations as set would make cars less safe and be difficult for automakers to meet.)

In a wide-ranging conversation, Blumenfeld also said:

The state will vigorously defend its right to waive some federal emissions regulations and set its own, stricter standards. He expects the fight to be resolved in court. “We do have law and precedent on our side,” Blumenfeld said. “But we do live in bizarre political times, and that does have an influence on how the highest court may look at this issue.”

He brought together the state agencies he oversees and provided marching orders to step up enforcement of California’s environmental laws—and impose fines when called for. “The regulated community is frustrated that in some cases, the enforcement is happening in some parts of the state, but it isn’t in happening in others,” he said. “Consistency, clarity and prioritizing enforcement are important.” He had criticized California for lax enforcement of water laws in an opinion piece published in the San Francisco Chronicle last year.

Blumenfeld worked for Newsom in San Francisco as environmental director for the city. Then-mayor Newsom took him and other key aides to Hunters Point, a highly polluted former Navy shipyard, and into the community to talk to residents affected by residual problems. Newsom told the aides, “I don’t want you sitting in your offices. I want you to get out and help people.” The nexus of environmental damage and public health will be a focus of the new governor, Blumenfeld said.

The enviro-czar didn’t just spend his time hiking while on hiatus from government service. He founded a green-tech consulting company and started a podcast, Podship Earth. The native of Cambridge, England, who retains a trace of his British accent, said it’s now time to get back to work.

“Previous governors came up with great laws and targets, and the Legislature does the same,” he said. “Our job is to implement those. Let’s not just jump to the next shiny-cool environmental thing that we could do. Our first order of business is to look at what we’re doing and make sure we’re doing it according to the plans that are already there.

“We have politicians in every level of government who care deeply about the environment,” Blumenfeld said. “California offers hope and inspiration on how to solve problems, from an innovation perspective but also politically. It’s exciting to be in California right now.”

CALmatters.org is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California policies and politics.

Published in Environment

On this week's wetter-than-Portland weekly Independent comics page: Jen Sorensen examines how everything is pretend with Donald Trump; (Th)ink begs Democrats not to be jackasses; This Modern World looks at the scary future set in motion by Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez; Red Meat apologizes for an unfortunate fire; and Apoca Clips hears out Li'l Trumpy regarding his "national emergency."

Published in Comics

Don’t be fooled by the precipitation, the snowpack and the wildflowers. When winter ends, it’s unlikely that California’s iconic landscape will sustain the moisture to withstand the scorching summer and fall.

California has yet to recover from the 5-year drought that began in 2012. For four years, record wildfires have ravaged the state, including the Tubbs Fire in Napa and Sonoma in 2017, and the Camp Fire last year that wiped out the town of Paradise in Butte County. The 2019 wildfire season officially kicks off in mid-May, but California’s wildfire season is essentially year-round now.

So what happens when the next big wildfire hits?

State fire officials are already amassing new aircraft that can drop thousands of gallons of bright red flame retardant. Emergency responders are pre-positioning fire crews in high-threat areas even before a fire starts. State officials will no longer second guess the use of wireless emergency alerts that grab people’s attention by making smartphones vibrate and squawk.

The major investor-owned utilities—Pacific Gas and Electric, Southern California Edison, and San Diego Gas and Electric—now plan to shut off power, even where fire risk is minimal, during red-flag weather warnings. It’s considered a public-safety measure of last resort, because a power outage can cut off internet access and make communication difficult for hospitals, firefighters and emergency personnel.

The utilities also plan to fireproof California’s electricity grid, a result of their equipment being implicated in so many recent disasters. That includes clearing brush and trees away from transmission lines, replacing wooden poles with metal ones, and using drones and weather monitoring stations to gauge danger via wind and smoke patterns.

Yet even these expensive precautions may not ward off the next towering inferno, say fire officials.

“I think we are better prepared,” said Kelly Huston, deputy director of the state Office of Emergency Services. “The real question is whether or not that’s enough.”


‘A Sense of Urgency’

Part of the problem is that California has been caught off guard by the new climate-driven fire seasons, amplified by longer hot summers and extended droughts. Seven of the 10 most destructive wildfires in state history have happened in the last five years.

“The fires are behaving so much differently than they have before,” Huston said, noting the new wildfires are “virtually impossible to fight” as they leap mountains and gallop for miles, creating their own weather systems. “You couldn’t have predicted this based on past fire.”

California Public Utilities Commission President Michael Picker told state lawmakers on Jan. 30 that climate-change-driven wildfires are happening much faster than anyone predicted. But for the state regulatory agency to enforce safety at the state’s eight investor-owned utilities, Picker said, he would need 15,000 to 20,000 new staff to police every electricity pole and wire. The agency has, roughly, a 1,300-member staff.

The CPUC regulates not only privately owned utilities from telecom to water, but also rail-crossing safety, limos and ride sharing. Historically, Picker’s role has been more like that of an administrative judge than a police chief.

“If you want to get the Legislature to allow me to be a total dictator, and make decisions overnight, I’m happy,” Picker elaborated to reporters afterward. “That’s not what our job is. We are like a technical court. People have to have their day in court. It’s not a fast process. Have you been in a court proceeding that took one day?”

But his answer on the challenges of enforcement frustrated lawmakers, on whom political pressure has mounted with every disaster. The CPUC is not known for swiftness. It took nine years to issue a statewide fire-threat map after Southern California fires, caused by Santa Ana winds whipping power lines, prompted commissioners in 2009 to demand one. It has laid out a two-month schedule just for reviewing fire-prevention plans utilities must submit under recent and hard-fought wildfire safety legislation.

After Picker’s testimony, Democratic Assemblyman Jim Wood, a forensic dentist who represents fire-ravaged Santa Rosa, took to Twitter.

“I want to hear a sense of urgency,” he wrote. “We don’t have time for a standard bureaucratic approach.”


Amassing ‘More Tools’

Ultimately, the fire challenge involves painful long-term decisions such as how to reconcile the acute demand for California housing with the suddenly limited supply of land that isn’t in a high-risk fire zone.

Short-term, Democratic state Sen. Bill Dodd of Napa is among those who hope incremental improvements might make a difference. He is proposing the commission work with Cal Fire and the Office of Emergency Services to improve coordination for turning off power in red-flag weather, alerting residents to evacuate and better targeting crews to fight fires. His Senate Bill 209 would establish an official, statewide California wildfire warning center.

“It would give us more tools in trying to make sure this doesn’t happen again,” Dodd said.

Emergency officials also are studying past fires, and preparing. Survivors of the Tubbs Fire in Napa and Sonoma counties complained they had little or no warning when the flames flared up at night under dry windy conditions. Local officials opted against sending out a mass alert for fear of causing panic or hindering emergency responders.

“Everybody I talk to in our neighborhood pretty much either had family call or a neighbor knock on the door. I don’t know of anyone that got an emergency alert,” said Patrick McCallum, a higher education lobbyist who barely escaped his Santa Rosa home with his wife, Sonoma State University President Judy Sakaki. “Worse, there were police and fire engines running around, but they were not allowed to put their alarms on.”

In coming weeks, the state is expected to issue clearer guidance to all 58 counties for issuing alerts and warnings to the public across multiple platforms. The new thinking is to over-communicate, rather than rely on the alerts of the 1980s sent over television and radio or ringing landlines.

“It is something people depend on to make decisions in a crisis,” OES’ Huston said.

The state also believes pushing out wireless emergency alerts on smartphones similar to an Amber Alert can now be done effectively without creating chaos. This simple weather warning was sent out to seven counties encompassing 22 million people in Southern California in December 2017 as a precaution after authorities saw dry windy conditions similar to the wine country fire two months earlier:

“Strong winds overnight creating extreme fire danger. Stay Alert. Listen to authorities.”

This fire season, Californians may see it again.


A Firefighting Air Force

Meanwhile, Cal Fire is beefing up its capabilities. Rather than waiting to respond to a wildfire, emergency personnel have shifted to pre-positioning strike teams before a fire even starts.

The switch comes at a price; Cal Fire’s expenses now already routinely exceed its budget. Last year’s fire spending set a new record, and the political climate has made the outlays difficult to question.

“That’s expensive, because you’re paying the same amount of money for firefighters whether they’re fighting a fire or sitting waiting for a fire to start,” Huston said. “But you have to weigh that against the potential for loss and the expense of a disaster.”

The state already boasts a formidable firefighting air force, featuring S-2T air tankers that dump 1,200 gallons of flame retardant and Huey helicopters for lifting fire crews in and out of steep terrain.

This spring, the Hueys will start to be replaced by more modern Black Hawks, the Army’s frontline utility helicopter. The first one is expected to be ready in May, said Cal Fire spokesman Scott McLean.

And over the next two years, Cal Fire will add seven C-130 Hercules cargo planes. Those will be retrofitted to carry between 3,000 and 4,000 gallons of flame retardant.

“California will have one of, if not the largest, firefighting air forces in the world,” McLean said.


What About the Utilities?

At ground zero in much of the state are California’s investor-owned utilities and their spark-prone equipment. PG&E has vowed to expand power shut-off territory to as many as 5.4 million customers, up from 570,000 today. SCE is focused on better weather monitoring, adding 62 high-definition cameras and 350 micro weather stations as part of a broader $582 million safety plan.

And SDG&E, which has been most aggressive with more than $1 billion in safety upgrades, will continue to replace wood poles with steel poles, hire a helitanker on standby year-round, and contract with firefighters especially trained to put out electrical fires.

Yet there’s no statewide standard for deciding when the power should be shut off. Instead, participating utilities base decisions on temperature, wind, humidity and other factors. SDG&E has been lauded for its proactive use of public safety power shutoffs.

PG&E’s rollout has been less reassuring.

Two days before the most destructive wildfire in California history ignited, 62,000 PG&E customers in eight counties, including Butte, were warned that their power could be turned off as a precautionary measure. This was sent at 6:30 p.m. on Nov. 6: This is an important safety alert from Pacific Gas and Electric Company. Extreme weather conditions and high fire-danger are forecasted in Butte County. These conditions may cause power outages in the area of your address. To protect public safety, PG&E may also temporarily turn off power in your neighborhood or community. If there is an outage, we will work to restore service as soon as it is safe to do so.”

Cal Fire reports the Camp Fire ignited around 6:30 a.m. on Nov. 8.

PG&E never shut off power. In fact, the utility went on to issue cancellation notifications hours after the deadly blaze started. Sent at 2 p.m. on Nov. 8: “This is an important safety update from Pacific Gas and Electric Company. Weather conditions have improved in your area, and we are not planning to turn off electricity for safety in the area of your address.”

PG&E wouldn’t comment on its decision. The California Public Utilities Commission would say only that it is investigating when asked if the state was looking at why the utility didn’t initiate a blackout.

CALmatters.org is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California policies and politics.

Published in Environment

Despite the willful denunciation of proven climate science by the White House and some members of Congress, there is a hopeful awakening in the United States: Young activists are stepping forward to demand a Green New Deal that guarantees climate action, justice and economic security for all.

A Green New Deal would not be a single law, but rather a collection of policies that embody many of the actions needed to expand clean energy, grow job opportunities, reduce climate pollution, improve air and water quality, and enhance the resilience of communities.

In any plan to help us transition from an economy built on fossil fuels to one driven by clean energy, our public lands should feature prominently.

We need a climate plan for public lands that will manage a phase-down of fossil-fuel leasing and production in line with current climate science. At the same time, we must support those communities most affected by pollution and boom-and-bust energy cycles as they transition to the energy of the future.

Climate change is the largest and most-misunderstood problem humanity will ever face. There is no previous situation to compare it to, no successful historical model to reference—and that just makes the issue even riper for the critics who claim it simply doesn’t exist.

During the 24th international climate conference, newly released information confirmed that we are facing a slow-motion global catastrophe. According to a battery of scientific reports from thousands of the world’s foremost experts, we are closer than expected to warming levels that would result in severe, perhaps irrevocable, changes in natural systems.

Winters are shorter; summers hotter and drier; our fishing streams run warmer; and ski slopes stay bare. Coral reefs are dying, and glaciers are disappearing from Glacier National Park. Life forms on this planet—from pollinators to polar bears—are struggling to create another generation. Closer to home, some human communities are burning to the ground while others are deluged in floods.

We already have the knowledge to avert the worst of these effects, but we lack the collective will to do so. Politicians in the Trump era are normalizing negligence every time they dismiss scientific consensus by uttering, “I don’t believe it.”

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s tenure is a microcosm of this denial: He spent 21 months in blind pursuit of “energy dominance,” a doctrine that enshrines oil, gas and coal production as the highest use of America’s public lands, regardless of the climate pollution they cause.

Fossil-energy extraction is the preferred tenant on America’s public lands. For less than the price of a cup of coffee, developers can purchase and lock up America’s favorite outdoor recreation areas and wildlife habitat for years so that oil developers and mining companies have sole access.

That dirty secret means that public lands are a major source of the nation’s climate-emissions problem. In fact, if our public lands were their own country, its emissions would rank fifth in the world, according to data released by the Trump administration.

We should utilize our already-degraded lands to drive geothermal, wind and solar energy, working in cooperation with local communities while safeguarding our wildlife and wilderness-quality lands. Our elected leaders must eliminate the subsidies and regulatory loopholes that prop up ailing coal, oil and gas producers and permit needless methane waste and other pollution.

We must protect our public lands in large, connected blocks that span the continent to help wildlife species and entire ecosystems adapt to a warming world.

And we should support a just transition to a clean, sustainable economy that puts people to work in jobs that conserve and restore our public lands, including building trails, restoring wetlands and other wildlife habitat and improving facilities at our parks and monuments.

Let’s reimagine the role we want our public lands to play at this pivotal time in history. We all have a say in how our greatest natural legacy is handed down to the next generation.

More than a century ago, early visionaries had the forethought to create America’s vast system of public lands. Now, more than ever, we need the same courageous thinking to address the most pressing challenge of our time.

Jamie Williams is president of The Wilderness Society, which was founded in 1935 and now has more than 1 million members and supporters. This piece originally appeared in High Country News.

Published in Community Voices

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