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Climate emergency: California’s Dark

John Bell

October 30, 2019

Many of the world’s great cities – great in both the subjective and objective senses – are dying from climate change. Sea levels rise. Drinking water aquifers are depleted. Once-in-a-century storms and floods become annual events. 

Add Los Angeles to the list. LA is burning and vast swathes of California are in the dark, literally powerless, to try and prevent fires from spreading.

Tom Morello (ex-Rage Against the Machine) wrote a song over a decade ago called California’s Dark, which seems almost prophetic now. I can’t get the chorus out of my mind as I read about the fires:

There's a riot on Sunset
And fires burn in the park
The sun has set my friend
And California's dark

Extreme Santa Ana winds are blowing down high-tension power lines belonging to Pacific Gas and Electric, sparking wildfires inside the sprawling city of LA and large parts of Sonoma County in the middle of the state.

PG&E has long promised to bury its power lines to protect infrastructure and prevent fires. But as the disaster worsens it says to do so would eat into its profits. Complicating the picture is the fact that California’s power grid is in the hands of a hodge-podge of private companies and municipalities. So in some areas domestic power may be off, but the main power lines are still alive.

California Governor Gavin Newsom has threatened PG&E with financial penalties for failing to put its lines underground. But he is ignoring rising calls to nationalize the whole power system under state control.

Meanwhile, having dependable power is becoming a luxury. Rich Californians are investing fortunes in gas and diesel powered generators and extension cords to keep the lights on. Some have begun to sue PG&E for the cost of their purchases. Poor and working people have no such options. Millions are living in the dark for days at a time.

When fire threatened the Getty Museum, with its world renowned art collection, headlines were made. Instead of moving the art, an army of 600 firefighters was dispatched to protect the museum. That is 600 fewer to protect neighbourhoods and agricultural areas.

Climate change, which is at the root of the extreme winds and drought, hits everyone – but not equally. The gap between rich and poor becomes so obvious you can literally see it in the dark. And all the while the generators belonging to the wealthy spew more greenhouse gases into the hot, dry air.

California has a history of using prison labour to fight fires. Prisoners were often paid less than $2 per day, received little or no training and faced far higher injury and death rates than professional firefighters. But prison reform measures enacted since 2018 are cynically being blamed for this year’s fires. There is, they claim, a “shortage” of cheap prison labour.

Donald Trump and the federal government are largely silent. He seems content to let California, which votes Democrat, burn. Perhaps saying nothing is preferable to his past stupidity, saying wildfires were the result of not raking up windfall in the forests. But costs and damages are in the billions of dollars. Insurance companies are canceling policies and refusing to cover fire damages.

I turned on the TV
Don't believe a word they say
We can't stay here
And we can't get away

Climate change deniers are quick to point out that the eco-system of Southern California evolved to burn frequently. But science tells us the problem has become far worse recently. Fifteen of the 20 largest fires in California history have occurred since 2000. Over the past century the average temperature of California has risen by 3 degrees Fahrenheit. That might not seem like much, but it is enough to keep underbrush tinder dry, and to help fan high winds.

The Santa Ana winds occur every fall, but this year are setting all-time records. Warmer temperatures mean less snow accumulates in the mountains above LA and along the coast. That means less run-off to irrigate the hills.

The only silver lining to the smoky cloud is that the debate about climate change is front and centre now. The Trump regime may deny it; middle-of-the-road Democrats (like Kamala Harris who as state AG fought against prison reform in the name of low-cost fire fighting) may downplay it; but talk about a Green New Deal and climate emergency is on the agenda. 

As we build the next steps in our fight for serious climate action, the November 29 Global Climate Strike, keep in mind that in Morello’s song our resistance is also a growing fire:

It will start with a spark
And a great fire will grow
Don't know how I know it
But I just know

There's a riot on Sunset
And fires burn in the park
The sun sets everywhere
And the whole damn country's dark


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