Avoiding the Blame Game: California Should Focus on the Facts

Like its ambitious climate change goals, California can be a leader and should rise above the fray and show the nation by sound policy—not by soundbites—what we can do.

During the aftermath of the Camp Fire last month, politicians, pundits, and news media spent the vast majority of their energy focused on social media soundbites. Spending my Thanksgiving holiday watching and reading talking heads tweet, opine, and blame each other for the massive fires while our state is burning and people are suffering was frustrating and sad.

I’m often told that my simultaneous distaste and fascination with social media barely qualifies me as a millennial. I recognize the good that social media can do in getting messages across, but I also often note with frustration that friends and colleagues will latch onto a single tweet, post, or news quote as the gospel, failing to evaluate all sides of an issue.

As with much of the soundbite news cycle, limited information can be misleading, even if it was grounded in some truth. It is not inaccurate to say that our societal choice of fire suppression has resulted in excessive fuel loads in California forests or that forest management will help reduce that fuel load. However, it is also not inaccurate to note that many of these lands are federal forests, that fire suppression was a nation-wide (not just California) choice for decades, and that increasingly severe climate conditions are exacerbating our yearly fires.

This begrudging millennial author has two takeaways from the one-liner responses to serious political and social concerns: The first is that California should avoid spending its political and intellectual capital responding to isolated comments and playing the blame game. Blaming only forest management, climate change, or environmentalists is unhelpful at best. When politicians spend their energy only finding someone to blame, they risk losing sight of wise California policy.

Wildfire management and climate adaptation is a local, state, and federal issue, and it would be more effective if all stakeholders could work together to develop a joint solution. But if we cannot, California must focus on what it can do.

California can consider sound energy policy. It can look at using more of California’s cap-and-trade dollars for fire prevention to avoid these massive greenhouse gas-emitting fires. It can look at land use, water management, and transportation issues that exacerbate damage and hinder evacuation. It can look at the housing crisis, evaluating ways to ensure that people—including the thousands now homeless from the most recent fires—can afford to stay in California in locations that are less fire-prone and build homes that are more defensible against wildfires. California needs to stand together to respond to the deadliest and most destructive wildfire in its history, not spend its time and energy on tweets and blame.

The second takeaway is that comparisons between California and other nations on this issue seem to distract rather than help a sound policy discussion. Articles comparing and contrasting Finland and California fire policy abounded over the last few weeks. I consistently see articles comparing California and Brazil, China, France, and other nations on energy policy.

The fact remains that California is the world’s fifth largest economy, and, more than any other state in the nation, contains a diversity of economies, people, and natural habitat within its own borders. With respect to wildfires, Southern California chaparral fires are much different than those in the Sierra Nevada range in the North, and so, inevitably, is the fire prevention solution. Looking to other countries for potential solutions can be helpful though. For instance, Finland has an excellent early warning system, private fire surveillance, and a far denser network of roads into its forests than many nations in its area. But these solutions cannot simply be transplanted, as California also has less rain and Finland does not suffer from the Santa Ana winds.

All this comparison should be used as one tool in the legislative tool belt. Forging a solution for wildfire management and climate adaptation is a complex issue. It is important to keep in mind differences in less populous and less economically prosperous areas of California. We cannot simply adopt the policy of another single state or nation, because California does not resemble too closely any other state or nation.

This diversity does, however, give California the opportunity to be a leader on wildfire response and climate adaptation, serving as an incubator for ideas on how to cost effectively and efficiently adapt its diverse economy and habitat to respond and prevent disasters from increasingly intense weather events and to safely evacuate and house its residents when these events occur.

  Leah Silverthorn, Policy Advocate