Monday, August 31, 2020

What if the private sector were responsible for California wildfires?

So we enter another week enveloped in smoke, here in California.

My thought for the day: Can you imagine the public and political reaction if this were caused by a private-sector activity?

Imagine for a minute that Jeff Bezos and Mark Zuckerberg had a many thousand acre ranch in Northern California, but for decades they refused to do any proper management and let kindling pile up. Suppose that when massive fires erupted every year, they relied on heroic volunteers and prisoners being paid a few dollars a day to go try to put out the flames. Suppose this happened every year, covering the state in smoke that make the bad old days of 1960s air pollution. Or, worse than Beijing

Suppose when questioned that Bezos and Zuckerberg said, well, there is nothing to be done about it because the climate is getting warmer. Or supposed they offered to build a high speed train and subsidize electric cars to reduce California's 0.1% contribution to carbon, so the climate will only get warmer 2.999 degrees rather than 3.00 degrees in the next century. Which you will pay for.

Imagine if any of this came from the private sector. Suppose one of the few remaining oil refineries were covering the state in smoke for a month at a time every year. Or if it were automobile exhaust.

I think the guillotine set up in front of Bezos' home recently is mild compared to what would happen. The state government would be launching lawsuits, draconian regulations, and long prison terms. Politicians and activists would be issuing daily denunciations of capitalism gone amok.  Bad air  hits poor, sick, and minorities harder, which they'd be screaming about.

This is the state that pioneered clean air after all. We have had our own special smog restrictions on cars for a half a century. Commenters on nextdoor go apoplectic if anyone turns on a gas leaf blower.

Yet the response so far is an amazing silence. If indeed it is climate change, dear fellow citizens, then that is ever more reason to do something about it. Climate change is a slow-moving predictable problem that will get worse. Even if the whole world takes up the whole green new deal, and even if that turns out to work, it only limits how much the climate gets warmer. If it's climate change, the only rational answer is to spend a lot more money to fix the problem, now. There are a lot of unemployed people in this state. They could be cleaning forests 11 months of the year. There is a huge amount of money in the state budget. It could be hiring firefighters, buying airplanes, and stopping this in its tracks.

Underlying it is the moralistic attitude. This is the price we must pay for our carbon sins, so we must pray to the carbon gods with useless virtue signals and endure, as our ancestors prayed to keep plague away. Even though we know the cause and effect here. To do anything about climate-induced problems is dreaded "adaptation," which does not involve the necessary self-flagellation.

But that attitude would change fast if the government were not completely responsible for this avoidable disaster. Hence my thought for the day.


  1. You might want to use LRAPA conversion and turn off indoor sensors on the PurpleAir map. Not using a conversion exaggerates the poor air quality, but using the indoors sensors attenuates it in the affluent areas.

  2. Even the NYTimes is starting to wake up:

    “California Fires: Want to Control Blazes? Start More, Experts Say: Why one of the most feasible solutions for worsening wildfires is doing more prescribed burns.” By Jill Cowan | Aug. 26, 2020 |

    As Californians brace for more bad news about what is already shaping up to be one of the state’s most intense fire seasons ever, and as we watch as firefighting capacity is stretched thin, I keep coming back to one question: What is California supposed to do?

    * * *

    In recent years, momentum has built for purposefully setting fires in certain areas to help thin vegetation and restore ecosystems that would naturally burn more frequently, if not for California’s policy of more than a century requiring that all fires be put out.

    Before Euro-American settlement in California in the 1800s, about 1.5 million acres of forest burned each year on average, my colleagues wrote — roughly the same amount that has burned so far this year.

    * * *

    But the challenge now is getting enough funding to use prescribed burns — which require lots of on-the-ground work and monitoring — and getting the green light to conduct prescribed burns in places where residents might be concerned about fires escaping or fouling the air.

    * * *

    “We’re chipping away at a backlog from 150 years of suppression,” he said. “But we can get to a point where we’ll be able to keep up with the accumulation of fuel.”

  3. In terms of which entity manages the forests in California, the federal government, manages more land than the state of California. The federal government manages 57 percent of the forests in California, according to the Legislative Analyst's Office. The state manages 2 percent. Private owners are responsible for 39 percent.

  4. California's hypocrisy is limitless! Carbon tax on its own citizens but more than 30% of California imports come from China -- the biggest pollutor of the world.

  5. You could write so many articles just like this one, just switching out the government function. I've always thought that a good argument for privatizing a particular activity is that then the activity will be held to a much higher level of scrutiny and accountability. It's just really hard for the government to police itself. So, for instance, the government stands ready to assist consumers whose insurance claims are wrongly denied AND it can assist insurance companies who are victims of insurance fraud. But it's much harder for the government to fill this "impartial arbiter" role when it is also the insurance company.

  6. I talked to Joe Clark at the last MPS meeting at the Hoover. Joe is an Aussie and he blamed Australia's environmental policies for the wild fires in New South Wales. Kindling piling up rather than controlled burns were the source of the fires. As an aside.The media in its hysteria, bleated, "Half a billion animals died!" Really?

    1. So what do you think is the true number? And if it's only, say, 100 million, does that make it ok?

    2. What's not OK is the media's cynical hand wringing over the half a billion animals killed. Where is the media's outrage at the misguided burn policies that were responsible for the loss of those half a billion kangaroos, wombats and koalas?

  7. If the fires were started by a liberal democrat, they would never make the news.

  8. What if the private sector is responsible for California wildfires? Long ago the indigenous people of California, like the indigenous people of Australia, set fire to the forest undergrowth every year. Along come timber industry bosses and enlist the government to criminalize burning and to create a cute marketing campaign (Smokey the Bear) to persuade the people to get on board. In the dry West fire is what recycles plant nutrients so that trees can keep growing. Tall undergrowth makes ladder fuels that make small fires set fire to the trees. Trees that are already weakened because the undergrowth is stealing the nutrients. None of this is caused by climate change. The only effect of climate change is to make it progressively more hazardous to do the deliberate burning that is needed to fix the problem.


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