Thu, Mar 07, 2019 - Page 9 News List

Californian wildfires burn through the US’ illusions

As the destruction caused by climate change continues to become costlier, somebody is going to have to pay for it

By Liam Denning  /  Bloomberg Opinion

Illustration: Mountain People

Joan Didion’s “Holy Water,” written in 1977, is a paean to the elaborate engineering that supplied her taps in Malibu and filled drinking glasses in Hollywood restaurants. At its heart is a warning: The apparent ease of California life is an illusion, and those who believe the illusion real live there in only the most temporary way.

The Golden State is actually a pretty inhospitable place: arid or semi-arid in large parts, prone to occasional floods — maybe even mega-floods — and, lest we forget, is a giant earthquake zone. There is even a clutch of volcanoes.

As a prosperous home for nearly 40 million people, it is a place made, not begotten.

About a decade after Didion’s essay, Marc Reisner characterized California as “a beautiful fraud” in his much longer polemic Cadillac Desert, chronicling in exquisite detail the epic water projects, bottomless budgets and Chinatown politics that went into making a place like Los Angeles not merely viable, but desirable.

This year, another element consumes the state’s attention. After the terror of two wildfire seasons for the ages, the state’s largest utility, PG&E Corp, has declared bankruptcy in the face of potentially huge fire-related liabilities.

On Thursday last week, it announced it was taking a US$10.5 billion charge in connection with last year’s Camp Fire, California’s most destructive to date.

Banal as it might seem, the utility’s credit rating plunging from untouchable to unownable within a matter of months illustrates perfectly how climate change shatters collective illusions — illusions that extend far beyond California.

The bankruptcy also elevates a critical, related question: Who pays for what?

Whether it is irrigating the San Joaquin Valley or stringing thousands of miles of wiring across the state, the funding of California’s grands projets has long been a contentious and often poorly understood issue.

Douglas Bosco, a former US lawmaker who now chairs the state’s Coastal Conservancy, said there is “overall a complete misunderstanding” as to how the state’s energy is sourced and paid for.

He recalled a public meeting in Crescent City in 1979, appearing alongside Claire Dedrick, the first woman to serve on the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC).

Bosco said that Dedrick was explaining how the CPUC protected consumers while also ensuring investors in the regulated utilities received a healthy rate of return, when a farmer stood up and asked: “Ms Dedrick, how do I get regulated by the PUC?”

That tension between customers and financiers, between serving the public good and sating commercial appetite, is common to investor-owned utilities, but it has reached a breaking point with PG&E.

Yet, California must balance making shareholders and creditors shoulder their share of the liabilities with the need to ensure that a functioning, financially viable grid emerges at the end of bankruptcy, because, daunting as the wildfire costs are to date, it is more useful to think of them less as a bill to be settled and more like an ongoing tab.

Unlike earthquakes, climate change is not a random act of God. With a hefty assist from man, it is taking familiar threats such as drought, flood and fire, and supercharging them to reach an unfamiliar ferocity and frequency.

In the state’s most recent assessment, the average area burned by wildfires is projected to increase by 77 percent by the end of the century in a scenario of high greenhouse gas emissions. Even with more moderate emissions, there is a significant increase, and a Californian born today will almost certainly live to see it.

This story has been viewed 1870 times.

Comments will be moderated. Remarks containing abusive and obscene language, personal attacks of any kind or promotion will be removed and the user banned.

TOP top