To Reduce Wildfire Dangers, Focus on What Matters

Political leaders and pundits have been quick to link this month’s horrific wildfires to climate change, leading to the conclusion that California should continue and even double down on its carbon reduction policies. But the evidence suggests that these policies will make little difference in the frequency and severity of these disasters, and our scarce resources would be better spent elsewhere.

While lack of rainfall is clearly the major cause of the wildfire crisis, it is less clear that dry weather conditions can be attributed to global warming.  According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, there is “low confidence” in the relationship between global warming and droughts.

Further, historical records show that California has experienced repeated droughts before anthropogenic climate change became a factor. San Francisco climate records show two years in the nineteenth century with less than 10 inches of rainfall, but no year in the 21st century with so little precipitation.  The state experienced a severe drought between 1929 and 1934, with runoff falling to levels below those seen in this decade’s water crisis.

So even if we were able to stop global warming, there is no guarantee that steady rainfall would ensue. Further, we in California, cannot stop global warming by ourselves. Since California only produces about 1% of global greenhouse gas emissions even an outright ban on fossil fuel use within our state would have minimal impact on future warming – and, of course, no impact on the warming that has already occurred.

Further, our policies come nowhere near a total ban (which would cause an economic disaster). Instead, our approaches to climate change often amount to costly tinkering around the edges. Most notably, we’re spending billions of dollars on mass transit projects in hopes of getting people to do less driving – but these efforts are producing dubious results.

Consider, for example, high-speed rail. Ideally, a bullet train linking northern and southern California would eliminate millions of automobile and airplane trips, greatly reducing carbon emissions. But the reality is that the project is way behind schedule and ridership may never reach the lofty heights projected in High Speed Rail Authority business plans.

Worse, construction in the rail corridor is producing greenhouse gas emissions now, which may not be offset for decades – if ever. The High Speed Rail Authority reported that contactor vehicles generated 1400 metric tons of CO2 in 2015 alone. But that is only a small fraction of the impact, which includes energy used to produce concrete and steel. The Authority’s stated intention is to offset these carbon impacts by planting trees, but that could be done without building a new rail system.

With the date of initial service falling back and plans for blended service impacting travel times and train frequency, it is evident that HSR will take fewer travelers off the roads much later than originally planned. Indeed, it appears that California’s passenger vehicle fleet will be primarily electric by the time HSR is ready to transport large passenger loads.

Given the project mismanagement recently identified by the State Auditor, the time seems ripe to truncate the high-speed rail effort. Money saved by downsizing the project could instead be reallocated to two projects that would immediately reduce wildfire risk:  separating trees from powerlines and thinning our overgrown forests. Reducing the likelihood of ignitions and cutting the amount of fuel available to forest fires are obvious solutions to the current crisis. By contrast, spending billions on mass transit projects whose carbon savings may not offset construction phase emissions, and which are an infinitesimal fraction of global greenhouse gas emissions, which, in turn, may not even be responsible for current and future droughts, seems like a very inefficient way of saving us from forest fires.

 *   *   *