environment & politics

Voices for Change – California

I guess that since it’s CancĂșn fortnight, the subject won’t leave my mind.

On this video, a firefighter discusses how climate change is altering the weather patterns in California; it means drier landscapes, more dry lightning and therefore more fires.

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(When confronted with everyday realities: I guess deniers can only use the reasoning quality of David Icke, the self-proclaimed son of god, for so long.)

Maybe since I’ve become an uncle this year, and many of my friends are having children, I’m starting to feel guilty about not shouting about the effects of environmental damage – after all, those children are the ones who are going to have to live with our mistakes. How could I look them in the face in twenty, thirty years and say: “Yeah, I know the science said it was going to happen, but I didn’t do anything about it when I had the chance.”

So, apologies if you were hoping for a little more book talk at the moment.

By Mark Newton

Born in 1981, live in the UK. I write about strange things.

6 replies on “Voices for Change – California”

Indeed! Grar.

Actually, I’m probably being a tad unfair (and should probably indulge myself a little less with snark), but the disconnect between our actions now and the future happiness of “our” kids is odd, and scary.

I’ll apologise in advance for the rambly-bollocks, but it does – I think – make sense.

The daft joke goes “it’s the future, where’s my jetpack?” (Har-har). I often think “it’s the future, why are we still working 40 odd hour weeks?” (less catchy) And there’s the rub. Because we are still as a society forced to devote so much of our time to economic activity, everything is sacrificed at the altar of convenience. So, from a certain point of view, I do understand when people say to me that they wouldn’t be able to cope without a car.

Thing is, when I was little – and that wasn’t at all a long time ago – we coped fine, because my parents couldn’t afford a car. Nowadays, such a thing seems unthinkable. So I think what I’m getting at, in an odd and contradictory way (perhaps I need another cuppa), is that I *sort* of understand the non-argument that people have made to me that they can’t cut down their car use because it’s inconvenient as an answer to your challenge about the finite and damaging nature of excessive oil use (and I hope this doesn’t make me sound as though I’m hectoring; I’m really not :))

Rambling over.

No I quite understand, Richard (and we welcome rambling here).

To be a human is to use resources; to that extent, no environmentalist can avoid being a hypocrite.

However, the technology for non-polluting cars has existed for some time now – what’s needed is the political will. It would help if our government did not hand out oil subsidies (or indeed tax breaks for oil companies working in UK waters in the forthcoming Finance Bill).

We don’t have to sacrifice convenience at all. In fact, many economists and writers have explained how our economy could function without a reliance on carbon at all. The market will probably have to lead the way in this – however, the government needs to help out. And which is where we come in, in pressuring our MPs to take steps to ensure the transition happens.

A Land of Earthquakes & Fire:

In the summer of 2008 while on my wife’s maternity leave we went home to California to enjoy a season of unadulterated warm weather and sunshine. We got it alright. In four months we had only one day of cloudy weather. Unfortunately, these proved to be dry thunderstorms that ranged up and down the state and lit over 3,000 fires.

Homes were lost, as were lives. The entire state seemed on fire and the air in our town abutted against the Sierra Nevada mountains became thick with smoke and ash which rained down on everything for at least a month. As early as the morning after the storm, it looked like a heavy white mist had descended but one which smelt of burning pine forests. Asthmatics and children were forced to stay indoors, and just walking down the block left you hacking and short of breath. We drove down to LA for a reunion near the breezy Pacific coast and joked we’d gone there for the clean air. By comparison with the foothills, it was fresh and clear and easy breathing.

However, to say this summer of fires was the work of climate change, much like the fire fighter alludes to in the video, is misleading. So too to say that the state is growing drier than we’ve enjoyed over the past 100 years – solely due to man made climate change. No question that the climate is changing, but what we’re seeing first and foremost in California’s case, and in the larger extent the West, is a return to the dry hot conditions which existed prior to the aberrantly wet period of the 19th century. This period which coincided with a massive push in western settlement was a cruel mirage. The western states to a large degree were experiencing the last of the little ice ages and their cooler, moister climate that likewise saw a drop in temperatures in Europe, which came after the Medieval Warming Period.

The exposition in population and settlement in California during this period, driven by both water and gold, moved large numbers into the relatively dry interior. The modern era of statehood and industrial development which followed removed the old growth forests (with a few exceptions and mostly these in the torrentially wet north), replaced them with vast farms, housing developments, and road systems. The few areas of remaining wilderness were aggressively managed both to provide lucrative timber income and to stop the cyclical and naturally occurring wildfires that would regularly set the state on fire each dry season. Scrub and grass which would have been removed while leaving heathy, mature fire resistant trees, were instead allowed to flourish while old growth timber was harvested letting in further light and space for fire prone species to expand and flourish. And in the middle of all this were built millions of homes.

The result was a disaster, one fit for TV: more devastating wildfires which were difficult to contain and spread quickly across canyons denuded of their natural firebreaks, while at the same time in the name of property and commercial interests, must not be allowed to burn and perversely restore the natural balance which had existed prior to the settlement of the state by Europeans. More and more, there is little room for California’s natural cycle of fire and renewal, as available space is used for an expanding population, for either.

Climate change is unquestionably real and a growing threat to California. A state which has for well over a century stood poised on the knife edge of ecological destruction, its cities built above dangerous fault-lines and in the middle of tinder dry foothills drained of their natural rainfall to slake the thirst of its desert like interior and populous southern counties.

What California faces is the double whammy of the end of an aberrant period of water riches and the acceleration of naturally dry and volatile conditions by man-made global climate change. With no reduction in population, poor resource management of both its remaining forestry lands and its scant water resources, California faces a hot, smoky, and thirsty future. But this was always the case, to a degree and I think that we need to temper such observations as “climate is changing from what it was in my short personal recollection” for the reasons above. Simply put, it’s a lot more complicated.

Tree rings going back thousands of years and lake bed samples going back tens of thousands, and further into the past are more reliable sources. They too paint a worrisome picture, but one that is also far more complex. Unfortunately, they don’t suggest a happier ending.

We can see the impact of climate change more clearly in other factors affecting California than the seasonal burn-off that has been both artificially held in check and exacerbated by human interference. Highly visible among these are the traditional wine growing regions which have long brought both fame and millions of dollars to its economy.

Vitis vinifera is an agricultural canary in a coal mine, or gold mine perhaps in this case, and highly sensitive to minute changes in climate. Regions which were previous too cool to grow quality grapes are no longer so. And many of the premiere areas such as Napa Valley, are already getting too hot to produce the same varietal characteristics they supported ten or twenty years ago.

Even if climate wasn’t changing, California is a state destined to burn as part of its natural cycle. That it has come to represent ruin rather than renewal is at least as much the fault of human interference and over development. Climate change will not help, assuredly, and it is placing a heavy burden on the overburdened state, threatening both its ecology and its economy, but it’s not the hand that lit the match. That fuse has instead been burning since its geologically formative years in what will always be a land of earthquakes and fire.


Thanks again for the thoughts there, Eric. It’s interesting to get a first-hand account of the place, and of the history of the region. I remember studying photochemical smog concerning Los Angeles, but know too little about many of the other environmental concerns.

While I have you on the subject of wine and climate change – there’s a fascinating podcast I listen to called “Costing the Earth” on the BBC. There was recently a programme called “Grapes of Wrath” which discussed the impact of climate change, among other environmental impacts, on wine quality throughout the world.

Here’s the link:

What I find interesting about California is just how much food – milk, fruit etc – it provides for the rest of the economy. One would think that given so much is at risk, and being lost, the government would be hoping to address the issue of climate change with some vigour – then again, the oil industry has always funded deniers, crack-pot websites and the likes…

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