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Why Is California Burning?

October 29, 2019, 10:53 AM UTC

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Wildfires are devastating California.

Multiple infernos are blazing across the state and one, the Kincade Fire in Sonoma County, has consumed an area twice the size of San Francisco. Some 180,000 people are under evacuation order, roughly 90,000 buildings are at risk and the state’s largest energy supplier, Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) has implemented blackouts for the third time in as many weeks, cutting power to over 940,000 customers.

The severity of California’s annual blazes appears to be on the rise and while it’s tempting to draw a line connecting the fire outbreaks with climate change—as former California Governor Jerry Brown does—the correlation is not always so simple.

Adam Sobel, an atmospheric scientist and director of the Initiative on Extreme Weather and Climate at Columbia University, writes in the New York Times that the most headline-catching blazes of recent years have come in fall when temperature is less of a factor. Sobel also notes that the Diablo and Santa Ana wind phenomena that have fanned those wildfires are expected to grow less common as global warming continues.

There is evidence, however, that climate change has increased drought in California—although the finger of blame could also be pointed at the $50 billion agricultural industry that consumes between 40% and 80% of the arid states water supply.

Either way, drought causes tree death and dries out the fallen, turning patches of forest into dried-out kindling. Those hotspots need to be thinned but, according to a U.S. Forest Service report, federal restrictions on logging caused timber harvesting in California to reduce over 70% between the 1980s and 2012, allowing dense, dead forest patches to grow.

After deadly wildfires in California last year President Trump took to Twitter and asserted that “gross mismanagement of the forests” was the cause of the blaze. Naturally, that was a controversial tweet. Governor Brown and state firefighters were quick to dismiss Trump’s theory as “uninformed” but Brown admitted forest management—a large swathe of which is handled by federal, not state, government—is “one element” of the problem.

Infrastructure management is another: fallen power lines managed by state energy provider PG&E have caused numerous fires in the past three years and the ongoing Kincade fire is suspected to have been caused by a similar mishap. But one of the more interesting issues, at least to my ears, is that humans are simply living closer to fire zones than ever before—turning natural fires into fatal threats.

According to reporting by Vox, some 11.3 million Californians, or 30% of the state population, live in “wildland-urban interface” areas where the city sprawls into the countryside. Shockingly, over 2.7 million Californians live in “very high fire hazard severity zones” and that number is expected to rise.

Char Miller, a professor of environmental analysis at Pomona College and an expert on wildfire policy told Pacific Standard last year, “California is one of those places where fire is normal and it should happen. The dilemma is not the fire, and it isn’t the stuff it burns—it’s the fact that human beings are now living in fire zones at an unhealthy rate and putting themselves in danger.” 

More below.

Eamon Barrett

Carbon Copy

Withdrawal symptoms. The Trump administration has reportedly begun the procedure necessary for officially withdrawing the U.S. from the 2016 Paris Agreement on climate change. The White House is widely expected to file its intent to abandon the Paris Agreement on November 4 this year, giving a year’s notice. According to the accord’s rules, no signatory can officially withdraw before November 4, 2020. Jeffrey Hollender, CEO of the American Sustainable Business Council said, “Withdrawing from the Paris Agreement is reckless and completely irresponsible…The decision will be defended with a lie: that [the Paris Agreement] is bad for business. What’s true is that American business needs strong action on climate change if we are to survive long-term.” New York Times

Glass ceiling. “The European Union has been moving towards gender equality at a snail’s pace.” So says the European Institute for Gender Equality, which released its Gender Equality Index for 2019, measuring gender parity across the E.U. in terms of access to education, income and healthcare. The bloc of 28 countries scored 67.4 out of 100 this year, up just 5.4 points since 2005. World Economic Forum

Fishing gets smart. Kenya is issuing “smart” ID cards to fishermen in order to protect mangroves from illegal logging. Kenya’s fishing community has been devastated by climate change and the loss of mangroves, which are better at absorbing carbon than land forests and form vital ecosystems, is exacerbating the situation. The Mvuvi cards “fisher” in Swahili—are photo IDs complete with the owner’s fingerprint, which the police scan with smartphones. It’s hoped the cards will help distinguish between genuine fishermen and illegal loggers. Reuters

In Case You Missed It

Air Quality Monitors Are Quickly Becoming 2019’s Must-Have Gadget by Jennifer Alsever

Climate Change Is Hitting the Insurance Industry Hard. Here’s How Swiss Re Is Adapting by Jeffrey Ball

After ‘Decade of False Starts’ Offshore Wind Power’s Time Has Finally Come, IEA Says by Katherine Dunn

Cruise Ships Tack to a Greener Future by Jennifer Alsever

The Business Case for Diversity: raceAhead by Ellen McGirt

Closing Number


Between August 1 and September 30, Greenpeace orchestrated 4,384 beach clean-ups across 50 countries. Collectively, participants gathered 476,423 pieces of plastic from the beaches. With the waste collected, the NGO collective Break Free From Plastic collated data on which consumer products companies were responsible for the manufacture of the detritus. The Top Three: Coca-Cola, Nestlé and PepsiCo. All three companies have committed to reducing plastic usage but Greenpeace has dismissed those initiatives as "false solutions" because the business models still perpetuate "throwaway culture."

This edition of The Loop was edited by Eamon Barrett. Find previous editions here, and sign up for other Fortune newsletters here.