Scientists actually DO know how climate change contributes to California’s wildfires

Despite Donald Trump’s off-hand dismissal of climate scientists on his visit to California’s apocalyptic wildfires, there are plenty of scientists who ACTUALLY DO know how climate change contributes to these disasters. Below are some recent examples of this well-established relationship and impacts.  

Climate change is increasing the likelihood of extreme autumn wildfire conditions across California”  appeared in Environmental Research Letters in August. One of the co-authors, Daniel Swain, writes an ongoing blog, Weather West, which chronicles and explains “California weather and climate perspectives” from his perch at the University of California at L.A. Institute of the Environment and Sustainability. The Union of Concerned Scientists have also posted an Infographic: Wildfires and Climate Change, which summarizes trends, impacts and costs, including health costs.

Some mainstream media is giving voice to climate scientists :

 “How Can We Plan for the Future in California?” by transplanted Canadian climate scientist Leah Stokes, appeared in The Atlantic (Aug. 23). She is also interviewed by Democracy Now in “This is climate change : West Coast Fires Scorch Millions of Acres & Blot Out the Sun” (Sept. 10).

 “The Burning  West” special feature compilation of articles from Inside Climate News, which includes “California and Colorado Fires May Be Part of a Climate-Driven Transformation of Wildfires Around the Globe” (Aug. 22) and “10 Days of Climate Extremes: From Record Heat to Wildfires to the One-Two Punch of Hurricane Laura” (Aug. 29 ), and “A Siege of 80 Large, Uncontained Wildfires Sweeps the Hot, Dry West”  (Sept. 9), which catalogues the fire events to date.

“A Climate Reckoning in Fire-Stricken California” in the New York Times (Sept. 10,updated Sept. 14)  

These Are Climate Fires”: Oregon Firefighter Ecologist Says Devastating Blazes Are a Wake-Up Call” in Democracy Now (Sept. 14)

Climate change is worsening California’s hellish wildfires” in Yale Climate Connections (Aug. 24).

California wildfires getting bigger, moving faster than ever” in the Toronto Star (Sept. 10)

Climate grief is burning across the American West” in Wired (Sept. 14)

Wildfire Impact on workers

On the Front Lines: Climate Change Threatens the Health of America’s Workers  was released in July by the Natural Resources Defense Council, and documents the “myriad threats” posed by wildfires, explaining “Increases in wildfires will put more emergency responders and recovery workers in dangerous situations and expose more outdoor and indoor workers to unhealthy wildfire smoke.” The report also explains some of the mental health aftermath and provides dozens of links to scientific research.

Pandemic, Wildfires & Heat Wave: Undocumented Farmworkers Face “Triple Threat” as West Coast Burns” in Democracy Now (Sept. 14).

A Human Tragedy”: Wildfires Reveal California’s Reliance on Incarcerated Firefighters” in Democracy Now (August 25).

In the US West Scorched by Wildfires, We Can Barely Breathe. It’s Going to Get Worse” from the Union of Concerned Scientists (Sept. 14) – an overview which briefly discusses outdoor workers and relies on a 2016 article from Climate Change to conclude: “All told, there are roughly 4.8 million outdoor workers across the western US who are exposed to wildfire smoke in an average year.” 

California Bill Clears Path For Ex-Inmates To Become Firefighters” at NPR (Sept. 11) , describing AB2147 , a Bill which lets prisoners who had worked in California’s prisoner-firefighting program petition the courts to dismiss their convictions after completing their sentences.

New report offers sector-based strategies for greening California with high road jobs

The Center for Labor Research at the University of California, Berkeley, was commissioned by the California Workforce Development Board under legislated mandate to provide strategies “to help industry, workers, and communities transition to economic and labor-market changes related to statewide greenhouse gas emissions reduction goals.” The demand-side practices of community benefits agreements and project labour agreements were singled out for special attention.  The resulting 636-page report, Putting California on the High Road: A Jobs and Climate Action Plan for 2030 , was presented to the Legislature on September 3.  The official summary is here ; coverage in the Los Angeles Times is here.

The  High Road report is built on the framework of California’s 2017 Climate Change Scoping Plan, which has target of  a 40 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 from 1990 levels. It incorporates existing academic research, economic models, and industry studies to present information about current labor conditions and the impact on jobs of California’s major climate measures. Most importantly, it provides strategic guidance and best practice examples for policymakers, agencies and institutions with a goal to “generate family-supporting jobs, broaden career opportunities for disadvantaged workers, deliver the skilled workforce that employers need to achieve California’s climate targets, and protect workers in declining industries.”  

Construction sector and blue-collar jobs are key

The Scoping Plan and the new report are organized into sectors based on the state’s major sources of greenhouse gas emissions: Transportation, Industry, Energy, Natural and Working Lands (including Agricultural Lands), Waste, and Water. The report notes the out-sized importance of the construction sector and of blue-collar work – defined as occupations in construction, production, transportation, maintenance, repair, and similar occupations, and specifically emphasizes that “blue collar” does not equate to “low skilled”. This has important policy implications, including the need for industry-based training, and emphasis on addressing job quality, because: “The quality of blue-collar jobs varies tremendously, even within the same industry, depending on the degree of subcontracting and outsourcing, ease of employment law enforcement, unionization rates, and other factors. These differences in job quality within industries and between high and low road employers are often difficult to discern from government data, which also is not able to capture wage theft and other employment violations. Examples are given of many sectors where greening of jobs may have resulted in lower emissions but not necessarily in job quality.

Recommendations

There are dozens of sector-specific recommendations, both demand-side and supply-side  including:

Expand the use of Community Workforce Agreements (CWAs) on climate investments involving large-scale construction projects;

Use inclusive procurement policies for public procurement of large capital equipment, contracts for public services, and in grant programs;

Include responsible employer standards in all climate incentive programs. Include skill standards to ensure safe and proper performance in programs receiving public or ratepayer funds; Incorporate wage and benefits standards and verification of compliance with all employment and labor law, including health and safety standards, into incentive program requirements.

Use metrics to measure the impact of climate policies on job growth, job quality, and job access.

Support existing apprenticeship programs and, where conditions are favorable, create new apprenticeship programs.

Support curriculum upgrades and teacher training for emerging technologies in occupations critical to the transition to a carbon-neutral economy.

Recommendations regarding Just Transition are: Short term: “Fully explore alternatives to plant closures when there are other strategies available that will achieve greenhouse gas emissions reductions and local pollution abatement. Longer term: Convene an interagency task force to develop concrete, specific plans for short-term and long-term transition.”

The full report is 636 pages long, with Lead Author Carol Zabin, Director of the Green Economy Program at the Labor Center, University of California Berkeley. Co-authors include J. Mijin Cha , author of Chapter 4 on Just Transition.  Much of the research was undertaken in 2018, relying on data from 2017, though the report is dated June 2020, and was only publicly released in September 2020.  Previous related reports from the Green Economy Program are listed here. Other relevant articles by J. Mijin Cha include “Environmental Justice, Just Transition, and a Low-Carbon Future for California” in Environmental Law Reporter 2020 and “A just transition for whom? Politics, contestation, and social identity in the disruption of coal in the Powder River Basin” in Energy Research & Social Science, Volume 69, 2020. Both academic articles have restricted access to the full text.

Workers who respond to wildfires – some news you might have missed

The Columbia Journalism Review published an article on November 1: “What journalists miss when covering the California fires” . It states “we discuss celebrities and show pyro-pornography to capture attention. …. journalists could also use the borrowed interest to discuss bigger environmental consequences impacting people inside (and sometimes outside) of California.”

firefight in smokeHere are some articles which  focus on the impacts for working people in California and Canada, especially first responders and health care workers.  A previous WCR article,  “What happens to workers when wildfires and natural disasters hit?”  appeared in December 2017, after the Fort McMurray wildfires in Alberta.

California:

At PG&E, a workforce on edge — and under attack — as fire season arrives” in the San Francisco Chronicle (June 8) describes how front line workers are suffering harassment because the public blames their employer, Pacific Gas and Electric Company, for the 2018 Camp fire, as well as for the disruptions of their planned power outages to avoid sparking more fires.

A blog post  Power Shutoffs: Playing with Fire summarizes the issue of California power shutoffs and includes anecdotal reports from a  focus group study of home health care and nursing home workers, which  found that lack of communication was a common problem as they try to care for or evacuate their vulnerable patients.  The focus group was convened by the Emerald Cities Collaborative and SEUI2015.

Home healthcare in the Dark : Why Climate, Wildfires and Other Emerging Risks Call for Resilient Energy Storage Solutions to Protect Medically Vulnerable Households from Power Outages. This report published by Clean Energy Group and Meridian Institute in June 2019  identifies the problems associated with unreliable power when the electric grid goes down either through disaster or through  planned power outages to prevent wildfires. The report  makes a series of recommendations directed at policy makers, including:  “truly resilient power should be generated onsite, should not be dependent on supply chains that may be disrupted during catastrophic events”.

Getty fire: Housekeepers and gardeners go to work despite the flames” in the LA Times which also highlights the chaos brought by lack of communication, and the need for low-wage workers to work, despite danger.

International Association of Firefighters press release “California Members Work around the Clock to Contain Wildfires” provides an overview of  wildfire fighting by their members and points out that firefighters’ homes may also be in the path of destruction. (a fact that is true for other essential workers such as  health care workers).

“As fires rage, California refines an important skill: Evacuating” in the Washington Post (Oct. 29).  Describes the challenges of first responders responsible for vulnerable patients in hospitals.

New threats put wildfire fighters health on the line”  in the New York Times points out : “While burning wood poses some threat to lungs, man-made products and the gases and particles they produce when burned are far more dangerous…Unlike urban firefighters dealing with structural blazes, these wildfire responders do not wear heavy gear that filters air or provides clean air because the gear is unwieldy and too limited to allow the kind of multi-hour, high-exertion efforts demanded on the front lines of these large outdoor infernos.”

And from 2017, “Suicide rate among wildland firefighters is “astronomical”” in Wildfire Today  , based on a more substantial article in The Atlantic: “A Quiet Rise in Wildland-Firefighter Suicides”

 

Canada:

Climate change is making wildfires in Canada bigger, hotter and more dangerous”  in Maclean’s (July 18 2019) is a quick overview of the Canadian experience.

We were blindsided: Rappel firefighters criticizes UCP for axing program  in the Edmonton Journal  (Nov. 7) and an article in the newspaper Fort McMurray Today react to the Alberta government cuts which will eliminate the 40-year-old rappelling program, which employs more than 60 firefighters who rappel from helicopters into forest fires. Staffing for close to 30 wildfire lookout towers and one air tanker unit will also be cut. The articles describe the dangerous job of fighting fires.

A  British Columbia government press release at the end of October 2019 announces two research projects underway to study  firefighter health and wellness (including its physical, mental and emotional dimensions).  One at the University of Northern B.C. is a scoping study to contribute to a long-term research strategy for worker health by the B.C. Wildfire Service. The second, supported by the government of Alberta,  is examining the nature and concentration of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons in the air that firefighters breathe and accumulate on their skin. This study will also “explore the practicality and effectiveness of firefighters using respiratory protective equipment; and investigate whether wildland firefighters have more chronic lung disease than other people of the same age, gender and geographic location.” A progress report on the initial phase of this project is expected in March 2020.

“Fire-weary Western Canadians are picking up stakes and moving on” in the National Observer (June 24  2019)considers the impact of smoke as well as fire over the past two years in the West, discussing how “residents … young and old, often on fixed or limited incomes, are making tough choices about where they want to live and to work. The decisions are being informed by many factors, but often the most pressing concern is the increasing frequency of forest fires.”  (This updates some of the themes of a 2017 Globe and Mail article “Fort MacMurray wildfires leaves livelihoods in limbo” ).

Unions have made consistent and significant donations to wildfire-affected communities.  Some examples: “Steelworkers Humanity Fund Contributes $69,000 to Fort McMurray Recovery” (2016); “Steelworkers Contribute $100,000 to B.C. Fire Relief” (August 2017),  and Steelworkers Humanity Fund Contributes $58,950 to Support Disaster Recovery Here and Abroad (June 2019) –  which specifies a $10,000  donation to the  High Level Native Friendship Centre food bank in Northern Alberta after  forest fires caused  the evacuation of the town.  Also,  “Unifor wildfire relief donations top $220k” in 2017, and  a 2018 press release announced $150,000 to the B.C. Fire Relief Fund of the Canadian Red Cross in 2018 through Unifor’s Canadian Community Fund  as well as its Social Justice Fund .

How are workers affected by PG&E power outage in California?

california map PGE_outage_10-10-2019The California utility company largely blamed for the catastrophic Camp Fire in 2018 is making headlines again.  In the midst of dry, windy weather conditions, Pacific Gas & Electric shut off power to approximately 800,000 accounts (translating into 1.8  million people) on October 8, in an effort to reduce the risk of another wildfire caused by sparking from their electricity transmission lines.  The Los Angeles Times provides a general overview in “Gov. Newsom slams PG&E over ‘unacceptable’ power outages and failure to fix systems”  (Oct. 10) and “Millions Brace for Unprecedented Power Cuts in California” in Bloomberg News reports that shutoffs will affect major cities in the San Francisco Bay area,  including Oakland, San Jose and Berkeley, with a possible duration of up to 6 days.

The chaos, anger and inconvenience has additional  significance for workers, described briefly in  “Confusion reigns as California utility cuts power in 34 counties to reduce wildfire risk” (Oct. 10) in Energy Mix . More details appear in “What happens when a power company decides to turn off the electricity for millions of residents?” in Wildfire Today which states: “The indirect effects of having no electricity expand to a much larger population when you consider traffic lights not working, tunnels on highways being shut down, plus the closure of gas stations, schools, and businesses …. At some point, cellular telephone towers and infrastructure may exhaust their emergency power supply systems, not to mention the batteries in the public’s cell phones…And in an emergency, firefighters’ communications could be hampered by the disabling of their radio repeaters on mountaintops. Notifying residents of approaching fires and conducting evacuations in order to save lives could be challenging.”

And what of the PG&E workers?  The local Sacramento Bee newspaper reported “PG&E employee shot at ahead of utility’s massive Northern California power shutoff” (Oct. 9) as residents take out their frustrations on employees doing their jobs.  The Washington Post reported “PG&E pleads for employee safety amid outage after police report egging, gunfire at vehicle”  .  One worker’s wife is  widely reported to have issued a social media plea  stating that utility workers “are simply employees and have no say in any decision making so shouting profanities or resorting to violence towards PG&E workers will never do any good but it would instead hurt someone’s father, mother, brother, sister, husband or wife. ”  Truly a dark time.

The right policy mix determines the extent of job creation for California’s proposed offshore wind industry

floating offshore windCalifornia Offshore Wind: Workforce Impacts and Grid Integration  is a report released on September 27 by the Center for Labor Research and Education at University of California, Berkeley, in partnership with Energy and Environmental Economics Inc. The report seeks to quantify what benefits for workers and communities would emerge from a major offshore wind power sector, given that the depth of California’s waters require floating platform wind installations, and floating wind is in its infancy. (According to the report, the only commercially operating project now is the 30 MW Hywind  project , opened in 2017 off the coast of Aberdeen, Scotland). The author interviewed union leaders, offshore wind industry participants, workforce training professionals, and port and transportation specialists for their firsthand accounts of the impacts of offshore wind, as well as analyzing the research to date on the economic and employment impacts of the fixed-bottom offshore wind industry around the world. A press release provides an executive summary of the report.

The conclusion: state policy intervention is a crucial determinant of the level of benefit for offshore wind.  Excerpts from the report: The largest economic benefits would occur “if an in-state supply chain were developed for the primary components of wind turbine generators—blades, nacelles (hubs), and towers—as well as the floating platforms, thus creating thousands of manufacturing and construction jobs. But the offshore wind industry is highly globalized, with its supply chain centered in Europe, and by the mid-2020s, China is likely to become a major exporter of wind components. … policymakers should set a clear goal for offshore wind as part of the long-term renewable energy planning process (for example, a mandate for at least 8 GW over a decade). If the offshore wind planning process were to evolve in a more piecemeal basis, without strategic direction or fixed targets, wind developers and manufacturers would lack incentive to make major California investments…. Although the state has a strong workforce training system, including the construction industry’s state-certified apprenticeships, skills gaps are likely to be a challenge for offshore wind on the North Coast. The state should consider creating a High-Road Training Partnership (HRTP) for offshore wind to fill these gaps and broaden community access to offshore wind jobs. HRTPs are a new state program of industry‐specific training programs that prioritize job quality, equity, and environmental sustainability.”