As wildfires raged across California late last year, scorching more than 100,000 acres and driving tens of thousands from their homes, US President Donald Trump lashed out at the state’s Democratic Party leadership and threatened to cut off federal aid.
“You’ve got fires eating away at California every year, because management is so bad,” Trump claimed.
The battle over wildfires between Trump and California reveals fundamentally different views about the dangers posed by climate change, and the choice voters face in the 2020 presidential election over taking action to combat it.
“Because of Trump’s philosophy, he is inevitably drawn into conflict with California,” says Jerry Brown, who served four terms as Democratic governor of California and ran three times for president.
“When it comes to the green economy and climate change, California is in front and given our tremendous economic dynamism, California does refute the Trumpian claim that reducing carbon emissions hurts the economy.”
The suffering will take place primarily after Trump is dead … He won’t have to pay for what he is imposing on billions of people.
Jerry Brown, former California governor
Brown, who held a Global Climate Action Summit while governor in 2018, sees Trump’s disregard for climate change as a serious threat to the planet.
“The suffering will take place primarily after Trump is dead and that’s the evil of it,” Brown says. “He won’t have to pay for what he is imposing on billions of people into the future.”
Errol Navickas experienced the full fury and destructiveness of the California wildfires last October. He lost his home and virtually all his possessions in the Saddleridge fire, which burned close to 9,000 acres (3,640 hectares) in northern Los Angeles.
The flames were “going about 70 miles an hour with the wind, so it’s the fastest fire I’ve ever seen,” he says. In the fall, California is buffeted by winds that flow off the mountains towards the coast, increasing the spread and intensity of fires.
Navickas does not give much credence to President Trump’s claim that wildfires are the result of mismanagement of the forests.
“There’s no forest around here,” he says. “And if there’s no rains you’re going to have four feet of just crispy, dry plants ready to burn. And for about 15 years it’s been getting drier and drier.”
In fact, “about 50 percent of the area burned in California in the last 30 years has been due to anthropogenic or human-caused climate change,” according to Crystal Kolden, a professor at the University of California, Merced, specialising in wildfire behaviour. She says that the scientific evidence connecting California wildfires and climate change is “overwhelming”.
“It dries the vegetation out so that it’s more flammable. And then with climate change rains are on average getting pushed back by several weeks in some cases. So now we see that where winter used to be far too wet for things to burn, now we can have long dry periods when the winds are starting to really pick up and it means that fires can burn really intensely.”
“[The majority] of the most destructive fires in the last decade, they’re not in places that are forests,” Kolden adds. “And we’re seeing the same types of increases in fire intensity, in fire size and this extension of fire season across the entire globe.”
But the science does not carry much weight for President Trump, a point Joe Biden hammers home in a campaign ad in which the president is shown blaming California wildfires on a lack of “pre-emptive raking”, and which reprises Trump’s remark about climate change that “a lot of it is a hoax, it’s a hoax”.
Clean air agreements
The president is pulling the US out of the Paris Climate Agreement in which 195 countries pledged to meet emissions reductions goals.
Trump “wants to free up fossil fuel companies, he wants to let it rip regardless of the natural environment”, Brown says. In 2018, the California legislature and Brown committed the state to 100 percent zero-carbon electricity and economy-wide carbon neutrality by 2045.
California is also a leader in setting fuel efficiency standards for cars and promoting the use of electric vehicles. Autos are the greatest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions in the US.
Green energy sounds great, but how many jobs is it actually going to produce and how reliable is the energy going to be?
Charles Kesler, California conservative
For 50 years, California has had a waiver under the Clean Air Act allowing it to establish fuel efficiency standards beyond national requirements.
In 2012, the Obama administration adopted California’s goal of achieving 54 miles (87 km) a gallon by 2025 as the national standard. But amid the COVID-19 pandemic, in March, the Trump administration reduced it to only about 40 miles (64 km) per gallon.
The administration has also revoked the waiver allowing California to set its own clean car standards. The state and 14 others are now challenging the rollbacks in court.
“The Chinese are moving inexorably to zero-emission cars,” Brown says. “If Trump were to succeed to be able to subsidise the old-fashioned gasoline car with the lowest possible regulation, we’ll wake up in the next five to seven years and the American industry will be in collapse. And we in California are trying to hold him back to prevent it.”
Brown believes Trump is blinded by his belief in the sanctity of the free market, and that for him imposing a fuel efficiency standard is “what you would call blasphemy if you were trying to see this in religious terms”. “And that’s what it is, it’s almost a religious war and therefore they have to stop California.”
Watch: Trump v California (Part 1)
Trump supporters and opponents
Trump’s understanding of freedom, and the threats California liberals pose to it, resonates not only with supporters across the rest of the US, but also those in the rural northern part of California. Members of the right-wing Tea Party movement and other conservatives there are trying to break away from California and set up a new 51st state – the State of Jefferson.
Radio hosts Terry Rapoza and Win Carpenter are leaders in the effort to establish a new state, which has thousands of supporters in 23 northern counties. They feel Democratic representatives from urban areas have too much power in shaping policy. “Los Angeles has 11 senators, and 11 counties in northern California have one,” Rapoza says.
Carpenter says the list of government policies they object to is “way too long”. “You’re looking at taxation, I mean just the restrictions on basic things to take care of yourself and to defend yourself.”
In his view, the wildfire problem is largely the result of regulations that restrict logging, not climate change. “We live in a four-season part of the state,” Carpenter says. “The climate changes every season.”
Rural counties in northern California, like those across the US, voted overwhelmingly for Trump in the 2016 election. “People understand the truth. They can spot a liar a mile away. Thank God we had Mr Trump run for the presidency,” Carpenter says.
But in West Hollywood, people are so dismayed by the Trump presidency that the city council passed a resolution calling for the removal of Trump’s star from the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
“Donald Trump has harassed and otherwise demeaned women throughout his career,” West Hollywood Mayor Lindsey Horvath says. “He has targeted immigrants, LGBT people, he is a bully in chief. We do not need national monuments that glorify the kind of behaviour that he has exhibited.”
So far, the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce has refused to remove Trump’s star, which is repeatedly vandalised, exasperating Horvath. “We’re tired of resources being spent on this,” she says. “The crisis of homelessness has hit our region hard. We could be spending those dollars actually caring for people and uplifting people.”
In his State of the State Address last February, Gavin Newsom made combatting homelessness California’s top priority. The governor called for investing $750m in a new housing fund, on top of $1.5bn the state has allocated to local governments to combat homelessness over the last two years.
Common threats and common sense
Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden has pledged to invest $640bn over 10 years to expand the supply of affordable housing, and to provide vouchers to help people pay rent in California and other states. But at his rallies, President Trump has repeatedly bashed California politicians for the state’s homelessness problem. “It’s a shame. It’s a disgrace to our country,” he says. His administration has proposed cuts in the federal housing budget.
Charles Kesler, a California conservative who edits the Claremont Review of Books, says Trump’s attacks on California for homelessness are “part of his general reaction to the failure of blue-state policies”. Along with the president, he believes that homelessness in California reflects Democratic policies that have harmed the middle class, and that the strategy of building a green economy to reinvigorate the American Dream is fundamentally flawed.
“Green energy sounds great, but how many jobs is it actually going to produce and how reliable is the energy going to be,” Kesler says.
At the UN Climate Action Summit in New York last September, Governor Newsom pointed out that: “California is significantly outperforming the United States of America in GDP growth over a five-year period because of our environmental strategies. Five to one – five to one, the number of clean energy jobs in the State of California versus fossil fuel jobs.”
Daniel Kammen, who founded the Renewable and Appropriate Energy Lab at the University of California, Berkeley adds that the state is ahead of schedule in meeting its energy needs from renewable sources, and is far along in building a green economy. “Across the United States right now, 35-40 percent of all investments in green tech flow through California,” he says.
The 2020 election in the United States is absolutely critical, because we know on the climate side that we have very few years left to get on an innovative green energy path.
Daniel Kammen, University of California, Berkeley
Biden is following California’s lead, and promises to transition the US to a green economy. His plan calls for investing $2 trillion over the next four years, setting the US on a path to achieve a clean energy, net-zero emissions economy by 2050.
“The 2020 election in the United States is absolutely critical,” Kammen says, “because we know on the climate side that we have very few years left to get on an innovative green energy path.”
The importance of the coming poll is at least something both sides can agree on. Radio host Win Carpenter feels it is critical that Trump wins. “Mr Trump is at one point of the government and then we are at the other end. He’s fighting from that side, we’re fighting from this side,” he says.
Former Democratic governor Jerry Brown says the stakes in the 2020 election are climate change, social turmoil and the current pandemic.
“We’ve got to find a way to see the common threats. Certainly, the coronavirus is a common threat. Climate change is a common threat … all we need is some common sense in the minds of those people who are in charge.”
Watch: Trump v California (Part 2)