Simultaneous with the nationwide battle against the Coronavirus pandemic, the widespread marches and riots against racial oppression, and the heated campaigning for an upcoming presidential election, California is facing an unprecedented wildfire season that won’t seem to end. Since the beginning of the year, there have been over 8,100 wildfires that have burned 3.7 million acres in California. Five of the state’s top six largest fires have occurred in 2020, including the largest known as the August Complex fire. So far, 26 people have been killed and 7,000 structures have been destroyed. The debate over what caused these California wildfires has become a highly politicized and polarizing issue, with two very different reasonings explaining what caused them: climate change or forest mismanagement.
Most Democrats, including California’s Governor Gavin Newsom, have adamantly argued that this unparalleled fire season is a result of climate change. Research from the EPA reveals that higher temperatures in our climate are a direct result of increased greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. These drier climate conditions increase the severity and frequency of wildfires and lead to permanent changes in California’s landscape and industry. As the climate becomes drier and hotter, desert terrains grow throughout the state and risk of severe wildfire grows. Subsequently, industry is impacted as we see a decrease in the supply of crops due to burnt land and the destruction of many plant and animal ecosystems. Wildfires also reduce the air quality, which can lead to chest pains, respiratory problems, and heart problems for exposed populations. Governor Newsom has been very outspoken about how climate change has directly impacted California. On September 8, he tweeted “California fires in 2019: – 4,927 fires – 118k acres burned. California fires in 2020 (so far): – 7,606 fires- 2.3 million acres burned. CLIMATE. CHANGE. IS. REAL.” Newsom isn’t alone in believing in the detrimental effects of climate change. Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti also commented on the correlation between climate change and California’s wildfires, telling CNN “It’s been very clear that years of drought, as we’re seeing, whether it’s too much water and too much rain in parts of our country right now, or too little. This is climate change and this is an administration that’s put its head in the sand.” Most adults in America also believe in the dangerous effects of climate change. According to an October 2019 survey, two-thirds of U.S. adults believe the federal government is doing too little to reduce the effects of global climate change and 64 percent believe that protecting the environment should be a priority for the president and Congress. Newsom, like Mayor Garcetti and many American adults, recognizes the direct impact of climate change in California’s growing wildfire season.
However, not everyone is embracing the idea that climate change is to blame for California’s unprecedented wildfire season. In fact, President Trump fully denies the very existence of climate change. In 2012, Trump tweeted, “The concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive.” Today, he also denies that there is any correlation between the California fires and climate change. Instead, he claims the fires were a result of forest mismanagement. During an interview with radio host Mark Levin, the president directly addressed Governor Newsom and his pro-climate change beliefs: “Honestly, he’s been very nice with words which is good. But I said you’ve got to manage this. It’s a management thing. He said, ‘no, it’s global warming.’ I said, ‘when the leaves build up and you have a floor of leaves and the trees fall down and you don’t remove them because the environmentalists don’t want you to touch the tree, within 18 months that tree becomes like a matchstick.'” The president also continued to point out that California trees are not more explosive than trees in other countries. Thus, Trump believes that California wildfires are caused by lack of state action and denies that climate change has had any effect.
The polarizing opinions on wildfire management presented by Governor Newsom and President Trump have created a highly public debate over the issue. On September 14, Governor Newsom attended President Trump’s briefing on the California wildfires, and their different ideologies caused striking tension in the room. While President Trump briefed the country on California’s hardship, California officials responded by calling out the lacking national response to climate change. Wade Crowfoot, California’s Secretary for Natural Resources stated, “We’ve had temperatures explode this summer…We want to work with you to really recognize the changing climate and what it means to our forests and actually work together with that science. That science is going to be key because if we ignore that science and sort of put our head in the sand and think it’s all about vegetation management, we’re not going to succeed in protecting Californians.” However, as usual, the president denied the claim that climate change is real, asserting that “It’ll start getting cooler. You just — you just watch.” Since this meeting, three new fires have emerged in California: the Glass Fire, the Zogg Fire, and the Lambert Fire. It is clearly not getting cooler.
So who is right? What is actually causing California’s wildfire season? While there is truth to Trump’s claim that forest mismanagement can increase the risk of fires, it is naïve to think that this can account for the unprecedented degree of wildfires in California. Forest management, in conjunction with the exacerbated conditions under climate change, are to blame for today’s California fires. Additionally, if forest mismanagement is solely to blame for the scorching California fires, then it is important to note that the federal government owns nearly 58 percent of the 33 million acres of forest in California. The state only owns 3 percent while the rest of the land is owned by private individuals and companies or Native Americans. Thus, federal agencies are responsible for the maintenance of federally-owned land where fires are taking place, making Trump’s criticisms about California seem crudely misplaced. With regard to Trump’s comment that the trees in California aren’t different from the trees in other countries, it should be acknowledged that different countries have different types of vegetation and land use which can affect the likelihood of wildfires as well. Australia, which also battled unprecedented fires this year, has an extensive forest management and “hazard reduction burning” systems in place to avoid wildfires, and these measures were still not enough to battle the consequences of climate change. This makes it clear that the debate over climate change is no longer a theoretical argument. By looking at California’s wildfires, we can clearly see the repercussions of not taking measures to protect the environment.
Since there are these two very different reasonings for California’s fires- climate change and forest mismanagement- what can be done to prevent fires in the future? Although Governor Newsom has faced criticism for being a climate tweeter instead of a climate leader, he recently issued an executive order to combat climate change directly. The executive order requires sales of all new cars to be zero-emission by 2035. Since the transportation sector is responsible for more than half of all of California’s carbon pollution, 80 percent of smog-forming pollution and 95 percent of toxic diesel emissions, this executive order can prove to be effective in slowing down climate change. By issuing policy to help curb climate change, Newsom is taking action to prevent the trend of unprecedented fire seasons in the future. President Trump also approved a major disaster declaration for California which included fire management assistant grants to help combat the fires. This can include temporary housing and home repairs, low-cost loans to cover uninsured property losses, and other programs to help individuals and business owners recover from the effects of the disaster.
Notice the stark difference in their public policy resolutions to wildfires. Trump’s policy is reactive, while Newsom’s is preventative. Since Trump doesn’t believe in climate change, all his policies will be an attempt to minimize the repercussions of a problem that has already emerged. Even if greater forest management is enforced, science has shown that no amount of forest management policies will stop a new generation of wildfires. So, as climate change continues to cause devastating consequences, Trump will continue to deny its presence and use public policy to mitigate its destructive ramifications. On the other hand, Newsom, in acknowledging climate change, is taking preventative measures to diminish further human contribution to climate change. This, in turn, will hopefully be enough to lessen the negative effects of climate change, including large and unprecedented wildfire seasons.
In order to truly combat California’s wildfires, the federal government needs to address the validity of climate change. Southern California has warmed about 3 degrees (F) in the last century, and climate change is only getting worse. This leads to more outstanding problems that arise as a result of climate change; California wildfires are just the beginning. Therefore, the government should not be thinking of short-term repairs to California fires, but long term solutions to prevent the effects of climate change from worsening.
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