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We Must Tell the Truth About California Fires — This Is Climate Change

Despite heavy coverage, few outlets are highlighting the link between the blazes and the accelerating climate crisis.

The skies of the Bay Area and Northern California turned a dark orange as 90 major fires burn in the western United States, from San Diego to the Canadian border. At least seven people have died as a result of the fires, which have already burned 2.5 million acres in California alone. Despite heavy coverage in the mainstream media, however, few outlets are highlighting the link between the blazes and the accelerating climate crisis. “The fact is that TV news is completely abdicating its responsibility when it comes to telling the truth of what the West is dealing with right now,” says Leah Stokes, assistant professor of political science at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and a researcher on climate and energy policy. “This is climate change. It’s not rocket science. And when will the media start calling it that?”


This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We begin today’s show in California, where people in the Bay Area and across Northern California woke up Wednesday to dark orange skies as a blanket of smoke from the state’s massive climate change-fueled wildfires smothered the region. The thick smoke blotted out so much sunlight, temperatures dropped well below forecasters’ predictions, with meteorologists comparing the effect to a nuclear winter.

The unprecedented conditions came as the West Coast faces a fire season that has killed at least seven people, forced major evacuations and already burned two-and-a-half million acres in California alone. That’s 20 times the land burned last year, and there are months left in California’s ever-growing fire season. Winds from some of California’s more than 20 massive fires and from blazes as far away as Oregon and Washington blew into the Bay Area to create the conditions, which some described as “apocalyptic.” This is Oakland resident Carljuan Anderson.

CARLJUAN ANDERSON: I was wondering what time it was, and then I looked outside. It looked like Doomsday. I mean, you could tell something is horribly going wrong. And as far as going to work and breathing in all this, this pollution is definitely not healthy for us in the Bay Area.

AMY GOODMAN: The fires have also devastated Oregon, where dozens of wildfires have destroyed hundreds of homes and even entire towns. Oregon Governor Kate Brown said it could be the greatest loss of lives and property from fire in the state’s history. This is a video posted on Twitter by reporter Christine Pitawanich with Oregon’s KGW News. It shows downtown Stayton, about an hour south of Portland, just after noon Tuesday. The sky is blood red.

CHRISTINE PITAWANICH: This right here is downtown Stayton. You can see the red hue, the red-orange glow in the sky. There’s ash that is falling visibly in front of — you know, when we were driving here, in front of the headlights of the car. But downtown, basically empty here, besides a few people, a few cars here, people walking around and cars. But the smell of smoke is heavy.

AMY GOODMAN: Meanwhile, wildfires in the neighboring state of Washington have burned nearly 600,000 acres since Labor Day. The fires devastating the West come as a record-shattering heat wave, mass blackouts and the coronavirus pandemic roil the West. The scientists are unflinching in their analysis: The climate crisis is here. And it’s impacting farmworkers still forced to work the fields, incarcerated firefighters and other vulnerable communities first and hardest. This is California Governor Gavin Newsom speaking Tuesday.

GOV. GAVIN NEWSOM: But I quite literally have no patience for climate change deniers. It simply follows — completely inconsistent, that point of view, with the reality on the ground, the facts as we are experiencing. You may not believe it intellectually, but your own eyes, your own experiences tell a different story.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, for more, we’re joined by Leah Stokes, assistant professor of political science at the University of California, Santa Barbara, a researcher on climate and energy policy. She’s the author of Short Circuiting Policy: Interest Groups and the Battle Over Clean Energy and Climate Policy in the American States.

Can you describe what we are seeing, from California to Oregon to Washington? The media talks about it as bizarre and crazy. Still there is not a lot of use of the word “climate change.”

LEAH STOKES: That’s right, Amy. It’s quite sad that your program and one newscaster at CBS News named Jeff Berardelli are pretty much the only TV news stations that are willing to use the word “climate change.” Last month, during August, when the fires of course had already started, there were over 100 TV news segments on this on ABC, NBC and CBS. This is according to Media Matters. And of those more than 100 segments, I’m talking about five full segments — that’s it — that even mentioned the word “climate change.” And three of those five were done by one person, Jeff Berardelli, who’s a wonderful meteorologist who actually cares about talking about climate change.

But the fact is that TV news is completely abdicating its responsibility when it comes to telling the truth of what the West is dealing with right now, which is, of course, not just these fires, but massive, unprecedented heat waves. The fires that got really bad over the weekend were fueled in large part by unprecedented heat in counties like Los Angeles County, which set heat wave records of 121 degrees Fahrenheit, Ventura County, Santa Barbara County, Inland. I mean, the temperatures were just unseen before in modern human history. So, this is climate change. It’s not rocket science. And when will the media start calling it that?

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Professor Stokes, could you also talk about what’s been pointed out? Because some think that the reason that people conclude that this is an effect of climate change is that now records are kept, whereas previously they weren’t. But, in fact, in California, since 1932, fire records have been kept. And the worst fires have occurred — the 10 worst fires have occurred between the year 2000 and the present.

LEAH STOKES: Yes. And unfortunately, that statistic, which is a really great one, is probably going out of date as we speak. You know, as you mentioned at the top of the hour, we’re talking about two-and-a-half million acres that have already burned. And that is, as Amy mentioned, 20 times what had burned at this time last year. And we know, because of research, that the fire season across the western United States has lengthened by two-and-a-half months.

So, we’re not really in fire seasons anymore; we’re in fire season year-round. And, you know, this isn’t a question of modern recordkeeping. It’s a question of burning fossil fuels, which is what we’ve been doing, which has been heating up the planet and, as scientists tell us, have increased fire risk by 500%. That’s the kind of increase that we’re seeing as a result of climate change.

AMY GOODMAN: You know, I was talking with family last night, last night in New York, which was afternoon there, and they took me outside on Skype, and it was dark. But, Professor Stokes, can you explain the colors that are being experienced, from pumpkin orange to purple to complete darkness? What exactly is causing all of this? And how do you think the governor is dealing with it? And then talk about President Trump.

LEAH STOKES: Sure. So, what happened with these giant wildfires is really unprecedented weather that we’ve never seen before. There is a wonderful climate scientist, very active on Twitter, named Daniel Swain. And what he has been talking about is how overwhelmed he is by even trying to track the amount of fires that are going on right now.

And these fires are creating their own weather. They’re creating clouds and kind of tornado-like conditions. And what that is doing is like a volcano eruption. It’s pushing particulate matter way up into the stratosphere, way higher than even airplanes fly. And that is like a volcanic eruption. And so, what we’re dealing with here is particulate matter blocking out the sun. And so, for example, people posted their solar panels and showed that they were getting zero solar radiation, no energy being produced, because the sun was not making its way to the ground. This is what’s happened in the past when we’ve had huge volcanic eruptions. It’s really a disturbing effect, and I can understand why people are so freaked out.

In terms of the governor of California, it’s great to see him stepping up and using the words “climate change” very actively. Others have pointed out, however, that he has approved fracking permits in the recent months during the pandemic, and there’s questions as to why California is not turning away more aggressively from oil and gas extraction.

And then, when it comes to our climate-denier-in-chief, Donald Trump, you know, he doesn’t even believe in climate change. He doesn’t listen to scientists, whether that’s the coronavirus pandemic and lying about it and playing down the death toll or it’s climate change. And so, really, we have zero leadership for this emergency from Washington, D.C. And it’s well past time that we have a president who can use the words “climate change” and who can trust and believe in science.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Professor Stokes, you mentioned earlier fossil fuel, of course, which is one of the leading causes of accelerated climate change. And in your article in The Atlantic, “How Can We Plan for the Future in California?” you write, quote, “In an ironic twist, burning fossil fuels will become less reliable in our hotter world.” Can you explain?

LEAH STOKES: Sure. So, these heat waves that we’ve been dealing with, really all summer, they’re unprecedented. And that’s because science has told us that we have, again, 500% more risk for heat waves across the western United States, given the amount of climate change that we’ve already caused. We have warmed the planet by one degree Celsius. In certain parts of California, such as where I live, Santa Barbara, the warming is actually higher. It’s two degrees Fahrenheit — sorry, two degrees Celsius, in Santa Barbara and in Ventura County. So, certain parts of our planet are really more vulnerable to climate change, and they warm up faster. And that is certainly parts of California.

So, what’s been happening is that the West, whether it’s Arizona, Nevada, California, they’ve been baked in a big regional heat wave over the last few weeks. And that creates a big stress on our electricity system, because people in Phoenix need to turn on their air conditioning, people in Los Angeles need to turn that on — all across the region. And so that means that we don’t have as much electricity resources than we would have otherwise. And so, there have been regional shortages, particularly in California, for electricity. And a few weeks ago, the grid actually went into rolling blackouts. And even this past week there have been shortages and some shutoffs in some areas.

Now, what happened a couple weeks ago is still being understood, but one of the factors is that several gas plants — these are fossil gas plants that operate in California — they went offline unexpectedly. And what people pointed out is that when the temperature gets really high, just like if you’ve ever been in an airport when the temperature is really high and airplanes can’t take off — when the temperature gets very high, fossil plants cannot produce the same amount of electricity. They cannot operate. And so, as we deal with more and more heat waves, our electricity system is going to become a lot less reliable.

AMY GOODMAN: And President Trump’s connection to the fossil fuel companies, one? And, two, the people who are fighting these fires? We have been dealing with this extensively on Democracy Now! But, for example, the incarcerated firefighters who themselves are dealing with COVID, and then the farmworkers who are out in the fields being told they still have to be there?

LEAH STOKES: Yes. There are so many tragic parts of this story, and so many of the other ones that you touched on at the top of the hour. These are very dark days that we are living in.

Unfortunately, what many people don’t know is that the CARES Act, which was the coronavirus stimulus bill that Mitch McConnell helped steward through Congress a few months ago, that was in large part a fossil fuel bailout. We do not even know how much of our money, as people living in the United States, has gone towards fossil fuel companies, because the federal government refuses to tell us.

But we do know, thanks to the really dogged reporting of a few women, including Antonia Juhasz, writing for Sierra magazine, and Alexis Goldstein, writing for Truthout, that a lot of money — we’re talking billions of dollars — is going to fossil fuel companies. Alexis just reported, for example, that the Federal Reserve literally bought corporate bonds, corporate debt, of a number of fossil fuel companies. So you and I now own corporate debt for ExxonMobil, Chevron, BP, Marathon Petroleum and the electric utility company Southern Company. These are terrible corporations that have been denying climate change for decades, and they’re not responsible corporate actors. And yet, what has the Trump administration done? It has given them a lifeline and a handout, at a time when they were not doing well financially, not because of COVID, but because of their own bad decisions.

So, really, what we are living through right now is a massive fossil fuel bailout. What the federal government is doing is not helping everyday Americans stay employed, pay their rent, pay their electricity bills. What they are doing is helping fossil fuel companies. And that’s really wrong.

Amy, you also mentioned, of course, the prison labor problem when it comes to firefighting in California. And that issue has been really compounded by the COVID crisis. In Santa Barbara County, where I live, there is one prison, where pretty much 100% of the people, about a thousand people who are in that prison, have had COVID. In the early parts of the pandemic, this was one of the worst outbreaks in the entire country. And prisons across this country and across California have really been on the frontlines of COVID.

And so, one thing that Governor Newsom has done, in part to help people out in prisons, is early releases. Unfortunately, that means that the firefighters who we rely on through prison labor, which is a problematic situation, we don’t have as many of them as a result, and so we don’t have the same amount of firefighters. And we also have a terrible policy in California that after people have been released from prison, they’re not allowed to work as firefighters for an actual living wage. And so, the system that we have set up for fighting our fires is really unethical, not just exploiting people when they’re in prison, but, after we’ve trained them and given them skills, not letting them use those skills for pay.

And finally, the farmworkers. You’re right. Many undocumented Hispanic people living in this country are on the frontlines of COVID, on the frontlines of the climate crisis. And they are still out there working in the fields during a pandemic and during this absolutely horrendous air quality, which, of course, when you breathe in that bad air, it also makes it more likely that you’ll die of COVID.

AMY GOODMAN: We have 30 seconds. The future, Leah Stokes, what needs to happen now?

LEAH STOKES: We need to elect a new president. You know, Joe Biden, for all his flaws, has come out with an absolutely unprecedented climate change plan, and he’s targeting 100% clean electricity by 2035. So, if we could elect him to be the president and we could take back the Senate for the Democrats, we would actually have a chance to tackle the climate crisis.

AMY GOODMAN: Leah Stokes, I want to thank you for being with us, assistant professor of political science at University of California, Santa Barbara, researcher on climate and energy policy. We’ll link to your piece in The Atlantic, headlined “How Can We Plan for the Future in California?” Author of Short Circuiting Policy: Interest Groups and the Battle Over Clean Energy and Climate Policy in the American States.

When we come back, a new ad campaign targets African American and Latinx Americans to join in the vaccine trials. What are many’s hesitation? We look back at medical experimentation in the United States. Stay with us.


AMY GOODMAN: “Summer Madness” by Kool and the Gang. The band’s co-founder, singer and composer Ronald Khalis Bell has passed away at the age of 68.

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