Wildfires have been ravaging California in fall 2019, as thousands have been forced to flee their homes. Strong winds are causing the fire to spread quickly throughout the state, and firefighters are working to quell the burning flames in locations such as Los Angeles, Riverside County, and Sonoma County. 

The state of California is engulfed in both fire and terror, and experts say that these fires are only set to get worse as climate change makes the environment hotter and drier. Anthropogenic causes of climate change are making wildfires more common in California, a trend that is primed to persist. 

In a study published in September 2019 by researchers at the University of California Los Angeles and the University of California Santa Barbara, suggest that the widespread havoc generated by out of control wildfires are forcing citizens to embrace costly, pro-climate measures proposed by the state government. 

It found people living within 5, 10, or 15km radius of a recent wildfire to be 4-6 % more likely to vote for pro-climate policy reforms. 

The findings come at a time of heightened political tension in Washington and, contextually, a hostile climate for green policy reforms. The study claims a “temporal mismatch between short-term climate policy costs and long-term climate policy benefits.” Citizens are reluctant to invest in costly climate policy initiatives despite the fact that climate change has already disrupted economic, social, and environmental conditions globally. 

Satellite imagery shows the Kincade Fire in Sonoma County, California

Billions of dollars of funding have been spent to fight wildfires as well as rebuilding the homes and livelihoods that went up in smoke. Yet, it has been a difficult and slow process for costly climate mitigation bills, such as Congress’ Disaster Relief Bill, to be approved and passed. 

Despite the causal link the study exposed, between disaster and a hardening demand for muscular policy interventions, the shortcoming of this poll relies mainly in that it was conducted in dominant Democratic constituencies, with liberal voters being generally more prone to prioritise climate initiatives. Republican-leaning constituencies, which polls show to be less concerned by the climate crisis, were not as willing to champion these policy initiatives despite having similar experiences with wildfires. 

As the report states, “some parts of the public will respond by increasing their personal and political commitment to climate risk mitigation. However, this shift may remain much smaller in areas where pre-existing climate beliefs are weak, making costly policy change less likely.”

Ultimately, voting behaviour will determine the true extent of the public’s commitment to radical policy shifts. Meanwhile, the ongoing fire-crisis in California and its inevitable economic consequences, are expected to keep pushing people towards rethinking how their money gets spent on mitigation and prevention measures. 

 

References: 

Hazlett, Chad and Mildenberger, Matto, Wildfire Exposure Increases Pro-Climate Political Behaviors (September 13, 2019). Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3452958 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.3452958

Williams, A. P., Abatzoglou, J. T., Gershunov, A., Guzman‐Morales, J., Bishop, D. A., Balch, J. K., & Lettenmaier, D. P. ( 2019). Observed impacts of anthropogenic climate change on wildfire in California. Earth’s Future, 7, 892– 910. https://doi.org/10.1029/2019EF001210

Featured image by Daria Devyatkina