The Politics Of Climate Change Largely Set Aside In Pandemic Year
California is enduring unprecedented wildfires. San Diego’s Valley Fire was the largest locally, with scores of homes and 16,000 acres left blackened by the flames.
“Warmer temperatures, drier fuels led to these extreme fires seasons,” said Tom Corringham, a researcher at the Center for Western Weather and Water Extremes at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography.
“This year being an example in the western U.S.,” Corringham said. “We still have fires burning now in Colorado. We have fires in California at historical levels of acres burned.”
More than 4 million acres have burned this year alone; 31 people have died and more than 9,200 structures were destroyed.
The latest fire in Orange County, just last week, forced 100,000 people from their homes.
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On top of that, scientists saw record high temperatures: 130 degrees in Death Valley in August. Then September was the hottest month ever.
“We’re seeing these higher temperatures,” Corringham said. “Higher temperatures are leading to the melting of the ice caps in the Arctic, Greenland, and Antarctica, and that leads to sea-level rise.”
And sea-level rise contributes to coastal flooding. The scientific community says these events are all calling cards of a changing climate, something researchers have been warning about for decades.
“There’s no way that these fires are natural,” said Jeffery Severinghaus, a researcher at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography. “This is way outside any possible natural occurrence. This is climate change. Climate change is here at our doorstep.”
Severinghaus tracked ancient climate change by studying ice cores from the planet’s poles.
“There’s lots of undeniable evidence. It’s no longer remotely in debate,” said Severinghaus.
And in California, climate change has broken through and become part of the political debate.
“In California elections, we see a lot of discussion about climate change, in part because both sides recognize that it’s a really physical challenge to our state,” said Thad Kouser, a political scientist at UCSD.
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He said major party candidates in San Diego County and California ignore climate change at their own peril.
The issue is important here because voters are getting first-hand proof that a changing climate will affect them.
“When you see wildfires and you see seawater rise and floods that come from that when you see hurricanes on the Gulf coast. These physical embodiments of climate change are what will bring it from an issue right now that is in the top ten of most voter’s concerns to an issue that will be a top tier issue that every politician will need to address,” Kouser said.
But California’s acceptance of climate change has not broken through in a meaningful way in the national political arena.
It was a discussion topic in the second debate between President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden.
Trump touted the nation’s clean air and water during his administration and Biden called climate change the existential crisis of our time.
However, the candidates spent most of the time on the topic attacking each other’s economic policies.
The national discussion evolved over the past two years.
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“During the primary season there was a huge amount of attention paid to climate because this was one of the areas where candidates differentiated themselves,” said David Victor, a UCSD professor of International Relations. “Once you go into the general (election), this is largely a referendum on the incumbent. As most elections that involve incumbents are."
Climate change is not a state issue so the national debate will have to start looking like the political discourse in California.
“We as a state are less than one percent of global emissions and so everything we do here needs to be evaluated through the lens of how it increases the odds that other places do some other things,” Victor said.
Climate change has to be part of the national discussion because dealing with the consequences of a warming planet requires a national solution, according to Victor.