It’s not the end of the world, but from some of the photographs you’d be forgiven for thinking it might be. Across the West Coast, raging wildfires have led to mass evacuations, caused multiple deaths and billions of dollars in property damage, and even gave the sky an eerie, dystopian look as dangerously polluted air settled in the valleys.
California Gov. Gavin Newsom blamed climate change. As part of his bold plan to address the Earth’s warming temperatures, the governor issued an executive order that would ban the sale of new gasoline-powered cars beginning in 2035. “Our cars shouldn’t make wildfires worse – and create more days filled with smoky air,” he noted. “Cars shouldn’t melt glaciers or raise sea levels threatening our cherished beaches and coastlines.”
The edict, as it now stands, would allow Californians to drive and sell their existing internal-combustion-powered vehicles, but it would empower the notoriously ham-fisted California Air Resources Board to come up with detailed regulations. Who knows what that will look like by the time his edict goes into effect? In one fell swoop, the governor has done what even Democratic-dominated legislative supermajorities have deemed too far-reaching.
What’s the connection between wildfires and the internal combustion engine? The world is indeed getting warmer. Average temperatures are up about one and a half degrees Fahrenheit over the last 70 years. Temperatures likely will continue to rise as long as humanity keeps pumping heat-trapping gases into the atmosphere.
Hotter temperatures are likely to increase drought and other conditions that cause fires to spread more easily. To stop the wildfires, we must stop the warming; to stop the warming, we must stop the emissions; and to stop the emissions, we must ban the cars that cause them. Such, at any rate, is the logic behind Newsom’s latest move.
The idea is even more striking given the level of car dependence in predominantly suburban California, and the car culture that still flourishes here. Unfortunately, the governor has largely been uninterested in some of the more mundane reasons for the state’s increasingly dire fire seasons. There is a problem. Actually, there are several problems.
First, while climate change can certainly play a role it creating favorable conditions for wildfires, it’s hardly the only or even the most significant factor for their spread. In California, 100 years of lackadaisical forest management plays a much bigger role. Even Newsom admitted that the state’s land-management practices have been inadequate – and the state and feds earlier this year announced plans to double their forest-thinning efforts.
Second, most fires are easily preventable if people would be more careful. The behavioral changes that would most reduce fire risk have nothing to do with climate change, but rather involve things like tending camp fires, disposing of cigarette butts, or choosing a different plan for, say, your gender-reveal party. When Smokey the Bear said that only you can prevent forest fires, he wasn’t talking about your carbon footprint.
Third, there are other issues that the state could credibly address – or at least more quickly than changing the trajectory of the planet’s temperatures. The state could roll back regulations that make it difficult for utility companies and property owners to thin out tinder.
In reality, banning the sales of gasoline cars decades in the future is not likely to have a measurable impact on climate change. America currently accounts for only 15 percent of global carbon dioxide emissions, and that percentage will fall as nations such as India and China become wealthier. California auto emissions represent a fraction of that fraction.
Replacing gasoline cars with electric vehicles depends on the willingness of consumers to prefer EVs to traditionally powered cars. If this doesn’t happen, consumers will respond to the ban by keeping their existing cars for longer, buying out of state, or pressuring future elected officials to loosen the ban. For Newsom, a ban that doesn’t take effect for 15 years provides the appearance of action but forces future leaders to deal with the consequences.
California’s private sector already is transitioning to an electric-vehicle future. Car manufacturers are addressing the main impediments to consumer acceptance – limited range and high costs – as they introduce better batteries and lower-cost vehicles. The governor needs to let the marketplace do its thing. He also should consider the impact of this decision on low-income Californians, who would be less able to afford pricier electric vehicles.
Instead of trying to ban their way to prosperity, California leaders should work on creating an environment where clean energy innovators can thrive. Tesla, one of the world’s biggest EV manufacturers, built its battery plant in Nevada and threatened to move its operations out of the state after conflicts with Alameda County officials.
Admittedly, that’s not as satisfying as thundering about climate change and signing executive orders, but it has a far greater chance of keeping the state from looking like a dystopia.