The 2020 California wildfires dumped nearly 127 million tons of carbon dioxide into our atmosphere, according to a new study published last month. According to the UCLA-University of Chicago study, that was twice the reduction in greenhouse gas emissions that California had achieved in 18 years.
Likewise, the 2018 California wildfires produced more than nine times the emissions that California reduced in 2017, according to Beacon Economics.
In short, at a time when California’s war on fossil fuels has made turning on lights more expensive and less reliable, failure to have effective wildfire containment policies threatens to neutralize the benefits of its costly war on carbon .
Yet despite a $55 billion General Fund surplus available for the 2022-2023 budget, our governor and legislature have earmarked far more resources to promote zero-emission vehicles than to reduce wildfire risk. Gov. Newsom boasted that the 2022-23 budget called for a “$2.7 billion investment” over several years to reduce the risk of “catastrophic wildfires” and “bolster forest health.” But the same budget invested $6.1 billion over five years to expand zero-emission vehicles, including $1.5 billion for zero-emission school buses. This was in addition to $3.9 billion for zero-emission vehicles in last year’s budget.
These priorities are one-sided. California has experienced 18 of its top 20 wildfires since 2000. These wildfires create tons of carbon emissions, threaten lives and homes, increase homeowners’ insurance premiums, and emit dangerously small particles that cause heart attacks, premature births, lung cancer, and more. The California Legislative Analyst recently warned that smoke from wildfires has become a “growing concern,” that California’s major cities “have experienced significantly more days of smoky air” and that the small particles “can get deep into the respiratory tract.”
After the November 8 election, isn’t it time for the California government to prioritize mitigating the effects of climate change, particularly the wildfires that are both neutralizing the state’s efforts to mitigate climate change and threatening health, homes and lives ? Instead, the governor has announced a special legislative session in December to pass a tax on oil companies.
Here’s what the California government urgently needs to do if they’re really concerned about greenhouse gases.
First, utility lines have started at least eight of the 20 most destructive fires in California history, six of which have occurred since 2015. There are nearly 40,000 miles of bare power lines in areas of increased wildfire risk. The state should subsidize utilities to speed up the hardening of these bare power lines in high fire risk areas by either covering the power lines with an insulating plastic or burying the power lines (the more expensive alternative). The state can be repaid later.
Second, scientists recognize that crowded forests full of deadwood, scrub, and closely spaced trees serve as “ladder fuels,” carrying flames to the treetops that spread exponentially. Thinning unhealthy forests reduces fire intensity by reducing the number of young, closely spaced trees that are combustible.
Indeed, in September 2021, a group of experts led by former Gov. Jerry Brown released the “Venado Declaration,” which proposed spending $5 billion annually on better forest management, including “proactive reductions in fuel.” In contrast, the most recent budget for 2022-2023 included only $520 million for “preventing wildfires” and “improving landscape health.”
Third, if the state no longer has the resources to rapidly thin forests (after using up this year’s surplus), it could expand the number of hectares being thinned by restricting timber harvesting from closely spaced, combustible young trees (which can be used as flooring, roofs, walls, desks, and more) and provide incentives for building the necessary processing plants that misguided government policy has discouraged. (The number of mills operating in California has fallen from about 140 mills in the 1980s to fewer than 30.)
CAL FIRE’s Forest Carbon Plan recognizes that “sustainable commercial timber harvesting” could meet forest health goals. To those who are against a thinning, would you rather lose the forest altogether?
It is high time that the state prioritized its resources to reduce the risk of wildfires – one of the largest sources of carbon dioxide and a threat to the health and homes of Californians. Yes, that’s harder than showing political virtue by spending taxpayers’ money on zero-emission vehicles. But “difficulties overcome are opportunities gained,” as Winston Churchill observed.
Daniel M. Kolkey, attorney and former judge, served as legal counsel to Governor Pete Wilson and is a member of the Executive Committee of the Pacific Research Institute.