Forest fires, global climate change and the political environment
California suffers from raging wildfires that since September 10e, have burned over 3.1 million acres, killed 12 people and destroyed more than 3,900 structures. Residents also experience continuous blackouts and unaffordable energy, but California greenhouse gas emissions are now increasing while the long-term national decline in emissions continues unabated.
California politics connects all of these baffling trends.
The intent of the California approach is to improve the environment and create a low-cost, low-emission energy infrastructure for the state. In practice, these policies create preventable problems (eg progressive blackouts) or fail to fulfill their basic responsibilities (eg manage forests effectively to avoid uncontrolled forest fires).
Starting with forest fires, Michael Shellenberger provides a important point of view in its 24 auguste Forbes room. As he notes, “climate change is happening and playing a role in warmer temperatures and heat waves.” But that doesn’t mean climate change is the driving factor behind this year’s wildfires. Instead, as Shellenberger documents, poor forest management practices are the determining factors.
A 2018 report from Little Hoover Commission (LHC) confirms Shellenberger’s analysis. According to the LHC, “California’s forests suffer from neglect and mismanagement, resulting in overpopulation that makes them vulnerable to disease, insects and forest fires. This year’s wildfires are the tragic result of this neglect and mismanagement.
Uncontrollable forest fires can be brought under control through better forest management techniques. To this end, the LHC report called on “the state to make greater use of prescribed burning to invigorate forests, inhibit firestorms and help protect air and water quality. At the heart of these efforts must be a statewide public education campaign to help Californians understand why healthy forests are important to them and to build buy-in for much-needed forest treatments. ”
While wildfires grab the headlines, for obvious reasons, California’s climate policies are also worsening the state’s environmental stewardship and diminishing economic opportunities.
One of the primary goals of California’s climate policies is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Isolated, the policies seem to succeed. California’s carbon dioxide emissions in 2017 (the latest data available) were 8.7% below the peak in carbon dioxide emissions in 2007. Putting that drop into perspective tells a different story. During the same period that California’s carbon dioxide emissions declined 8.7%, emissions in the rest of the country declined by a much larger rate of 14.9%.
Worse, California’s decline in emissions has stagnated since 2011, even though nationwide carbon dioxide emissions have continued their downward trend. The timing of the decline in state progress is no coincidence. As of January 2012, California shut down the San Onofre nuclear power plant. Therefore, California’s climate policies have simply replaced reliable low-emission technology (eg nuclear power) with less reliable low-emission technologies (eg solar and wind power).
From an emissions standpoint, swapping one low-emission source for another is wasteful, but from a social welfare standpoint, the impacts on California residents have been troubling.
Heat waves hit California. While global climate change is linked to the intensification of these heat waves, the confluence of state policies makes these events more difficult for millions of families, both directly and indirectly.
Directly, California’s energy grid is now too dependent on less reliable sources of solar and wind power that the Energy Information Administration (EIA) classifies as non-routable sources of electricity. By definition non-routable, wind and solar power sources cannot automatically increase their energy production in response to peaks in demand, such as increased electricity requirements in response to heat waves.
Instead, solar power generates electricity when the sun is shining, and wind power generates electricity when the wind blows. When paired with inadequate battery storage technologies, California’s electricity system is now unable to increase electricity supply to meet increases in demand. Spikes in demand in response to heat waves therefore cause power outages that continue to threaten the world’s fifth-largest economy.
Indirectly, California’s energy policies require energy providers to invest their scarce resources in politicians’ favorite projects, preventing companies from funding other, arguably more valuable investments. These investment resources should have been devoted to improving energy infrastructure, which would have made it possible to alleviate current energy shortages. Another high value lost investment opportunity would have supported better vegetation management programs and fire mitigation technologies that would help better manage the risk of wildfire outbreaks. The loss of these investments has, therefore, exacerbated the problems of power outages and forest fires.
As if these problems weren’t enough, these inefficient policies are also causing Californians to pay a premium for their electricity. According to EIA, retail electricity prices are 57% higher in California compared to the US average. Regular gasoline prices, based on AAA, are 47% more expensive. California’s high prices contribute to the affordability problem plaguing the state and explain why California, home to Silicon Valley and a global financial center, also has the highest poverty rate from any state in the country.
Nobel laureate in economics Milton Friedman advised that policies should be evaluated by their results, not their intentions. Judged by this criterion, California’s climate change policies fail. Policies fail to effectively manage the risk of wildfires, fail to reduce emissions faster than the nation as a whole, and cause unaffordable power and power outages. These results are not inevitable. However, they will be if state leaders do not learn the right lessons from today’s challenges.