🔥 Visible Hands: Big Fires Everywhere
Wildfires have been engulfing the western US. From the unhealthy air quality to orange skies to millions of acres scorched, we're asking ourselves what can we collectively do?
For those on the West coast, the past month has marked yet another devastating wildfire season (a record-breaking one at that). From the unhealthy air quality to eerie orange skies to millions of acres scorched, we are asking ourselves how is this happening and what can we collectively do?
This year’s wildfires have been sparked by everything from that notorious gender reveal party to a dry lightning strike. With rampant, catastrophic wildfires on the West Coast seemingly becoming a yearly occurrence, scientists are pointing to a long-term "moisture deficit” driven by the increase in surface temperatures in the region--in other words, human-caused climate change is likely playing a role in these extreme events.
Rewind back to 2018, a faulty transmission line from Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E), California’s main utility company, started the “Camp Fire” that killed dozens and destroyed the town of Paradise. Earlier this summer, the company pleaded guilty to 84 counts of manslaughter in this case and agreed to pay a $3.5 million fine as part of the criminal plea.
And the evidence was damning of known, long overdue maintenance. The NY Times reported that “[l]ong before the failure suspected in the Paradise fire, a company email had noted that some of PG&E’s structures in the area, known for fierce winds, were at risk of collapse. It reported corrosion of one tower so severe that it endangered crews trying to repair the tower.”
Perhaps unsurprisingly, PG&E filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in January 2019 given its estimated $30 billion in liability for the fires (after previously filing for bankruptcy in 2001 when facing a deregulated energy market). In July 2020, they emerged from bankruptcy and “put $5.4 billion in cash and 22.19% of its stock into a trust for victims of wildfires caused by the utility’s equipment.” PG&E is also now able to join a $20 billion wildfire fund created by the California Legislature to pay for damage caused by future wildfires. Investors consider the ability for utility companies to participate in this wildfire fund to be “critical to the company’s financial stability.”
But will this all lead to much-needed company changes? According to Market Watch, when PG&E previously emerged from bankruptcy in 2004 “electricity rates soared and management focused even more on boosting profits instead of upgrading its power supply.” To hold the company accountable this time around, Governor Gavin Newsom signed a bill that gives California “the authority to hold PG&E accountable if the company fails to adhere to public safety policies, and to put safety, reliability and its customers at the center of its business model.”
In the meantime, PG&E is shutting off power from its poorly maintained equipment when there are hot, dry, windy conditions, prompting headlines from local media sources like “How to Prepare for Power Shutoffs During a Heat Wave and Pandemic.”
As author Rebecca Solnit wrote last week from San Francisco, “From here, under the dark orange sky, I hope that all this leads to a dramatic escalation in climate action, regionally, nationally, and internationally. It’s the only thing that can help on the scale that help is needed.”
As a consumer:
Eating less meat can help the fight against climate change by lowering the emissions from livestock and fertilizer while increasing reforestation. According to the 2019 UN IPCC report, “Rethinking the human diet across the globe could drive emissions reductions of up to 8 gigatonnes annually greater than an entire year of emissions in the U.S.”
If you live in wildfire prone areas, familiarize yourself with these safety measures.
As an employee:
Check out successful employee-led climate movements. At Amazon, employees successfully got the company to make a climate pledge.
California has relied heavily on prison labor to combat wildfires, but these firefighters were often unable to enter the industry after their release. After years of pushback from after pushback from firefighters associations, the state recently passed legislation that would allow some to apply for expungement of their criminal records, making it easier for them to obtain an EMT certification and work in municipal fire departments.
As a citizen:
Here’s a list of Northern Californian organizations that are serving fire-affected communities and firefighters.
As an investor:
20 fossil fuel companies can be directly linked to more than 1/3 of all greenhouse gas emissions in the modern era (yes, that means Chevron, Exxon, BP and Shell). Are you invested in them directly or indirectly through an index fund (like the S&P 500)?
Visit www.350.org to see how you can petition your state pension fund or alma mater endowment to divest from fossil fuels
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