Gov. Gavin Newsom likes to beat Californians over the head that every ill under his administration is due to climate change, including wildfires. But what you will not find him saying is that, while he is spending billions of dollars to have California singlehandedly eliminate global greenhouse gases, he and fellow Democrats have spent relative pennies to deal with mitigating the effects of it.
Sadly, more and better preventive efforts could have saved homes and lives in Paradise, Berry Creek and all the other communities that have been ravaged by wildfires.
Underinvestment in and poor management of our forests is a massive contributing factor to the wildfires this state is experiencing. A fire science professor from UC Berkeley recently was asked how much climate change was to blame for California’s wildfires. “Less than 50%,” he said. “Maybe a third.”
You don’t hear that from the governor, Democrats and California’s environmentalists.
For years, Newsom – and Gov. Jerry Brown before him – talked about managing our forests and preventing wildfires, but it’s been more lip service than actual deeds.
Experts – and Republicans – have been saying for years that funding from the state budget for forest management was critical.
California environmental activists have resisted forest management for a long time, and their views hold sway over Democrats.
Before the past few years, Democrats prioritized expanding parks and buying more state lands. For example, in 2016, out of the $900 million total cap-and-trade revenues, Democrats only dedicated $25 million for vegetation management projects and other actions to improve forest health and reduce the risk and intensity of catastrophic wildfires. Yet that same year, they also chose to spend $15 million on urban forestry projects and $80 million on “urban greening” projects in mostly Democrat-run cities, to create new or revitalize existing urban parks and recreational opportunities.
Democrats have had the chance to prioritize forest-health activities and have chosen not to.
They have also mismanaged the state’s cap-and-trade revenues in past years, ignoring that wildfires are one of the state’s largest sources of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.
As an example, in 2015 California reduced GHG emissions by 1.5 million metric tons. That same year the Rough Fire that ravaged the overgrown Sierra and Sequoia national forests and Kings Canyon National Park produced 6.8 million metric tons of GHGs. Still other wildfires that same year produced yet another 16 million metric tons of GHGs. So, a lack of good forest management wiped out 15 years’ worth of climate change efforts. A total of 893,362 acres burned in 2015. To date this year, 3.2 million acres have burned.
Further, Democrats have squandered billions of cap-and-trade dollars on the high-speed rail (HSR) project, which will not realize any emission benefits for decades.
Cap-and-trade is California’s primary funding source for climate programs, and HSR gets 25 percent right off the top every year. Forest management, however, is part of the discretionary pot, and it’s been getting between 6 percent and 9 percent the past three years.
Specifically, in the 2017-18 state budget, cap-and-trade dollars were $2.9 billion, of which HSR got $728 million, while forest management (and prescribed burns) got $200 million. In 2018-19, it was $3.2 billion in cap-and-trade funds with HSR getting $802 million and forest management (and prescribed burns) $190 million. In 2019-20, it was $2.1 billion in cap and trade funds, with HSR at $526 million and forest management and prescribed burns $200 million.
Using HSR money for forest management would be a far better use of those climate funds, because adequately managing forests to reduce the risk and intensity of catastrophic wildfire is the greatest and one of the most cost-effective ways to avoid significant GHG emissions.
If we are serious about climate change and putting a stop to these deadly wildfires, then we need to focus on the problem, not hold more press conferences and do the minimum. The minimum isn’t solving this state’s problem, only making it worse.
Yet California Democrats and the governor don’t seem to be worried about this huge threat to both public safety and the environment. They don’t support real GHG emission reductions, instead using the bulk of cap-and-trade revenues as a slush fund for HSR and their other pet projects.
The state’s most fundamental duty is to protect its 40 million residents from calamities such as deadly wildfires. And while wildfires are certainly a challenge for California, with better management and a more focused effort on adaptation to the changing climate, we can do this. But it’s going to require a recognition of the problem from Democrats. Screaming about climate change, a long-term problem that has been centuries in the making and may not be reversible, doesn’t solve the more immediate issue of protecting people now.
Even this year, as fires burned around the state and the Capitol was choking in smoke from them, the Legislature adjourned without acting on proposals to direct more money into fire prevention and firefighting.
Californians deserve far, far better than this.
John M. W. Moorlach, R-Costa Mesa, represents the 37th District in the California Senate