Everyone will be affected by climate change.
By Phillip | 9/14/20
As I look out my window while writing this at 10 a.m., the sky is a hazy orange, which barely allows any light to filter through. When I stick my head out and take a deep breath, the air feels bizarrely clear: a welcome departure from the past few weeks in which the air quality has been unhealthy for everyone with asthma or other underlying conditions. Across California, thousands of fires are destroying thousands of homes and killing many people. How did we get here and why has California’s unified Democratic government failed us?
Although wildfires have been consistently affecting California for the past decade, this year’s blazes are the most numerous and largest ever even though the fire season is far from done. In high school, we celebrated getting a day off for unhealthy air quality, essentially a West Coast snow day. In retrospect, this was idiotic and only looks worse now that 2.5 million acres have burned and few fires are contained. The wildfires also bring power outages with them, an attempt to stop broken power lines from starting electrical fires, which leaves millions of Californians in the dark. However, the current fires are an entirely different breed: the worst months of fire season are still to come.
Heatwaves roiled California over the summer, making Death Valley the hottest recorded place since 1931. Combined with “a rare lightning storm that zapped California more than 10,800 times over three days, sparking small fires across the Bay Area and Northern California” (The Guardian), these small fires continued to expand, due to low humidity, high winds, and dried-out trees. While human-made fires were more manageable in earlier years, even they have grown more disastrous as a result of the hotter, drier climate. 2,650 more fires are burning in California compared to last year’s unusually low amount, and that number will only increase as the second part of the fire season begins, spurred on by the Santa Ana winds. I’m lucky that no fires are currently near me, but these Santa Ana fires spread fast and burn closer to coastal cities. The disastrous Oakland Hills fire of 1991, which killed 25 and destroyed 2,843 houses, happened during this second fire season.
To those that don’t believe climate change exists, look outside at the environmental dystopia we are living in. Scientists are clear that climate change is causing cascading effects, dominoes that have led to increased wildfires as well as hurricanes across the country. Although rich countries prospered from industrialization and caused climate change, poor countries will have to deal first with the harshest effects. Still, California is one of the richest places in the world and cannot keep its citizens safe: many living in fire country will be uprooted after their homes have been destroyed. Imagine the catastrophic effects of climate disasters: millions of refugees displaced from their homes, thousands of species unnaturally extinct, and massive natural disasters that will become normalized.
So how should California prevent more fires in the short-term? First, we need to start conducting controlled burns, using fires to burn through fuel sources so that when the “big one” comes through, it won’t have unlimited fuel. We’ve suppressed fires far below prehistoric levels for hundreds of years, and we now need many small, controlled fires. Second, we need to prevent some of the man-made fires, starting with electricity giant PG&E, which has caused 1,500 fires in the past six years. PG&E cut costs on maintenance and led consumers to a false choice between electricity and safety, as they frequently shut off the power. They should have taken more precautions such as trimming trees that can rub against wires, making their equipment more resilient, and monitoring the safety of the system.
Taking the long term view, climate change will cause worse and worse natural disasters unless we quickly act. America has undoubtedly been a massive emitter of greenhouse gasses: we rank #1 in per capita carbon emissions today and CO2 emissions throughout history. There is a considerable cost in reaching the quality of life that America and Europe have reached; now that China and other countries are attempting to develop quickly, it is unfair to tell them to stop without significant commitment and sacrifice from us.
Climate scientists and groups such as Project Drawdown illustrate the necessary and technologically feasible solutions we must use, such as reducing food waste, health and education for girls around the world, and plant-rich diets. What stands out is that these solutions are not technological like “carbon capture” or other long-shot ideas, but rather political: as a result, all of these solutions could begin now. We can pass laws to eliminate food waste and improve educational outcomes across the world. However, that doesn’t mean that this will be easy.
Inventor and climate expert Saul Griffith thinks it’s possible to combat climate change without even changing our current lifestyle of large homes and cars, and create 25 million jobs in the process. If we act right now by electrifying nearly everything, we can cut 70 to 80 percent of emissions by 2035 and keep America on the 1.5-degree warming path, in which we can avoid the most dangerous effects (The Ezra Klein Show).
Even in deep-blue California, where many people prominently display signs saying “Climate Change is Real” as well as show up to climate protests, we have not made the necessary goals and implementation plan to avoid the worst-case scenarios in which our world heats more than 1.5 degrees. Because we have waited so long, our cause is only more urgent: every single appliance that we now buy must be electric to meet our goal.
California’s current laws call for energy from 100% carbon-free sources by 2045 and greenhouse emissions by 40% below 1990 levels by 2030. While California is on the leading edge of the country and world, we need a war-time level effort to electrify everything. More than 40% of our emissions come from cars, and currently, we import the most electricity of any state, often from non-clean sources. Although the number of electric vehicles is rising, we would still need every new car bought to be electric to have nearly all-electric cars on the road by 2030, a huge increase when only 13% of vehicles sold in 2019 were even partially electrified.
John Axsen, Professor of Sustainable Transportation, concluded that the biggest limitations to the increased usage of electric vehicles are “lack of supply, limited availability and variety of EV makes and models, and limitations in charging infrastructure”(The Conversation). Axsen believes that all of these problems can be solved through public policy. In fact, in 1990, California passed the ZEV Mandate, which required automakers to sell a certain percent (relative to their other cars) of electric vehicles or hybrids. This law led to a huge increase in innovation and the ubiquity of the Prius. We need carrots and sticks to ensure and enforce the mass adoption of electric technologies. However, California is going the wrong way and rolling back the rebates on electric cars that cost more than $60,000. Instead, we should take the route of Norway and make all electric vehicles nearly half as cheap as the gas-guzzlers. Also, we should add strong regulations that increase our emissions standards for all cars. We can apply these same strategies to convince consumers to buy heat pumps and solar panels, perhaps also using low-interest loans to help pay for the high upfront cost, when the utilities will eventually save more money and cost less than conventional solutions.
So why hasn’t California been able to pass the necessary law? There are many problems in the state, which are much more pressing and haven’t been solved. Climate change action faces the same obstacles that it does around the world: it costs money, there will always be more immediate concerns, and we feel powerless (Huffpost). Although we have been on the leading edge of our country, that is not saying much and we need to do more.
We cannot control what other countries or states do. But we are witnessing first-hand the destructive effects of only the beginning of climate change. Things will get much worse, even if we do act forcefully and quickly. 1.5 degrees is not a magic limit, where the planet will explode if we warm to 1.51 degrees, and even if we miss our target, things could always be worse! As a progressive, wealthy state, we have a responsibility to lead on this issue. If that’s not enough motivation, even we, in the great United States, are not immune to the devastating natural disasters that will continue to plague the earth. We can electrify everything (making power cheaper in the process), create 25 million jobs, and save the world.